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Filtering by Tag: Emily Dickinson

Wearing Narrative

Joy and Matthew Steem

“The body interacts and changes places with apparel as we wear it, changing ruffle to ankle, in the vision of one motion. We let it affect the way we move, the way we interact, the way we shape affection, the means by which we negotiate other’s opinions of our social standing, the way we cognize our own body.”
        —Daneen Wordrop,

As one who doesn’t typically pay a great deal of attention to the act of dressing, I have an ambiguous relationship with clothing. In fact, I often catch myself contemplating the necessity of clothing in negative terms, partly because over the years I have become increasingly aware of the class distinctions and identity communicating elements inherent in clothing choices. My mindset has been slowly changing though, in large part thanks to a generous benefactor of luxurious hand-me-downs.

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Howard Schaap

"Soy Sauce and Wasabi by Father of dok1 / Melissa Doroquez Flickr photo. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons - Underneath my mother-in-law's table sits a bucket with a lid. In it, fish saucemade from four ingredients: fish, salt, water, timerots its way beyond rot to the salty-savory goodness. It's fermenting, condensing into a flavor so intense that it will almost level you, like strong drink.

She tends to it by opening the pail occasionally—though never in the presence of guests—and turning the contents, perhaps adding more salt. Then she closes the pail again and returns it to its position under the table. And waits.

I think I first heard the word distillation used, literarily, in association with Emily Dickinson. That ideas could be that intense yet held in your hand, distilled, that was a powerful thing.

It's counterintuitive, distillation. In a country of gushers and booms, and in a time of series and tomes, the idea of waiting on a few distilled words seems, ironically enough, wasteful. Then again, this just isn’t something one says about the Harper Lees of the world.

I suppose ripening is a handier metaphor for the process of writing growing into itself. Then again, ripening may be what reading groups and MFA programs are for. But what happens post-reading groups, post-MFAs?  I’ve waited so long for some of my essays to take shape that I'm afraid their peak flavors are past and they’ve moved into the logical outcome of the ripening metaphor: rot. Distillation, too, can be a cover for procrastination.

It can also backfire. There are essays which I put in the pail under the table and come to stir them only to find a sweet, cloying smell where there should be umami. This is the hardest, to throw something out.

But in general what’s the advantage of time?  And how much time?  

I found the ending to an essay—in writing a Relief blog, no less—about a year after I thought that essay was finished. Fermentation. Others of my essays, bloated to self-important lengths, I seem to be waiting to reduce down.

But how long is enough—or too long? Why do some combinations of words, like aged liquor, just get better?  And is there really a recipe? Is it really as simple as the right ingredients, process, vessel, and time?

Up Close

Jayne English

ayeux Tapestry - Scene 32 : men observe Halley's Comet

"Live in the layers, not on the litter." —Stanley Kunitz

What is the pattern for growing in knowledge? Usually, we observe what we want to know from a distance, then move closer. We stand on the beach and get an idea of the sea’s vastness, but when we walk to the water’s edge we know the sea better by feeling it on our skin. Or we see the orange fruit among the dark leaves, but we only know its pebbly skin and juiciness until we pluck it from the tree. From a distance, we won’t know the Bayeux Tapestry is embroidery on linen rather than a tapestry. We can’t run our fingers over the stitches (its entire 230-foot length is under glass), but if we move close we’ll learn through its details abouts the events surrounding the Battle of Hastings and William’s rule over England. We’ll see the graceful arcs of figures pointing toward Halley’s Comet; careful stitching that portrays kings and coronations, knights and longships, castles and seas.

The same ratios of proximity and knowledge can be said of poetry. When we look at a poem from the distance of a single reading, we’ll see its surface and shape. But as we get closer with a second reading we’re drawn into deeper layers. A recent poetry forum came up with a dozen ideas for what the word “Checks” might refer to in an Emily Dickinson poem. We can’t sit with Emily and talk to her about her poetry, but we can get closer by seeing how the ambiguities she creates benefit from a careful consideration of individual words.

In his book Prayer, Tim Keller tells us that a slow meditation of scripture can make our prayer life more like conversation with God. His method for meditating is a lot like close reading a poem or a slow look at the Bayeux Tapestry. Referring to Paul’s use of the term “power to grasp,” he says: “At first it seems a very strange word to use when talking about the love of God, but Paul is talking about meditating and pondering something until you break through...” He then goes on to show how he contemplates the words, wide, long, deep, and high and what this contemplation reveals about the “dimensions of Christ’s love.”

Keller says that prayer resulting from this kind of meditation “is continuing a conversation that God has started through his Word and his grace, which eventually becomes a full encounter with him” and that this encounter will “change the way we see all of life and how we behave in this world.”

Wasn’t it through a close-up look that the apostles got to know Jesus? As John put it: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life—.”

Don’t we just want to get closer?

That's a Good One, Emily Dickinson

Brad Fruhauff

Poetry Editor Brad Fruhauff, pictured with flower Editor-in-Chief Brad Fruhauff just figured out that Emily Dickinson was a funny lady. Sometimes.

The Dover edition of Emily Dickinson's Selected Poems contains only 109 of her 1,700 known "poems."1 The other night, I sat down to select those I thought my students should study for the first week of our American Lit class this August. Mind, 109 poems by Emily Dickinson only amount to 49 pages of poetry, all of which features her idiosyncratic style of deceptively simple diction warped into complex syntax within a simple song-like meter. That means you could read it in about an hour and feel pretty good about yourself.

But if poetry is good for anything these days, it teaches us to slow down. The condensation and ordering of language in poetry requires more thought and attention than reading a blog or watching most a film. My need to cull the collection for the "gems worth studying" was additional incentive to take my time and pay attention.

What I found was a new side of Emily Dickinson. I tend to think of her as the poet of death - "I heard a funeral in my brain," "I heard a fly buzz when I died," for instance. But she also writes on nature, love, and the spiritual life, and, most surprisingly, is occasionally even funny.

Granted, it's often a Coen brothers kind of dark humor. Take this poem, for instance, in which a meditation on how death takes us beyond our decadent desires turns suddenly into a biting satire on our vanity:

The dying need but little, dear, -- A glass of water's all, A flower's unobtrusive face To punctuate the wall,

A fan, perhaps, a friend's regret, And certainly that one No color in the rainbow Perceives when you are gone.

Or, in another poem, the speaker imagines being carried through town in her coffin, thinking on all the things and people she'll miss:

'Twas just this time last year I died. I know I heard the corn, When I was carried by the farms,-- It had the tassels on. ............................................ I wondered which would miss me least, And when Thanksgiving came, If father'd multiply the plates To make an even sum.

But since that upsets her, she switches tactics and imagines those she's leaving from another perspective:

But this sort grieved myself, and so I thought how it would be When just this time, some perfect year, Themselves should come to me.

In yet another she apostrophizes the letter she is writing to a lover, asking it to tell him everything that went into the composition of the letter - or, almost everything:

"Tell him the night finished before we finished, And the old clock kept neighing 'day!' And you got sleepy and begged to be ended-- What could it hinder so, to say? Tell him just how she sealed you, cautious, But if he ask where you are hid Until to-morrow,--happy letter! Gesture, coquette, and shake your head!"

For you good Christians out there, she's implying the letter will be kept "next to her heart" (i.e., her breasts, if you're still lost).

I was quite pleased to discover Dickinson's playful side; it gave me license to imagine even the darker poems being written with a certain twinkle in her eye. This is the joy of really studying something--each new approach can reveal something new even in a poem you've read a dozen times.

Incidentally, I think I'll assign the whole book to my students, in two chunks. I want them to look for the patterns and develop a more sophisticated picture of Dickinson than focusing on a few popular poems can accomplish. Plus, it will be a good introduction to the challenge of reading well while reading widely, a skill so hard to practice in our hypertext world.

I'll end with one more poem that I haven't decided whether it's playful in this way or not. If it's not, then it tends toward didacticism. If it is, then it's in that human comedy way.

So proud she was to die It made us all ashamed That what we cherished, so unknown To her desire seemed.

So satisfied to go Where none of us should be, Immediately, that anguish stooped Almost to jealousy.

Brad Fruhauff is Interim Editor-in-Chief of Relief. He has published fiction in The Ankeny Briefcase, poetry in Relief, Salt, and catapult, and reviews in Burnside Writers’ Collective and The Englewood Review of Books. He teaches English at Trinity International University.

1. Many of her poems were actually lines from letters that editors extracted, lineated, and published as we now know them. Incidentally, the Dover edition is a great sampler, but if you're more ambitious, the authoritative complete works is the one edited by Thomas H. Johnson.

White Sheep, Black Sheep: The Literary Kinship of Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay

Brad Fruhauff

This is an unlikely matching in terms of personality. Millay was a bohemian of the early-20th century while Dickinson was a proper Puritan of the mid-18th century. Millay apparently had a sexually "open" marriage while Dickinson lived a hermitic, single life and hardly had any male friends outside her father and brother. Millay was a kind of "bad girl" of American poetry even as Dickinson was being blessed as one of its most important early voices.

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