Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Emily Dickinson: Beclouded, part one

The sky is low, the clouds are mean,
A travelling flake of snow
Across a barn or through a rut
Debates if it will go.

A narrow wind complains all day
How some one treated him;
Nature, like us, is sometimes caught
Without her diadem.

I have taken to reading Dickinson on the move: leaving the train, walking across the platform, up the stairs. I have approximately a third of her poems on my iTouch. A goal is to memorize several. They should be easier than most because of the dense and swinging beats, and the dissonant ends that keeps things interesting. But I always resists lines that seem to force me to work a syllable a certain way...suddenly one feels very public with a word like "diadem."

There are other poets I carry around and call up while on the subway, or waiting in line. Some, Homer for example, seem as though they were made to be read in this way (my version of Homer scrolls, it's brilliant). Others, TS Eliot, for example, I simply can't read in this mode. Dickinson is perfect. Though I am no scholar, nor would I claim to even be well-read where she is concerned, I take great pleasure in spending time with her poems in this way. There is no pressure. I tap the screen forward, and find the top line "Doubtful if it be crowned!" and tap back a few pages to see the poem is "Too Late," one I am not familiar with. The poems are not laid out perfectly, in other words. It's like the "Dover Edition" of Dickinson. But there are benefits--the random fragmenting of stanzas sometimes brings a poem alive for me in ways I hadn't noted before. Though in the case of "Too Late," it still does not particularly grab my interest and I tap ahead to "Astra Castra," which does. It's another I have not read before, or don't recall, and the familiar syntax pleases immediately: "Departed to the judgment, A mighty afternoon; Great clouds like ushers leaning...". There is a lot of judgment in Dickinson. But one wonders who is judging whom?

I admit that sometimes I'll leave a poem when I can't imagine another word following the one I have just read (as above, I want to be with the leaning clouds). Sometimes the poem remains half-finished for me, but usually I will go back when I can, and read the intended fullness. Reading poems, it seems to me, has always allowed for this flipping, but on the iTouch it makes sense to do so. The idea of clouds (mean, ushers, what else has she turned them into?) has caught me now and I want to go back and forth and search for more references to weather, or "easy sweeps of sky," which gives way to simple pleasures as Dickinson flashes  before me, now a chrysalis "feeling for air; A dim capacity for wings," now the buzz, the thimble, the dull flies, flash, and flash for while the poems are often so removed, they seem to me, bodily, they seem to me refreshingly bodily enacted in a public intellectual space. Not bad for one who "hid away."

Which Emily Dickinson am I imagining when I read her? I sometimes think of Lucy Brock-Broido, Susan Howe and Rae Armantrout all in the same room, talking about Dickinson, and the poet still takes shape despite the very different ideas and readings of her. But it isn't necessarily a body that is evoked for me, as much as an intellect, or an action of thought in space if that is possible.

In any case, this is one way of reading, the flash forward and back, the sudden disjunction of images, the lines snapping in half. But that is one way. Another is to sit, as I did today, staring at the poem Beclouded. It caught my eye first because I read the line as "a narrow mind complains" and thought that was far too on point, which it is. But the mind was there in the word wind. Absolutely, not even pentimento but assertive. And all the more for the last line with its reference to the diadem, or crown, one might wear upon one's thoughts, so to speak.

As I said, I am not a great reader of Dickinson, I don't study her work, and never have, it is a strange and angular place I can go (I can visit), but it seems to not be a place "for me." Though thanks to my iTouch, I can take her with me and puzzle through the "narrow wind complains all day" vs. "A travelling flake of snow Across a barn or through a rut Debates if it will go..." It is both of the flake, and of the body, of the host, it seems, and here Dickinson--not the Disney version, but a force--stands in the middle of the poem with her tongue out, waiting to take the host. And yes, the flake is there. Of course you can see it, right, the snowflake moving in a hurry downward, then no, to the right, then left, then--have you seen a snowflake hover, change direction, move in an upright draft? What I know of them is that I know little. One can watch and watch and it seems to me, always be surprised by the way they are formed, stacked, clung, move, layered, tongued, impossible to preserve, and so on. What wind is to thoughts.

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