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She dealt her pretty words like Blades –
How glittering they shone –
And every One unbared a Nerve
Or wantoned with a Bone –

She never dreamed – she hurt –
That – is not Steel’s Affair –
A vulgar grimace in the Flesh –
How ill the Creatures bear –

To ache is human – not polite –
The Film upon the eye
Mortality’s old Custom –
Just locking up – to Die.

Emily Dickinson challenges me.  Every poem is so utterly itself, capturing perfectly some small facet of human life.  They stick with me long after I have put the text down.  This poem is a good example of that.  I have met women like this sometimes, who pride themselves on speaking their mean version of the truth with no pity for those they slice with their words.  Dickinson’s turn of phrase is gorgeously precise – “wantoned with a bone” almost makes me shudder.

And yet, at the same time, I never know completely what to make of them.  There is a part of her thought that remains obscure to me.  I start thinking about the hyphens, almost operating as line breaks within lines, and they confuse me.  They emphasize certain words so precisely, and yet sometimes I am not sure why they are there.  Yet there is a rightness to them.  Each word and punctuation mark should be there, even if I do not quite understand why.

Dickinson is also one of those poets whose work cannot be seperated from her life.  The poems are so different, at least in part, because she was so different.  It would be easy to read her life as a cautionary tale on the cost of genius, particularly for women.  What does it cost a person to be truly Other, to refuse to forsake that Otherness, to insist on being most truly Yourself no matter what?  Would you abandon relationships for the sake of your genius?  How about hiding in an upstairs room for the rest of your life?  Is the poetry worth it?  These are questions I can’t answer.


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Well there it is.  There’s nothing to do.
The cat steals the milk and it’s gone.
Then the cat steals you, and you’re found
Days later, with milk on your face.

That implies that you become whoever
Steals you.  The trees steal a man,
And an old birch becomes his wife
And they live together in the woods.

Some of us have always wanted
God to steal us.  Then our friends
Would call each other, and print
Posters, and we would never be found.

I love this poem, not least, I think, because I am one of those people who have always wanted to be stolen by God.  Karl Rahner, in his Foundations of Christian Faith, talks about transcendence as, “in its origin and from the very beginning the experience of being known by God himself.” (p. 58)  It is like negative theology, which says that in the end all we can know about God is that we know nothing about God.  Now I don’t buy into that completely (and, thank heavens, neither did Thomas Aquinas), but I do think when it comes to journeying towards God, God always started towards us the day before we started to think we might like to take a trip.  We can never get the jump on God.  He always loved us first.

I also enjoy the poem’s matter of fact towards life, and unblinking acceptance of the supernatural working in and through the natural world.  It progresses smoothly but without a hitch from a cat stealing milk to a cat stealing a person, then to a man being stolen by trees who then marry him of to one of themselves, and ultimately to a person being stolen by God and the person’s friends putting up Missing Person posters.  It’s wonderful.  Part of this effect is accomplished by Bly’s choice of very common, short, everyday words.  The only words over two syllables in the whole poem are “whoever” and “together” in the second stanza.  Although what Bly is discussing is rather high metaphysics, he uses a very plain, conversational, almost prosey style.  In a way this makes the poem seem even more deep and meaningful.  Because the concepts are not gussied up with flourishes or refined and scholarly language, they shine through with all their own original power.  It’s a good lesson to learn, perhaps, that the bigger the idea that you’re talking about, the more you can use plain language.

This poem is also very interesting for its line breaks.  Because of Bly’s prosey style in this piece, they become crucial to the success of the poem.  Although the first two lines of the poem are end-stop lines, every other line in the poem that does not end a stanza is enjambed.  The enjambment keeps the eye moving, stopping you from ceasing to read before the poem has laid out an entire thought.  The organization of the poem into three stanzas of four lines each also helps distinguish between the three main ideas, smoothing the transition between them.  When a new stanza begins, the reader knows to expect a new idea.

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This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would[st] wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience calm’d – see, here it is –
I hold it towards you.

This is the first poem I can remember provoking a very visceral reaction in me.  Other poems I had known as beautiful, or there was something in them that snagged me.  This one, however, is like a mini horror show.  It starts with that nice, reassuring first line, then bit by bit pulls you into death and the possibility of agonising remorse, ending with brandishing the now terrible object in your face.  It’s wonderful!  Dang, that boy’s good.

It’s funny – for all it’s style and craft, this is still the work of a young author.  There’s a bit of the pouty teenager (“What if I were dead!?  You’d be sorry then!”) in it.  There’s also shades of the preadolescent boy shoving a frog in the face of his crush, and being both thrilled and disappointed when she runs away.  I think that’s also part of why I love this poem so.  I’ve always had a soft spot for little stinkers.  Keat’s emotional manipulation makes me laugh.

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Oh! Hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us,
  And black are the waters that sparkled so green.
The moon, o’er the combers, looks downward to find us,
  At rest in the hollows that rustle between.

Where billow meets billow, then soft be thy pillow,
  Oh weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease!
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee,
  Asleep in the arms of the slow swinging seas!

When I was small (and not so small) my father read to us.  By “us” I mean all my siblings together.  He read Canticle for Liebowitz, and early Heinlein space operas, and books of Pogo cartoons.  When reading the latter my father would position himself in the middle of the living room floor, or on my parents’ big bed, and we would arrange ourselves like rays around the book, our sun.  We all wanted to be able to see the pictures, and there was not a little sibling rivalry as we vied for position.  The other, non-illustrated, books were easier.  Sometimes at night my father would sit in the hallway under the light, in front of the open doors to our bedrooms.  He would read loudly, and we would hold very still in our beds, straining to hear his voice in the dark.  There were more and more children as the years went by, eleven all told by the end.  A miscarriage, the only one my mother ever had, robbed us of the coveted twelth sibling, whom we still mourn.

One of the books my father read us was The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling, although there were some stories he skipped over, considering them too ruthlessly Darwinian for small children.  One of our favorites was “The White Seal,” the story of the albino seal messiah Kotick, who saves his kind from the slaughtering fur traders by finding them a beach completely inaccessible to man on which they could live.  The story begins with the “Seal Lullaby,” which quickly became one of my favorite poems.  In junior high, when I began to copy poems I loved into the back of my journals, it was one of the first poems I copied.

I think that part of the poem’s appeal is its strong rhythmic quality.  The lines have deep ebbs and flows that make you feel the waves of the ocean.  The words that Kipling chooses also sound like water, with lots of “s” and “st” sounds.  A good example is “slow swinging seas” in the last line.  He also uses a lot of words with “o” vowel sounds: “The moon, o’er the combers looks downward…”  This helps you to not only feel, but hear the ocean setting.

The poem has an affectionate, dreamlike quality particularly suited to a lullaby.  Kipling uses the archaic familiar “thee” throughout, a convention he often uses in his work when animals speak.  This sometimes indicated increased formality, but also implies that he is translating from another language (in this case seal language), which has retained the familiar which modern English has lost.  The use of the familiar contributes to the sweet tone of the poem, helping the reader feel the deep love and care between a mother and her baby.  All mothers are the same, Kipling seems to say, whether they rock their babies to sleep in wooden rockers or between ocean waves.  In this way the poem is reminiscent of the “Baby Mine” number in Disney’s Dumbo.  This contributes to the emotional impact of the story as we later witness through Kotick’s eyes the slaughter of those babies by the fur harvesters.

This poem is a small gem of its kind.  Although Kipling can be trite or cliched, I thinkhis poetic skills are underappreciated.  This poem is beautiful, memorable, and finely crafted.  I would not mind singing it one day to my own children.

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