More spring-like weather. Above freezing. Sun. The sound of snow melting everywhere, especially under the lake street bridge. I checked and the last time I ran the franklin loop was on December 13th. It’s nice to get this view of the river again.
Felt relaxed. My knees ached a little — not an injury, just grumbling over the month of uneven, icy paths. Speaking of paths, the trail on the east side of the river was rough — ice, deep puddles — between Franklin and the trestle. I had to stop and walk a few times.
10+ Things I Noticed
a V of geese above me. When I first noticed them through my peripheral vision, I thought they were a plane
a white form up in the air. A cloud? No, a plane. It took me a minute to finally see it in my central vision
crossing the Franklin bridge, the river was covered in a steel blue ice
the bridge trail was mostly clear. The part shaded by the railing was not
everywhere the moisture on the path shone so bright that I couldn’t tell if it was only water or slippery ice. (it was mostly water)
crossing under the railroad trestle on the west side, I heard the beep beep beep of the alarm. I wondered if a train was coming. (I never saw or heard one)
heard some bike wheels behind me, then voices calling out Ice! I moved over and stopped to let them pass, then watched as they slowly navigated the ice on their thin wheels
lots of whooshing wheels and noises that sounded like sploosh! as cars drove through the puddles collecting on the edge of the road
a favorite late fall spot: right before the meeker dam, there’s an opening in the trees and a clear, broad view of the river and the other side
the river down below the trestle on the east side looked like an otherwordly wasteland. Brown, riddled with broken up ice
crossing back over the lake street bridge from east to west, the river looked like an ice rink that had been skated on for too long and needed a Zamboni
running down the hill from the bridge to the path, a woman crossing the river road called out, Oh! As I neared her, I stopped and she said, It’s slippery!
When I stopped running to walk up the lake street bridge steps, I could hear and see the water gushing down through the pipe under the bridge. I had to stop and record it.
Here’s my Pastan poem for the day. I found it before I went out for my run. My goal was to try and listen for voices out there by the gorge, and I did, somewhat. The woman who cried out when she almost slipped. 2 women walking on the bridge above, when I was below. The biker calling out Ice! A tree, its dead leaves rustling in the breeze. The soft not quite gushing of the limestone seeping melting snow. The drip drip drip of water off the bridge.
For Miriam, Who Hears Voices/ Linda Pastan
If the voices are there you can’t ignore them, whether they come up through the floorboard on a conduit of music or in a rattle of words that make sounds but no sense.
They can be messages from the sky in the form of rain at the window, or in the cold silent statements of snow. Sometimes it’s the dead talking, and there is comfort in that
like listening to your parents in the next room, and perhaps it’s the same parents still talking years after they’ve gone.
If you’re lucky, the vowels you hear are shaped like sleep– simple cries from the thicket of your dreams. You lie in bed. If the voices are there, you listen.
I am always looking for poems about love (not necessarily “love” poems). This one popped up on my twitter feed this morning. As a bonus, it’s about winter and fits with my theme of layers for next week AND it has wild turkeys in it!
After stepping into the world again, there is that question of how to love, how to bundle yourself against the frosted morning— the crunch of icy grass underfoot, the scrape of cold wipers along the windshield— and convert time into distance.
What song to sing down an empty road as you begin your morning commute? And is there enough in you to see, really see, the three wild turkeys crossing the street with their featherless heads and stilt-like legs in search of a morning meal? Nothing to do but hunker down, wait for them to safely cross.
As they amble away, you wonder if they want to be startled back into this world. Maybe you do, too, waiting for all this to give way to love itself, to look into the eyes of another and feel something— the pleasure of a new lover in the unbroken night, your wings folded around him, on the other side of this ragged January, as if a long sleep has ended.
As a bonus, this poem also has another thing I’m always trying to find: a reference to the idea of looking into someone’s eyes and really seeing them as (one of) the key metaphors for being fully human. I’m collecting these examples because they bother me. With my failing central vision, I can’t really look into a person’s eyes and see them. Does this mean I can’t be fully human?
bike: 15 min warm-up run: 3.2 miles outside temp: 2 degrees / feels like -15
Because of the cold air, the icy paths, and the 10 mph wind, I decided to move in the basement today. Finished the episode of Dickinson I had started a few days ago while I biked, listened to the latest episode of If Books Could Kill (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) while I ran. Running on the treadmill in the basement is very different from running outside. A dark, unfinished basement with windows mostly blocked by a shelf with old lamps on it. Staring straight ahead, I can see a blank tv screen and then behind that, a dark window and the old coal chute. To the side, shelves with old paint cans (left) and a long work bench (right). Not much to notice, except spiders and dust. Difficult to run for that long and to remember any of my thoughts. I don’t mind running down here on occasion, but I couldn’t do it all the time. I’m so glad that I have the gorge.
a moment of sound
On days when it’s too cold for me to move outside, I record a moment of sound. Today’s moment was on my short walk back from the alley, where I had brought out some trash. It features my favorite, crunching snow, and another irritating delight: the cold, shrill creak of our iron gate. I walked through the snow in my small backyard and stopped briefly by the crab apple tree:
Here’s a poem I found on twitter today by Dana Levin about walking and thinking and wandering/wondering and being in and out of a body:
To be born again, you need an incarnation specialist—a team from the Bureau of Needles to thread you through— Your next life turns on an axle of light—which Plato likens to a turning spindle—what was that? I mean I knew
what a spindle was from fairytales—how it could draw blood from a testing finger, put a kingdom to sleep— but what did it actually do, how did a spindle look in real life? I didn’t know. As with so many things: there was fact and there was
a believed-in dream . . .
Everyone had one back in the ancient day, spindles. When we had to weave our living-shrouds by hand. “A slender rounded rod with tapered ends,” Google said. Plato’s, so heavy with thread, when viewed from the side, looked like a top— though most diagrams assumed
the hawk-lord view . . .
Moon thread, threads of the planets, earth thread. Your thread. Everyone else’s. Nested one inside the other, a roulette machine— If a thread could be spun from liquid light was what I kept thinking— imagining a sluice of electric souls between the earth wheel’s rims— there “I”
was a piece of water, Necessity wheeled it around―Necessity, who was married to Time, according to the Greeks— Mother of the Fates. Who would measure and cut your
paradise/shithole extra life . . .
Well we all have ways of thinking about why, metaphysically-speaking, anyone’s born— though the answer’s always Life’s I AM THAT I AM —how it hurls and breaks! on Death’s No there there . . .
—which sounded kind of Buddhist.
According to the teachings we were all each other’s dream . . .
And soon able to vanish—
out of the real without having to die, whoever’s got the cash—to pay the brainier ones to perfect a Heaven upload—to cut the flesh-tether and merge
with the Cloud . . .
Well we all have ways of constructing Paradise. To walk alone deep in thought in a city park was mine for several minutes, thinking about spindles. Before the vigilance of my genderdoom
And there it was, the fact of my body— all the nerves in my scalp and the back of my neck, alive— How it moved through space, how close it had strayed toward concealing trees, my female body— Jewish body—inside my White body—dreaming it was bodiless
and free . . .
how and when and if to fill the body’s hungers— how and when and if to walk in thought through the wilderness . . .
before Death comes with its Fascist hat.
Its Park Murder Misogyny hat.
Its Year Ten in a Nursing Home stink
my thread . . .
Anyway, it’s peaceful here in the park, at midday, if a little deserted. I’ve moved to the path that winds closer to the street. Thinking again, as I always do, about body and soul. How they infuse each other. How they hate each other. How most people pledge allegiance to one or the other. How painful it was! To be such a split
Was planning to run on the track, but when we got to the y I realized I had forgotten my shoes and a running shirt. Oops. Luckily I remembered my swimming stuff and that the pool wasn’t too crowded. I’m fine sharing a lane with someone, but it’s difficult for me to circle swim. Sometimes, it’s hard to see other people when I have to pass them because of my vision.
Because I like making note of my vision challenges, both to share them with others and to document them for myself, I’ll offer three from today at the Y:
one: checking for an open lane. I looked as carefully as I could to see if there was an empty lane. When I saw what I thought was one, I checked it twice more to be sure. It looked empty to me. I got in, was adjusting my goggles, and suddenly a swimmer came from behind in my lane and pushed off the wall. This lane was not empty. It was no big deal, and the swimmer was happy to share a lane, but it’s frustrating to try carefully to see something and not be able to. Of course, this could happen to anyone when you’re not paying attention, but I was paying attention and this isn’t the first time this has happened. I’m getting better at not letting it bother me too much or remind me of what I’m losing.
two: finding my locker. I don’t always use the same locker in the locker room, and sometimes I don’t stop to memorize where it is. Luckily the Y switched from locks, where you bring your own combination lock, to keys with a shiny safety pin and the number of the locker attached. When I’m done swimming and I head to my locker, I stop for a minute to stand still and study the key, slowly making out the number on it. Then I carefully scan the lockers until I find mine. Like the empty lane that wasn’t, my need to study my locker key isn’t that big of a deal. But, it has been an adjustment, to slow down this much, and to look to others like I don’t know what I’m doing or that I need help. I don’t mind asking for help when I need it, but I find it stressful to be offered help when I don’t.
three: feeling older than I am. At the sink before swimming, I heard a grandmother talking with a young kid (her granddaughter, I assume): can you be my eyes for me and get that? My eyes aren’t working well today. I say these words to my daughter at least several times a week, which doesn’t bother me. I’m glad to have the help, but I’m 48, which is really young to have the eyes of someone in their late 70s or 80s.
All three of these challenges aren’t big, but they’ve required lots of adjustments and accommodations and extra effort. I don’t mind doing them as long as I can swim. And what a great swim it was! I felt strong and relaxed and almost in a dream floating above the pool floor shimmering with shadows. The mysterious white thing that I’d wondered about a few days ago was gone. Now, in another lane, something else — a string? strands of hair? — were hovering a foot above the bottom. The woman I was sharing a lane with alternated between freestyle, backstroke, and an extra froggy breaststroke. Near the end of the swim, a very fast swimmer arrived in the lane next to me. So much fun to watch him fly by and shoot like a rocket off the wall after a flip turn! Once as he approached, after lapping me at least twice, I kept my head underwater longer so I could watch his fast flip turn.
a moment of sound
Sometimes when it’s this cold outside (feels like -8), it’s harder to get outside for a walk. So instead, I go outside for a minute or two — a moment — and record a moment of sound. Today’s moment was at 1:30 pm in my sunny backyard. My favorite part: the wind chimes, the chirping bird, and that crunchy snow!
4.25 miles minnehaha falls and back 35 degrees 30% puddle-covered
Another wonderful, spring-like day, if you consider 35 degrees and white ground everywhere spring-like, which I do. When the sun is this warm, the sky this blue, the birds this chatty, how can you not think of spring? Everywhere, wet: drips, drops, wide puddles stretched across the trail soaking my socks.
10 Things I Noticed
that same bird call that I’ve been hearing and wondering about happened again, right before I reached the river. I heard it, then hoped it would be followed by some drumming. It was! I’m calling it; this sound is a pileated woodpecker
a distant goose, or geese?
cardinals, doing at least 3 or 4 of their 16 (is it 16?) songs
my shadow: off to the side, then behind, then finally in front of me
the shadow of the old-fashioned lamp posts on the trail. So big, they almost looked ,\like giant potholes to me
the river slowly opening. Still white, but darkening and thinning
a kid yelling at the playground. At first, I thought they were a siren — so high-pitched and insistent!
a mixing of sounds: an airplane, a bobcat, a crow, a kid, all crying out
As I left for my run, I remembered something I didn’t want to forget. I’m pleased that I still remember what it was after my run. Scott and I watched the first episode of After Party last night. Very good. Anyway, this episode focused on Aniq. For much of the episode he looked ridiculous: someone/s had drawn cat whiskers and ears on his face, along with the word “nerd” in big letters. It’s very obvious and a crucial element in understanding who he is as a character. Because of my vision problems — my lack of cone cells, limited central vision — I did not see any of this on his face until someone, the detective, finally referenced it. Up to that point, about 40 minutes, it was all invisible to me. I could see his face (well, roughly, I guess) and mostly follow what was going on, but I had no idea anyone had drawn on him. He looked “normal” to me. I wanted to remember this as an example of how my vision works, or doesn’t work, how much I miss that I’m not aware of. It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but you miss out on a lot of what’s happening and how it’s being communicated when you can’t see certain things and don’t even realize you’re not seeing them (and no one else realizes you’re not seeing them either; they just think you’re not paying attention or being stupid, or that you don’t care).
Here are two poems featuring birds that I encountered today. Both wonderful, both about much more than birds.
but I believe the soul is neither air nor water, not
this winged thing nor the cattle who moan
to make themselves known. Instead, the horses
standing almost fifteen hands high— like regret they come
most the time when called. Hungry, the greys eat
from your palm, tender-toothed— their surprising
plum-dark tongues flashing quick & rough as a match—
striking your hand, your arm, startled into flame.
In her discussion of the poem for The Slowdown Show, Ada Limón discusses the soul:
The Portuguese writer José Saramago wrote: “Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.” This seems clear enough. The soul is the part of you that you cannot name. One of the reasons I love the obsession that writers have with the soul is that their interest is not confined to what happens to the soul after you die. Rather, writers seem to be interested in what the soul is doing right now. Can the soul have likes or dislikes, coffee or tea, can one soul connect to another in what is called a soul mate? Is our soul only alive in relation to others, in community with nature, with something larger?
And here’s the other poem. It’s about cardinals. I heard, but never saw, many cardinals this morning on my run.
In February’s stillness, under fresh snow, two bright red cardinals leaping inside a honeysuckle bush. All day I’ve thought that would make for a good image in a poem. Washing the dishes, I thought of cardinals. Folding the laundry, cardinals. Bright red cardinals while I drank hot cocoa. But the poem would want something else. Something unfortunate to balance it, to make it honest. A recognition of death maybe. Or hunger. Poems are hungry things. It can’t just be dessert, says the adult in me. It can’t just be joy. But the schools are closed and despite the cold, the children are sledding. The sound of boots tamping snow are the hinges of many doors being opened. The small flames of cardinals and their good talk in the honeysuckle.
Wow, do I love this line: “The sound of boots tamping snow are the hinges/of many doors being opened.”
One more thing. After my run was done, and I was home, I went outside on my back deck and sat in the sun. Then I recorded this moment of sound. I’m calling it, Spring coming, drip by drip. As I listen back to it, I’m disappointed that trucks are so much louder than the drips.
Both of my knees were feeling strange yesterday, not quite like the kneecap was slipping out but unstable and sore, so I didn’t run. I biked and watched another episode of Dickinson instead. Today, even though it was drizzling when I started, I ran. I started in the neighborhood but when I reached Edmund, about a mile in, I decided to cross over to the river. I was able to run on my favorite part, through the tunnel of trees, just above the floodplain forest. Wow! It was all a rich brown: bare branches and bare earth, hardly any sky, no river. In a few months, this same spot will be nothing but green. Both ways, it’s disorienting: now, with the brown, it almost feels like you’re buried in the earth; later, in the green, like you’re underwater in a green sea. I think I heard some birds, mostly cardinals. What I remember hearing most was the light rain hitting the brim of my baseball cap. For the last mile, I listened to my playlist.
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – I keep it, staying at Home – With a Bobolink for a Chorister – And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice – I, just wear my Wings – And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church, Our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman – And the sermon is never long, So instead of getting to Heaven, at last – I’m going, all along.
I appreciate ED’s connection between the sacred and nature here. My first chapbook was all about the sacred rituals of being upright and outside by the Mississippi River Gorge. (I’m not alone; many runners refer to their long runs on Sundays as the “church of the long run”). My exploration of this theme was as a non-church going ex-religion major with a master’s in theological ethics who finds tremendous value in the sacred, but not in organized religion and church services.
Right now, I just finished listening to a section in the ED biography, Lives as Loaded Guns, about the religious revival in Amherst in the mid 1800s and the pressure ED experienced to publicly declare her faith in Christ and become a full member of her church. She refused, even as all of her family and friends professed their faith. According to the author, Lyndall Gordon, ED’s friends, including Jane Humphrey (who plays a prominent, if slightly different, role inthe show Dickinson), are enlisted as spies to “report back” on what ED was thinking and doing and to try to persuade her to change her mind. I thought of this religious revival in the town and what an impact it had on Amherst as I watched an episode of Dickinson today and noticed that there were a surprisingly large number of ministers at the party/salon everyone (or, anyone who is anyone) was attending at Sue and Austin’s house. Several of these clergy were the dates/suitors of the popular girls. I’m fascinated and delighted by how the show brings in details like this without explicitly addressing them.
ED’s faith and her expressions/practices of and struggles with it are more complicated than this charming poem might suggest. I think I should read one of the classic biographies on ED, Roger Lundin’s Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief.
Speaking of ED’s complicated relationship to religion and God and the church, I’ve been thinking about her poetic form and how she often used hymn form. Here’s some information from Common Questions on Emily Dickinson:
What kind of meter did Dickinson write in, and why did she use it?
Common Meter or Hymn Meter
Definition: A closed poetic quatrain, rhyming A B A B, in which iambic tetrameter alternate with iambic trimeter. Common meter is distinguished from ballad meter by its rhyme scheme: the rhyme scheme of ballad meter is X A X A.
Derivation: This meter derives from English hymnology and uses predominantly iambic or trochaic feet (sometimes dactylic).
Common meter: alternately 8 and 6 syllables to the line: 8/6/8/6
Long meter: 8 syllables to the line 8/8/8/8 (this tends to get monotonous)
Short meter: two lines of 6 syllables, followed by one of 8, then one of 6: 6/6/8/6
Sevens and sixes: 7/6/7/6
Common particular meter: 8/8/6/8/8/6
Short particular meter: 6/6/8/6/6/8
Source: Isaac Watts’s Christian Psalmody, or, The Psalms. Watts always names the meter, and introductions set forth what effects may be achieved by each type.
Dickinson’s Use of Hymns
According to Martha England, her hymns differed from Watts’s in these ways:
greater use of enjambment
greater metrical freedom
use of more images with no scriptural source
Dickinson used the bee, a favorite symbol of Watts’s, as a defiant counter-emblem to his hymns. Her bees are irresponsible (138, 1343), enjoy la dolce vita (1627), and are pictured as seducers, traitors, buccaneers (81, 128, 134, 206, etc.).
Every poem composed before 1861 is fashioned in one of the hymn meters above.
Largest proportion in common meter.
Second largest proportion in common particular meter.
Note: If I’m counting and reciting correctly, this poem doesn’t fit the hymn form. Is that because it’s from 1861 and not before? I always need help hearing the meter in poetry. Here’s another source I might want to check out: Listening to Dickinson
bobolinks and surplices
Bobolinks are small songbirds with large, somewhat flat heads, short necks, and short tails. They are related to blackbirds and orioles, and they have a similar shaped, sharply pointed bill.
All About Birds
They are present in Minnesota but have been in serious decline for some time now. Why? Loss of habitat, pesticides on food supply suppressing appetite and causing them to not eat enough, and too many people and buildings to run into. After listening to the call and the song, I’m not sure if I heard one before. I’d probably remember because they kind of sound like R2D2. They like hanging out in grasslands, meadows, and prairies, and traveling in big flocks.
A surplice is “a loose white linen vestment varying from hip-length to calf-length, worn over a cassock by clergy, acolytes, and choristers at Christian church services.” As a Lutheran pastor, did my dad wear this? Not quite, I think. Maybe I’m just confused by how he would always wear a stole too? I’ve seen lots of these surplices on the British murder mystery shows I watch.
Here’s another, non-ED poem that I discovered yesterday. I love Maggie Smith and I love this poem, especially how she plays with and challenges the importance of naming and classifying things.
Goldenrod/ Maggie Smith
I’m no botanist. If you’re the color of sulfur and growing at the roadside, you’re goldenrod.
You don’t care what I call you, whatever you were born as. You don’t know your own name.
But driving near Peoria, the sky pink-orange, the sun bobbing at the horizon, I see everything
is what it is, exactly, in spite of the words I use: black cows, barns falling in on themselves, you.
Dear flowers born with a highway view, forgive me if I’ve mistaken you. Goldenrod,
whatever your name is, you are with your own kind. Look–the meadow is a mirror, full of you,
your reflection repeating. Whatever you are, I see you, wild yellow, and I would let you name me.
Feeling more and more like spring. All the snow is gone, the sun is warm, the birds are singing even louder and longer. What I remember most about my run are the black-capped chickadees and their “fee-bee” song. Running on Edmund, between 32nd and 34th, I heard at least 2 of them calling out, not in a call and response, with one singing 2 ascending notes, the other 2 descending ones, but with both of them ascending, calling out to some other bird that wasn’t responding. Sometimes they were in sync, but sometimes they weren’t–a strange cacophony of fees and bees. About a mile later, I heard another chickadee calling out. No response.
When I reached 42nd st, I turned on my spotify playlist–“Ain’t Nobody,” “I feel for you,” and “Leave the Door Open”–and ran on the grass. It was tricky avoiding holes and not sinking into the soft, mushy grass. I love Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s “Leave the Door Open”–how it sounds, their voices, the playful lyrics, the message of consent and hope, the invitation to be open. Wonderful.
Oh–I can’t believe I almost forgot–the river! Just past the top of the hill on Edmund between 33rd and 34th, you can glimpse the river through the trees. Today it was on fire, glowing with a bright white light. Wow. Definitely dazzling. Seeing this bright light, I thought about the Emily Dickinson poem I’m studying and that I memorized before running: “We grow accustomed to the Dark.” The poem is about how we adjust to the dark when “light is put away,” both literally and metaphorically. For many, I’m sure, this poem suggests that the loss of light and the coming of the darkness is always unwelcome and tragic. But not necessarily for ED, and not for me. I had to stop at the top of the hill and record a thought into my phone: “sometimes the problem with light is not its loss, but its abundance.” Too much light is too dazzling, making it too difficult to see or understand what you’re seeing. I have difficulty when there’s a lack of light, but often just as much when there’s too much light. So, sometimes a lack of light is welcome, wanted, offering some rest for tired and overwhelmed eyes.
We grow accustomed to the Dark
After spending so much time yesterday reading other people’s words about ED’s “We grow accustomed to the dark,” I decided I wanted to spend some time today with her words. I started by memorizing the poem. Memorizing a poem always helps me to listen better to the words. Now (I started this section before I ran and am continuing it after I’m done), I’m typing up each stanza (from memory) and typing up my thoughts, most of which don’t offer insight but a way for me to work through my efforts to understand her words. I’m noticing how this effort sometimes involves forcing myself to move past what I think the words should mean or how they should sound and listen to what she is actually writing and doing with her words.
We grow accustomed to the Dark – When light is put away – As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp – To witness her Goodbye.
I like the word accustomed. From the OED:
Verb: “To make (a person or thing) familiar with or used to something; to familiarize, habituate.” Adjective: “In the habit of doing something; used to something.”
Yes! This reminds me of one of my preferred understandings of knowing–to become acquainted with. Not to Know or even to fully understand, but to adjust to, get used to. I like the connecting of this with habit and habitual practice.
I also like how she describes this: “When Light is put away.” Who is putting the light away? I don’t think she means God here. I like thinking about something/someone putting it away–a much different feel than if she had written: “when light has gone away.”
added later: Could she mean that she, ED, puts the light away? The Prowling Bee thinks so. Analyzing the stanza about the larger Darkness, she writes:
That unknown mental and spiritual domain is a “larger – Darkness.” That is where our great poets and philosophical explorers venture while the rest of us pursue our hobbies or just relax. Dickinson spends time in this darkness and most of her most evocative, ambiguous, and challenging poetry comes from there.
I keep wanting to make the final line, “To witness our Goodbye” instead of her goodbye, but I finally get that the Lamp is witnessing her goodbye to us, as we leave.
I love the idea of the Lamp/Light witnessing the Goodbye. A great image. And interesting to think about how in the second line the light is leaving us, but in the 4th line, we are leaving the light. Is that intended as an echo of the final stanza of the poem–either the darkness alters or something in the sight adjusts itself to midnight? Who is acting and who is acted upon? Yes (returning to this analysis later, after publishing this post), the idea of both the light leaving us and us leaving the light fits with my mention of the prowling bee and the idea of ED choosing to leave light and enter the darkness in order to explore deeper, more troubling, difficult and unknown ideas and themes.
A Moment – We uncertain step For newness of the night – Then – fit our Vision to the Dark – And meet to Road – erect –
The idea of a moment is great–a moment of panic and uncertainty before we’re able to see. As my central vision declines, I have a lot more of these moments: when I enter an unfamiliar building (or sometimes even a familiar one) and not much makes sense. I can’t read the signs or tell where to go. Or when I’m looking at an object but I can’t tell what it is–is it a dead squirrel or a clump of leaves or furry mittens? Most of the time, my brain eventually adjusts and I can see what I’m trying to look at and continue on with more certainty. I’m trying to work on not fearing that uncertain step, letting the moment just be a moment that I will move past, knowing that I will adjust or figure it out (or ask someone for help). And it’s working. I am getting better.
I find “We uncertain step” to be awkward, but I like how its awkwardness seems to effectively create uncertainty and discomfort in the reader–at least this reader, me.
Love the alliteration of newness of night and her descriptions of adjusting as fitting our Vision to the Dark and becoming more certain as meeting the road erect.
As I work through this poem, I’m realizing something (or, being reminded of something I know, but keep forgetting or straying from): It is very interesting to learn about ED’s life and the historical context of her work, and it’s helpful to see patterns and themes across the poems. Yet, what matters most to me are the actual poems and how effectively her words describe vision loss and resonate with my own experiences of it. Her words are opening a door, offering a way into understanding (and expressing that understanding) how vision loss and living with less vision feels.
And so of larger – Darkness – Those Evenings of the Brain – When not a Moon disclose a sign – Or Star – come out – within –
I like how she shifts to a metaphorical understanding of Darkness and then describes it as “those Evenings of the Brain.” I’m imagining she could mean depression (possibly hers, some suggest there’s evidence she was mildly bipolar or her mother’s) or hopelessness or sadness or turmoil or illness or uncertain/lack of understanding. She might even mean those times when she could not write, which fits well with the next lines about no signs being disclosed or stars coming out. And returning to the comments I’m just adding, this also means those darker, deeper, uncomfortable, troubling ideas/thoughts/themes that writers are willing to explore.
one more thing to add: I’m thinking about how most of my academic work and a big part of my current ethical project involves bewilderment and trouble and uncertainty and the value of dwelling in these uncomfortable spaces for us and learning how to be/to flourish. Because I’ve spent so much time thinking about these things, maybe it’s helped me to navigate my vision loss more effectively?
When I was reciting this poem from memory, I kept forgetting disclose. All I could think of was “display.” I knew it was wrong, but I just couldn’t remember disclose. Is it because “not a Moon disclose a sign” sounds awkward–“not a Moon disclosed a sign” sounds better to my ear, even if that changes the tense. Anyway, disclose is a much stronger, more precise, verb than display, so I’m hoping I can remember it now.
The bravest – grope a little – And sometimes hit a Tree Directly in the Forehead – But as they learn to see –
I like grope even as I don’t. It fits well with the idea of struggling to find meaning in the dark, but it also conjures up creepy guys and their grabby hands.
Sometimes, when I’m running, I hit a tree. Not directly in my forehead, but with my elbow or hip. I like the funny image of people literally running into trees, especially hitting them directly in the Forehead, and I also like the metaphorical meaning of being stunned as they struggle to make sense of/adjust to (overcome?) the darkness.
I don’t like poems that try too hard to rhyme (which this doesn’t), and I like when lines rhyme or echo (which this does). Tree and see work well; it’s pleasing to the ear and helps keep the large idea/image of adjusting to darkness moving forward.
Either the Darkness alters – Or something in the sight Adjusts itself to Midnight – And Life steps almost straight.
It often feels, when you can finally make out shapes in a dark room, that the darkness has changed, become less dim, but it’s really your vision adjusting, with the help of your rod photoreceptor cells, your pupils widening to take in more light, and your brain, to that darkness.
Love this ending line about life stepping almost straight, especially the almost part.
Whew. I’m ready for a break now. What a joy to spend so much time with ED’s words! Yesterday, I felt frustrated, reading so much about the poem (when it was written, what it was in response to, how it fit into a larger understanding of ED as a poet) without actually reading the poem or thinking about the meaning of the poem.
a moment of sound
Sat on the deck with my daughter and Delia the dog, soaking in the warm sun. Very quiet. I can hear my daughter briefly sniffing like a dog and some kid at the end of the street calling out and a crow. Of course, after I turned off the recording, a cardinal started trilling–at least 10 times–repeatedly.
Almost all of the snow is gone. A few small mounds scattered across the grass, none on the sidewalk or the street. Spring snows are never that bad; you always know it will melt quickly. Overdressed today. I stopped near turkey hollow and awkwardly took off my pink jacket and tried to figure out the best way to wrap it around my waist–under or outside of my vest? Tried both. Inside was best. As always, heard lots of birds. Also, a few conversations–not the words, but the sound of people talking. The best part of the run was the river glittering in the sun. Big and bold flashes of light, blindingly bright, almost throbbing or pulsing, not the short sparkles that dance and flicker. Was this pulsing the result of more intense light or the wind? Probably the wind, even though I didn’t notice it that much, but felt the hot sun all the time. Normally this intense light would be too much for my eyes, but today I enjoyed it. As I headed back north during my last mile, I ran on the grassy boulevard. A little muddy, soft, rutted. Harder to move. My legs felt heavy and stuck.
Getting close to 3 weeks into my Emily Dickinson March project and I’m enjoying all that I’m learning about her and her work. At first, I only spent a few minutes reading and rereading the poem for the day, but slowly I’ve been spending more time with her words and words about her work. I want to make sure that most of my time is with her words, but it’s helpful to learn how other people understand her. I seem to struggle with understanding and interpreting imagery and metaphors and I can use the help. Will it ever get easier? Maybe. Today’s poem got me thinking about a lot of things:
We grow accustomed to the Dark – When light is put away – As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp To witness her Goodbye –
A Moment – We uncertain step For newness of the night – Then – fit our Vision to the Dark – And meet the Road – erect –
And so of larger – Darkness – Those Evenings of the Brain – When not a Moon disclose a sign – Or Star – come out – within –
The Bravest – grope a little – And sometimes hit a Tree Directly in the Forehead – But as they learn to see –
Either the Darkness alters – Or something in the sight Adjusts itself to Midnight – And Life steps almost straight.
I can’t help but read this in poem in relation to ED’s vision loss, and my own. The idea of growing accustomed to a loss of light, or a loss of sight, and then figuring out how to see/live again but differently, where “Life steps almost straight,” but not quite–slant for ED, sideways for me.
note: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this poem today, and I’m a bit stuck. Too much to say. In the process of struggling to find words and formulate ideas, I found this excellent site and post about ED’s temporary vision loss in 1862. Very cool:
Barker argues that since light was a masculine tradition, ithad come to represent male power, energy, sexuality–not only to Dickinson but to other women writing during the era. To these writers the inversion of the light/darkness metaphor became a countertradition used as a means to express their energies in a society that was hostile to their intelligence. Dickinson, who read avidly, could not have been insensitive to this usage of light as a masculine symbol of her Calvinist God, of her father, of all that was male?and of darkness as a feminine symbol….
Emily Dickinson thought in a richly symbolic manner. Her most frequently used metaphor is one of light in contrast to darkness, employing single-word references to light more than one thousand times in her 1,775 poems.
3.4 miles 43rd ave, north/31st st, east/edmund, south/42nd st, east/river road trail, north 34 degrees
Woke up to several inches of snow on Tuesday. Decided to skip the running and shovel and bike instead. Woke up again this morning to another dusting but noticed the sidewalks and roads were bare so I went for a run. What a run! Not too cold, but not too warm. Not much wind. Not too bright. No one else out. Did I see any other runners or walkers? Only one or two. I wasn’t planning to run on the river road trail but I remembered that a few days ago I had wondered what the river would look like after the snow, and when I saw that no one was on the trail, I decided to check it out. When I reached the river, I stopped to record my moment of sound. I stood closer to the river and admired the grayish-blue water with the white banks.
Listen to those birds! I also like the sound of the cars as they rush by–you can hear the water on the wheels, everything damp, slick.
Before heading north for the last mile, I put in a Spotify playlist and listened to 2 songs I recently added, both by Chaka Khan: “Ain’t Nobody” and “I Feel for You” Yes! So much fun to run right above the river with no one else there to avoid, just me and Chaka Khan and Melle Mel (he raps at the beginning and end of the song–I had to look that up.) Discovered that he was part of Grandmaster Flash and had rapped on “White Lines” the year before. Very cool.
Yesterday I spent a lot of time with Emily Dickinson. First, I finished an episode of Dickinson–in this one, Emily has writer’s block and is trying to decide whether or not publishing her poems is a good idea. Then, I read my ED poem for the day: My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun. After finding a podcast discussing it, and then reading a few articles about it, I decided this poem, considered to be the most complicated and richly layered of her poems, deserved 2 days. Well, it deserves much more than 2 days, but that’s what I’m giving it for this month with Emily Dickinson. Here are my thoughts from yesterday and today:
My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun (764)/ EMILY DICKINSON
My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun – In Corners – till a Day The Owner passed – identified – And carried Me away –
And now We roam in Sovreign Woods – And now We hunt the Doe – And every time I speak for Him The Mountains straight reply –
And do I smile, such cordial light Opon the Valley glow – It is as a Vesuvian face Had let it’s pleasure through –
And when at Night – Our good Day done – I guard My Master’s Head – ’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s Deep Pillow – to have shared –
To foe of His – I’m deadly foe – None stir the second time – On whom I lay a Yellow Eye – Or an emphatic Thumb –
Though I than He – may longer live He longer must – than I – For I have but the power to kill, Without – the power to die –
This poem has taken me down a rabbit hole of fascinating things about Emily Dickinson. The poem itself provides a lot to wonder about but I barely made it that far. I imagine I’ll want to reread this poem many times. My rabbit hole concerns ED’s process of gathering and preserving her poems and the importance of this poem for poet/scholar/historian Susan Howe. Here’s a few things I’ve discovered.
This poem is in a fascicle.
“Fascicle” is the name that Emily Dickinson’s early editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, gave to the homemade manuscript books into which Dickinson copied hundreds of poems, probably beginning in the late 1850s and continuing through the late 1860s. Dickinson constructed the fascicles by writing poems onto sheets of standard stationery already folded in two to create two leaves (four pages). She then stacked several such sheets on top of each other, stabbed two holes in the left margin through the stack, and threaded string through the holes and tied the sheets together. Occasionally she varied this basic pattern by binding half-sheets (cut along the fold) into the stack of folded sheets. “Set” is a term first used by editor R.W. Franklin to describe groups of unbound sheets of similar paper and size that were never bound by the poet. There are 40 fascicles, and 15 sets.
Dickinson herself did not number or label the fascicles. They were taken apart by the first editors of Dickinson’s poetry, and so have had to be reconstructed by various scholars. Within this site, we use the order established by R.W. Franklin, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1998). Not all Dickinson scholars agree with his reconstruction.
It’s in fascicle 34. According to Susan Howe (in this speech that I was just listening to on the upenn site), there’s some discussion/debate over how ED gathered her poems into the fascicles. Were they chronological? Grouped by theme? And, if by theme, how closely connected were they? Howe seems to think that the connection is a loose one.
Howe makes this poem a primary focus of her book, My Emily Dickinson
I checked this book out from the library 3 or 4 years ago and tried to read it but it was too difficult for me then. I hadn’t read much of Dickinson’s poetry and had not yet studied poetry. Would it make more sense now?Here’s an excerpt I found online.
a new grammar grounded in humility and hesitation
Emily Dickinson took the scraps from the separate “higher” female education many bright women of her time were increasingly resenting, combined them with voracious and “unladylike” outside reading, and used the combination. She built a new poetic form from her fractured sense of being eternally on inteIlectual borders, where confident masculine voices buzzed an alluring and inaccessible discourse, backward through history into aboriginal anagogy. Pulling pieces of geometry, geology, alchemy, philosophy, politics, biography, biology, mythology, and philology from alien territory, a “sheltered” woman audaciously invented a new grammar grounded in humility and hesitation. HESITATE from the Latin, meaning to stick. Stammer. To hold back in doubt, have difficulty speaking. “He may pause but he must not hesitate”-Ruskin. Hesitation circled back and surrounded everyone in that confident age of aggressive industrial expansion and brutal Empire building. Hesitation and Separation. The Civil War had split American in two. He might pause, She hesitated. Sexual, racial, and geographical separation are at the heart of Definition.
I really like this idea of hesitation and humility and aboriginal anagogy as a sharp contrast to progress, aggression, confidence/hubris, and time as always moving forwards (teleology). I tried to find a source that could explain exactly what Howe means by aboriginal anagogy but I couldn’t. I discovered that anagogy means mystical or a deeper religious sense and so, when I connect it to aboriginal, I’m thinking that she means that ED imbues pre-Industrial times (pre Progress!, where progress means trains and machines and cities and Empires and factories and plantations and the enslavement of groups of people and the increased mechanization of time and bodies and meaning and, importantly, grammar) with the sacred. Is that right? Is it clear what I’m saying? I think I need to buy Howe’s book and attempt a close reading. Yes, it’s available as an ebook!
In On ED’s 754/764, Susan Stewart discusses how difficult this poem (known in the Thomas Johnson edition of Dickin- son’s work as number 754, and in the Ralph Franklin edition as number 764) is for critics/readers to understand. She suggests that none of the readings are ever complete or fully hang together. Then she adds her own unusual interpretation: the loaded gun is a dog, ED’s dog, Carlo.
What kind of being waits in corners to be carried away to a field where, released, his/her/its power is enacted? One answer is: a domesticated hunting dog.
Now Dickinson had a dog, Carlo, named after the pointer owned by the character St. John Rivers in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Dickinson’s Carlo was also a hunting dog—an enormous Newfoundland hound.
Of course, Stewart’s argument is more involved than simply, it’s about her dog. You can read the article for a deeper discussion. I’m fascinated with this suggestion–Carlo was her walking buddy, he was a hunter, he had a yellow eye, he slept at the foot of her bed and protected her. Rereading the poem, it’s hard not to imagine a dog now.
I’ll leave my exploration of the poem at that, for now. I enjoyed wading into some deeper waters with ED scholarship, and I learned a lot that I didn’t know. I am not interested in going too deep, though. I could (and used to regularly as an academic) get lost in tracking down more articles, more interpretations, analyzing every word and it’s symbolic, political, historical significance. That is too much of a distraction, a derailment. Too connected to my discipline days. I like learning a little and letting that enhance my wonder. Having said that, I am planning to buy My Emily Dickinson and dig into Howe’s dense analysis of ED’s new grammar. The goal: to not seek answers, but more connections and questions and evidence of how poetry moves and bewilders and astonishes me.
As an aside: For some time, I have been very interested in the US in the mid to late 1800s, pre and post Civil War. No serious study, mostly through fiction, some through my investigation of my great grandparent coming to the UP from Finland in the 1880s. I like having the chance to read/learn more about this time.
yesterday’s moment of sound
Walking with Delia yesterday afternoon was wonderful. Everything melting and dripping, so many birds singing. In the middle of this recording, the bird I was trying to identifying a week or so ago called out–the one that I thought sounded like the loon call they play at twins’ games. What is this bird? Maybe if I play it for Scott, he can identify it.
3.3 miles turkey hollow 30 degrees drizzling rain/sleet/ice mix
As I left the house, I could tell it was starting to rain or sleet or something but because I was bundled up–a shirt + hooded jacket + vest–I couldn’t feel it, so I decided to go for a run anyway. A benefit of running in this weather: no one else is out there. I was able to run above the river on the trail all the way to the ford bridge. My first time in 3 or 4 months running on the narrow pedestrian bridge and the steep walking trail that dips below the road then quickly climbs up. It almost felt like normal. When I reached the ford bridge, I crossed the road and ran through the grass at turkey hollow. The ground was soft and a little squishy. No turkeys today.
I know I glanced down at the river but I don’t remember what it looked like. I remember seeing the oak savanna and the white information sign at the bottom. I remember seeing the bench perched on the gorge, providing a wide open view of the other side. I remember the part of the Winchell trail between 42nd and 44th, steeply winding down below me. But I do not remember what the river looked like. It was probably gray–or was it brown? We’re supposed to get up to 5 inches of snow today. Will the river be white tomorrow?
It was windy today. I recall hearing a chickadee chick-a-dee-dee-deeing but not much else other than the howling wind. Most of the cars had their headlights on. No bikers. Only one or two solitary walkers. Heard the kids at recess, laughing and yelling at the school playground. Also heard the shshsh as my feet struck some sandy grit. And the gentle tapping of icy pellets (graupels) on my black vest. I only rarely felt the sting of one on my face. For a small stretch, I pulled the brim of my hat as far down as I could to shield my face. The last time I ran in these conditions was in October or November. I didn’t have a brim to protect my face and the graupels felt like little knives stabbing my cheeks.
a moment of sound
Super windy today but I managed to shield the phone microphone with my hand for most of it. I recorded this at the end of my run as I walked home. I can hear my feet shuffling on the grit on the sidewalk and then some wind chimes. I decided to cross the street to get closer. I love wind chimes. These chimes are hanging close to a giant fir tree. I can hear them chiming as the wind rushes through the tree.
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – The Stillness in the Room Was like the Stillness in the Air – Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry – And Breaths were gathering firm For that last Onset – when the King Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away What portion of me be Assignable – and then it was There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz – Between the light – and me – And then the Windows failed – and then I could not see to see –
A few years ago, I found some articles discussing ED’s temporary vision loss in her 30s. I’m fascinated by how she references her temporary blindness in her poetry. In Emily Dickinson’s mystifying in-sight, the authors reflect on “I heard a fly buzz” and suggest that her words here, and in several other of her poems referencing the Eye and the dying Eye, provide remarkable insight into the physiological process of vision loss as one is dying.
Throughout her poetry chronicling the ophthalmic deterioration that occurs in death, Dickinson notes the changes that occur in the dying cornea and lens: glaze, dimness, fog, mists, film, cloudier. Her observations reflect what medical science currently understands as the alterations that occur within the eye during the process of death. We know that shortly after death the cornea and lens become edematous (swollen with fluid) and begin to lose their transparency.
As death approaches, gradually less oxygen-carrying blood is pumped by the failing heart, causing functional loss of the bodily organs. Seeing while dying should be possible until the retina and/or the occipital cortex of the brain, the final mediator of vision, becomes deprived of oxygen and loses its capability. The most metabolically active of all our tissues, the retina, for its operation, surpasses every other organ in relative blood flow and oxygen requirement.The loss of vision while dying should be sequential, greying occurring first as cones (the retinal mediators of color and probably more metabolically active than rods, the agents of black, white, and grey) lose function. Greys, therefore, persist through the retinal rods after loss of color perception occurs. Finally the rods, too, fail, and we are blind.
In the last cycle, eyesight fades to a blue, the retinal cones still working, but predominated by the buzz, uncertain, stumbling, as hearing also begins to fade. But, still, the hum is loud enough to go beyond and between her light as vision fades away faster than hearing. And then, as the retinal rods fail, sight exhausts itself and so “light” must fail to appear; we are left instead with “the Windows failed – ” as the bright sunlight at the window is eclipsed, and finally, all of seeing ends, concluding with an absolute and total black, rendered powerfully in the last line by the three “eyes”: “I…see…see.”
Vision disappears, as if one “I…see…see” is lost, then the other, and finally the last “I…see…see,” the very idea of sight is gone: “I could not see to see;” now the very understanding, the intellect of seeing on a cerebral level is gone; the cessation of blood flow to the brain has deprived it of oxygen. The brain can no longer function; it is dead, and the dying is over.
The Prowling Bee has nothing to say about ED’s vision loss or how her descriptions of dying accurately convey what happens to your vision as you die. I don’t what to reduce this poem to a discussion of vision and vision loss, but I find this idea that she is offering a medically accurate description of it to be very cool. I haven’t had much luck in finding many other articles about this, but I thought about it a lot. Last summer I memorized her “Before I got my eye put out” and spent some time reflecting on her vision as I ran.
Almost forgot to add this in: This morning I saw one of the more remarkable sunrises I’ve ever seen. The entire sky was lit up bright orange. It only lasted a minute or two. It made me wonder how many sunrises I’ve missed by getting up too late.
A quick run through the neighborhood on a windy afternoon. Ran around Cooper school and noticed the mounds of snow and wondered when they would melt away. Earlier in the week there was a chance we might get a few inches of snow tomorrow, but now it looks less likely. Good. I’m ready for spring this year and I’ve been enjoying the bare sidewalks and open grass. Listened to a playlist while I ran. First up was a song I’ve been randomly singing during this COVID year, not sure why: Freak-a-Zoid. Very nice. And long. It lasted for 3/4 of a mile at least. Anything else? Lots of people out, most of them walking dogs, a few kids biking.
a moment of sound
So windy! The neighbor’s scare rods are really spinning. I wonder how irritating they will be this summer?
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, And Mourners to and fro Kept treading – treading – till it seemed That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated, A Service, like a Drum – Kept beating – beating – till I thought My mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box And creak across my Soul With those same Boots of Lead, again, Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell, And Being, but an Ear, And I, and Silence, some strange Race, Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke, And I dropped down, and down – And hit a World, at every plunge, And Finished knowing – then –
This is another one of ED’s most known poems. Some people think it’s an accurate description of a migraine, others a mental breakdown. A few people in the comments over at the prowling bee, suggested it was a transcendent, religious experience, another wondered if it had anything to do with the epilepsy that she might have had. I’m not sure. Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem pleasant but torturous. Rereading the comments, I’m fascinated by their discussion of the bell as a tool or practice within Buddhism to stop thinking and meditate on the sound of the bell. This focus enables one to pass through the planks/levels of reason and the rational Self. And, I love the lines about all the heavens as a Bell with being but an Ear. Very cool.