I think I first came across the name Emily Dickinson very early in my pioneering life in the 1960s in a Paul Simon song. The words of the song went something like this:
And you read your Emily Dickinson
And I my Robert Frost
And we note our page with book markers
The memory that we've lost.
But it was not until the mid-1980s, two decades later, when I read Roger White's homage to Emily Dickinson in One Bird One Cage One Flight, that this nineteenth century poet, arguably the greatest poet in history, became a part of my life, my consciousness, my sensibility. In 1990 I wrote a review of White's book, a review which became part of a collection of unpublished essays on White's poetry, essays which Roger White read and approved before he passed away in 1993. I also taught Dickinson's poetry as part of the English Literature course at matriculation level in Perth in 1991. So it was when The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson arrived in the mail from Roger White in the early winter of 1992 I already had some familiarity with her work.
I like to think, in retrospect, that the arrival of this massive 800 page paperback symbolized the beginning of my own poetic experience. I had been writing poetry off and on for thirty years, but in the winter of 1992 I began to write poetry much more frequently, much more seriously. I like to think that in the world of the spirit Roger knew that poetry was about to become a source of significant stimulation. That is what I'd like to think. It is more likely, though, that he knew I enjoyed her work. My review of his book of poetry about Emily had confirmed that fact. We had been writing letters for more than ten years, the longest regular correspondence in my life. I had just completed and had published my introduction to his last major book of poetry: Occasions of Grace. Ten months later, in April 1993, Roger White died in Canada.
In the next ten years, 1992-2002, I was to write many poems under the inspiration of Dickinson's work, poems I read in this very thick book of poetry. There is little doubt that her poetry has become the major influence on my own work, with the possible exception of William Wordsworth. What appears below in this first outline, this first link, written in appreciation of Emily Dickinson, is a series of poems which draws on the poetry in Dickinson's Complete Poems.
SOME 'DICKINSON-INSPIRED POEMS'
THE LAST SHAPING
Emily Dickinson's formulations in her many death poems tend to be generally grim, even nihilistic due to the fact that she has no concrete evidence of the precise effect of death upon perception. Her death poems, nevertheless, enjoy an immense variety, inventiveness and dramatic force but they are all, in the end, as she admitted and naturally so, just 'speculations.' Inspite of their grim quality, her death poems generate a confidence and hope of further insight. They represent her attempts to cope with the reality of death in her daily life and place death within the larger perspective of her efforts to live a meaningful life.
Since death has been especially interesting to me for some forty years now, having had to live with a bi-polar disorder and its accompanying death wish, since the Baha'i writings have a great deal to say about death that is instructive, positive and very encouraging, I take many of Dickinson's death poems as starting points and turn the grim side to something much brighter and far less nihilistic.-Ron Price with thanks to Greg Johnson, Emily Dickinson: Perception and the Poet's Quest, University of Alabama Press, 1985, pp.166-167.
Who would want to see and see
in endless circuit links?
Ceaseless drifting here and there
would give the eyes sharp kinks.
From one perception to the next
down an endless track
would be exhausting to the mind
and would clearly break one's back.
Knowing that an end's in store
heightens all we've got,
sharpens, enhances, tinctures,
mountain, river, dot.
Belief goes on to regulate
all that's in our sails,
regulates this aweful leisure
as death weighs us in its scales.
There'll be a finished feeling
just as sharp as knife
when death's bold exhibition
shapes at last my life.
19 February 2002
My poetry draws on a range of resources from society, from the past and the future, from my religion and my life. The range is immense-virtually infinite-and poetry's function is to help me focus on selected aspects of this infinite range. The ability to perceive, to focus selectively, is the most cherished aspect of my identity.1 For, in the end, everything flows from this 'selective perception,' a perception rooted in thought. These poems, in what is now an extensive opus, are based on selected moments of enhanced perception and they reflect my identity as precisely as anything in my life. This poem draws on Roger White, Emily Dickinson, my belief in an afterlife, the psychological concept of identity and the possible capacity of the dead to judge us. -Ron Price with thanks to 1Greg Johnson, Emily Dickinson: Perception and the Poet's Quest, University of Alabama Press, 1985, p.156.
We miss him1 not because we feel,
because our heart is sad.
Now that he's gone
just a slight abridgement's had.
He was quite a little man.
There's not that much to miss.
Now that he's taken
the route of stars,
we who sleep can't kiss.
We can not kiss or thank him;
he won't enrich our days.
His superior eyes will now include us
as he goes about his ways.
What will he think of this or that?
What will he think of me?
Now that he's gone
will he understand these things I do
as he travels through his Land?
Will he judge my passion
when he gazes down?
Now that he's invisible,
rapt forever from my eye,
I find his height in heaven
as I try to draw nigh.
But in his new glimmering town
he skirts a mountain of perhaps.
And in my timid life below
I must confess 'I do not know.'
1Roger White and Emily Dickinson, Poem Number 993 and 696.
19 February 2002
It has been ten years since The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson arrived by mail from Roger White, then living in British Columbia. This particular copy of Thomas H. Johnson's work had been given to Roger in 1984 by a friend in Haifa "with admiration and friendship." Roger had less than a year to live at the time I received this eight-hundred page book. It has been, too, nineteen years since Roger's homage to Emily Dickinson was published under the title One Bird One Cage One Flight. With these years my own feeling of intimacy with the poetry of Dickinson has grown. For Dickinson the perception of death and its meaning was an important source of her identity. This is equally true of this Baha'i and I am sure millions of others. This poem continues to explore that meaning and that perception. -Ron Price with thanks to Emily Dickinson, "Poem Number 968," The Complete Poems, Faber and Faber, London, 1984(1970), p.452.
Will the years that lie ahead
make me fitter for that bed,
for that bed in which I'll lie
in eternity when, at last, I die?
Will waiting long be worth my while?
I trust I will anticipate that gaze,
that great delight, that great surprise,
will I feel that grace in earthly guise.
I've had conviction all these years.
Surely it will stay amidst my fears.
How sweet will that reward soon be,
gained through loss and grief obtained.
Of course, I cannot be too sure
after all that summer-winter tour.
I can't be sure the state of soul
when I've been put into that hole
for those who speak no more,
those who've opened eternity's door.
19 February 2002
CONTENTMENT'S QUIET SUBURB
Emily Dickinson begins her poem number 963 with the lines:
A nearness to Tremendousness-
An agony procures-
And so 'an agony' does, but in such a mysterious way. Dickinson continues in the second stanza of her poem:
Contentment's quiet Suburb-
Affliction cannot stay
Now, nearly sixty, I find myself in "contentment's quiet suburb." Like Dickinson, I have retreated to the firmament of this quiet town where I spin a web of poetry, partly from pleasure, partly from necessity, a poetry made possible by a new religion whose beauty has filled my life with meaning beginning quite consciously back in 1962 as one of its pioneers. Indeed, sacred and resplendent tokens from the planes of glory have attracted me into a court of holiness and nearness and beauty.1 -Ron Price with appreciation to Baha'u'llah, Seven Valleys, USA 1952, p.3.
Contentment's quiet suburb
is the place I stay.
I have a home for all my books
and a walk by a tranquil bay.
I've known enough of agony,
affliction's acre, sea
and when I see it come my way
I try to keep it off of me.
I can not keep all pain away.
Some always enters in.
It's part of my destiny, my plan,
a process as inevitable as sin.
Affliction brought me near to Him.
Its taste is sweet from woe.
Precious, clearly, is all that grief
that came to me in years ago.
But I've had enough for a lifetime.
I'm not eager to have any more.
Just this suburb's quiet contentment
and a quiet walk to the corner store.
18 February 2002
WHAT SHALL I DO?
Emily Dickinson's poem number 956 opens with these same words as in this title and it is her poem that provided the starting point for my own, the one below. "Poetry," for Dickinson "set her on a path of solitude."1 After thirty years of pioneering, the need for solitude insensibly arose in my life and with that need the path of poetry unobtrusively became an obvious one for me to travel down. And now, forty years from the start of that pioneering journey, I have established that degree of the solitary which is balanced with a necessary minimum of the social and which provides the seclusion, the privacy, to write. Dickinson's universe was, as some of her critics argue, a cosmos in tatters by the mid-nineteenth century in America. My universe is one that is exploding with knowledge and understanding, but it is also one that has a very dark heart, arguably the darkest in history. -Ron Price with thanks to Roger Lundin, Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief, Michigan Press, Grand Rapids, 1998; and
What shall I do when this work ends?
What, when all this talking's done?
What, when there's no more marking
and I don't have to keep on the run?1
What shall I do when the sky's so blue
and the water runs down to the sea?
When the butterfly dances endlessly
and the birds fly and sing in the tree?
What shall I do when no one calls
and solitude lasts all day?
What shall I do when those Birds divine
rush forth in Their mystic way?
I'll try to understand, my Lord,
all that you've given me.
I'll praise and thank you, Lord,
for all that you've helped me see.
1This poem is written from the perspective of my last days as a lecturer/teacher in 1999.
2Baha'u'llah, Book of Certitude, Wilmette, 1950(1931), p.175.
17 February 2002
THIS BLOSSOM OF MY BRAIN
Thanks to Emily Dickinson's poem number 822 for the title of this poem and some of its content and flavour. It is a poem about my poetry. For Dickinson and for myself, words have being, growth and immortality. Often we probe, because of some innate drive or some attitude derived from experience, heights and depths which are beyond our own fathoming. Dickinson had no need to leave home and, after forty years of moving from place to place--over two dozen towns--I have no need to do so either. The soul's passions are as readily at hand at home, as elsewhere.1 -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 17 February 2002; and 1Joyce Carol Oates, "Soul At The White Heat," Critical Inquiry, Summer 1987.
This consciousness that is aware
of God and all around,
will one day in the land of lights
be lifted, lifted far beyond.
But while it's here
for this blossom of my brain1
which multiplies quite endlessly
in my inmost heart:
that is very plain.
This seed of words
lodged on this page,
this flower of my soul
may grow one day
with wisdom's mighty sword
springing forth as it now does
from the mansions of my Lord.
As I partake day after day
in this profound experiment,
this tree of life, the world around,
is branching forth new fruits
which God Himself has sent.
17 February 2002
Emily Dickinson wrote in poem number 791 about her "poignant luxury," her "Ampler Coveting," about the "Plenty smiles" she enjoyed and, in contrast, the "Famine-all around." Like so many of her poems I found it to be part of her "arduous and lifelong pursuit of a speech fitting to God and His divine Unnameability."1 The way she handles this problem of a language fitting to God, in this poem, is by means of her humility. Feeling I had been given a similar "poignant luxury" with "Famine-All around," I wanted to try my own take on the gift, possessed as I was, unlike Dickinson, with "a language fitting to God" in the Revelations of Baha'u'llah and the Bab. -Ron Price with thanks to 1Elisa New, The Regenerate Lyric, Cambridge UP, 1993, p153.
God gave a crumb to every bird
and a big white loaf to me.
I've eaten it already
in poignant luxury.
He's given me a whole of life
and so much more besides,
with famine, war, and sorrow high:
that loaf and luxury--I wonder why.
Why the gifts these many years
from the supply of gems?
Why when the Kingdom did arrive1
did He supply me pens?
He made me rich beyond compare
as history took its turn.
The loaf and luxury were sweet,
but, oh, the fires burn.
11953: the beginning of the Kingdom of God on earth. My family's first contact with this new Faith.
12 February 2002
THE VAST DARK
Emily Dickinson's poem number 793 is about grief. In the previous twenty four hours before reading this poem I had tasted quite a sharp experience of grief for about an hour. As I read the poem I was reminded of the many moments, hours, days, months and even years of grief and despair I had experienced in my nearly sixty years of living. As often happens when I read Dickinson, I was inspired to write the following poem on the same theme. -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 11 February 2002.
Despair and its cousin grief
only come now in bunches.
I keep them quite at bay
by time and circumstance
and I rely strongly on my hunches.
But their vast dark still sweeps;
they pounce about with clouds.
There is no way to extricate
their black and occasional shrouds.
They come so uninvited.
They feed on littleest things.
I find their world illusion,
but oh so real their rings.
I've learned, though,
from these tragic teachers
which harbour in my breast,
to suck the pain that reaches
into my world as they spin.
In time it is all over.
There is some gain, some win.
It's not all so tidy, though.
They have grey and serated edges
and you wonder as you pray to God
if there's any point in pledges.
You seem to be so slow to learn
as the battle often rages
and sometimes you tire of the fight
which is as old as ages.1
1 I think if I had to quantify, reduce to a fraction or a percent, the amount of my life in the condition of grief and despair, it would be about one-eighth or twelve percent. As I head down the final stretch of life, the evening as it is sometimes called, I shall increasingly aim to practice Baha'u'llah's wisdom written in his Tablet of Wisdom, namely: to let nothing grieve1 me. 1Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p.151.
11 February 2002
This poem borrows heavily from Emily Dickinson's poem Number 505. Dickinson sees being a poet in superhuman terms. Full engagement offers to the poet the ultimate form of expression, being ravished by one's own creativity. But the independence, the aloneness, the twist in the psyche of the poet has its own unique terror or tension. There is always the need, the desire, to be satisfied, but always the reality of being dissatisfied. Whereas Dickinson's poetry was an enactment of the crisis of western society as it was being experienced in the last half of the nineteenth century in the USA, Price's poetry was an enactment of the transformation of the Baha'i community in the third, forth and fifth epochs of the Formative Age in what was a dark heart, an immensely tempestuous period of history, in an age of transition. -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 3 October 2001
There is a bright impossibility
that comes into the air;
it's just about delicious,
something celestial, very rare.
Yes, there is a torment
and something of despair,
it is so sweet and sumptuous,
tastes of caution, sense of care.
Words raised softly to the ceiling,
out the window, easy to the sky,
through villages of ether
with just a lip of metal for the eye.
My little boat has found a pier,
enamoured is my life,
but somehow it is impotent
and I am, mostly, content with wife.
A privilege so awful
I have been given now.
Somehow the art to stun myself
has fallen on me and how!
3 October 2001
WALKING DOWN DIFFERENT TRACKS
Today I have enjoyed reading Camille Paglia, perhaps for the second time in my life, the first time after Roger White sent me a flyer from her book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson in 1992 just before he died. She is, as the dust jacket says, an intellectual provocateur. I won't try to summarize what she is saying for that would lead to prolixity, but, since she is from the same generation that went to university in the sixties as myself, she has had to deal with the woes and tribulations of the last forty years with a mind awake to the crises of our times as I have. I share with her a similar range of interests and concerns: job problems and career, sexuality and feminism, popular culture as an eruption of paganism in the West, inspirational mentors like Harold Bloom and Emily Dickinson, writing for the future. The energy of the sixties continued, for Paglia as well as myself, in the form of fast talking and lots of writing. -Ron Price with thanks to Camille Paglia, Sex, Art and American Culture, Viking, London, 1992.
She's really angry, thirty years on,1
still trying to change the world
or parts of it. I've had my anger, too,
but my demons were frustration,
fatigue and discouragement, as I too
have been trying to change the world,
little-by-little, day-by-day since '62.
I talk fast, too, like this lady of words
and sometimes they thought me weird.
We walked down different tracks
since Kennedy was assassinated in '63.
We worried over different agenda
since we were both in high school
in the late fifties and early sixties.
Manic-personality was part of her style,
part of how to win the day, any day,
and I found it the same in my own way
as I wandered down life's path
planting seeds that would one day
begem and brighten the world,2 2 'Abdu'l-Baha, Tablets of the Divine Plan,p.5.
or so was my hope, my faith, my whirl.
Rock-'n-roll music and TV(some of it)
has given us both much pleasure,
the first generation to experience both.
I wish you well, dear Camille,
for stimulating my mind to think
about so many things in a different way
especially my old friend Emily Dickinson.3
3 Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, 1992, pp.623-673.
18 January 2002
Since Roger White sent me The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, at the beginning of the winter of 1992, when I was just beginning to write poetry seriously, I have taken a strong interest in Dickinson's work. Part of the original impetus for both Dickinson's poetry and mine is the sense of loss. The transience and formlessness of so much of life, for both she and I, gives a special lustre to what we do achieve in our poetry, in our work for our respective 'Causes.' From time to time I enjoy reading her poetry and there are few poets I enjoy in this casual way. Often I find one of her poems of such an interest I want to replicate one of its main ideas in a poem of my own creation. When I do so a rhyme invariably characterizes my poem-and not that succesfully often. She has a sense of a divine plan; indeed we both believe in the existence of a divine Plan.-Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 3 October 2001.
This world is not the end of things.
So much exists beyond,
but no one ever sees it.
No one hears its sound.
If baffles the profoundest thought.
A riddle it must be,
a puzzle to the scholars,
can't grasp eternity.
Some sift the crucifixion;
some talk of burning bush;
some mediate through Mohamed;
some climb the Hindu-Kush.
With twigs of evidence we find
and build an immense tree,
becoming substance of a Fane
they point the way for me.
However much the Word is found,
a Species stands beyond,
invisible as music,
that place to which They've gone.
3 October 2001
Emily Dickinson wrote a poem, Number 498, in which she states that seeing the Beloved in one's imagination enriches our normal experience in which any direct contact is impossible. When I read this I thought that this is the position the Baha'i is in relation to all the Central Figures of the Cause, well not quite the same. We, the Baha'is, can not make contact in any formal sense with the Bab, Baha'u'llah, 'Abdu'l-Baha and the Guardian, but we certainly can in our imagination, our fantasy, our memory, our inner life, with a tireless mental probing and its energy of thought which should, must, absorb us. Surely being immersed in the ocean of His word implies at least this? We need to stare a hole in Their pages until the words yield their full meanings.1-Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 3 October 2001; and 1 Greg Johnson,Emily Dickinson: Perception and the Poet's Quest, University of Alabama Press, 1985, p.7.
Since I will never see Him
all I can do is gaze,
gaze upon the garden,
gaze upon the grave.
Gaze upon the mansion,
gaze upon the tree,
gaze upon the house's walls
to bring Him close to me.
I can learn about His journey,
the places He has been,
drape myself in His embroidery,
the sweet accents I have seen.
For these accents make up a Voice
That cometh from the Lord.
The lilies of His wisdom
blossom only in His Word.
3 October 2001
A PRICE I PAY
Emily Dickinson writes in her Poem Number 786 of her need to fill the vacuum, the difficulty of filling that vacuum, after loss in life. Activity, pushing "the brain and bone" to exhaustion she finds helpful but, in the end, there is no drug for consciousness when faced with the darkness. During those 'midnight' times in my own life: during hypomanic episodes, when my first wife and I separated, when I feel a great gulf with my second wife after an argument, in times of intense depression, I too find that activity can help. But "the glittering Retinue of nerves" gets clogged. I find only "dull comfort" and "forget the colour of the day." "Affliction" does not seem capable of being "appeased." The "only Pharmacy" for the malady of being is "death." -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 2 October 2001.
There is something about
the work of mind
that more than passes time.
It fills the awful vacuum
I find in the play
of this patterned design.
And so I weary brain and bone,
push it all to fatigue
and vitality's glittering splendour
of the nerves does clog
while under relentless siege.
Affliction never leaves entire,
darkness returns quite black.
It seems like a kind of price I pay
for mind's sweetness at my back.
2 October 2001
The following short essay is 'the introduction' to an as yet unpublished book on the poetry of Roger White. I place it here in this section on Emily Dickinson because, if it were not for Roger, I may not have had the pleasure of enjoying Emily Dickinson's poetry.
THE EMERGENCE OF A BAHA'I CONSCIOUSNESS IN WORLD LITERATURE:
THE POETRY OF ROGER WHITE
Roger White would have liked George Bernard Shaw's views on biography. The facts of writers' lives, wrote Shaw, have no more to do with their writing ability than the shape of their nose. White used to quote Rabindranath Tagore on this biographical theme: 'the poem not the poet' to put the theme succinctly. White felt that his life was, to use Shaw's words, biographically uninteresting.
I was able to piece together a basic outline of White's life. I sent it to him for his approval two years before he passed away. He made two or three minor corrections of fact and returned it. It was obvious to me that White was disinclined to provide more than he already had done about his life. "If you want to know about me, read what I have written," seemed to be his position, his view, on writing about his life.
White also approved a collection of a dozen or so essays, essays which focused on his poetry not his life, his words not his life story. Put slightly differently, this same focus on the art not the artist was expressed by George Painter in his biography of Proust. "Tell me anything," Painter wrote, "which I could not find more intensely, acceptably and deeply in Proust's works." Biography would only provide meagre details; even analysis, introspective pondering, his own, White was disinclined to engage in. His poetry, he felt, could and should stand on its own. He was more than ready to respond to the analysis of others, though. The essays which I wrote and sent to him were returned quickly with the occasional comment and a general appreciation and enthusiasm for what I had written.
I have never written to anyone who responded with such haste to my letters. These were the last days before email began to move communications much more quickly. His correspondence was humorous and engaging. One of the affects of his letters was to make me want to dip into his poetry more frequently. As I came to enjoy the man behind the poems, I came to enjoy the man. I never actually met Roger. We exchanged letters for a dozen years: 1981 to 1993, years when his poetry reached out to the wide audience that he enjoyed for the last decade or more of his life. He died in April 1993 at the age of sixty-three. I have included a sample of our correspondence because it tells about the man in a way that his poetry does not.
The poet Shelley saw the poet and the man writing the poetry as having two quite different natures. Sometimes they blended; sometimes they occupied two different worlds. I'm not so sure I agree with Shelley, but what I do in these essays and what Roger White would have preferred me to do, is to focus on his poetry or, to use Shelley's idiom, I focus on the poet and the poetry not the man. I have already done this in what became quite a long introduction to White's last major book of poetry Occasions of Grace(1992). But I do it again, here, in what is a more extensive and, I feel, more deserving way, a decade after his passing. The timing seems right. The 'White industry' has had a quiet beginning.
Geoffrey Nash, in a review of White's poetry in 1982, wrote that White heralded "the development of Baha'i consciousness in world literature." Literarture, poetry and prose, letters and other genres, have been percolating onto the world stage from the pens of Baha'is for more than a century and a half. White certainly has, in Nash's words, been a herald. White's work emerged from obscurity at the same time as the Baha'i Faith did, in the years after the Revolution in Iran in 1979. It is more than coincidental that his first major book of poetry Another Song Another Season was published that same year. The literature provided by individual Baha'is the world over has become burgeoning in the two decades since Nash wrote what have become prophetic words. White has, indeed, become a herald. Though I'm sure he did not set out to become the brilliant initiator that he has been.
Here then is another review, or collection of reviews, of White's poetry. It opens with a short biography in three parts. I know that readers are as much interested in the man as the poet and his poetry. I don't think I overdo it, though. I hope Roger would find my weighting in good taste. He was always so kind in his letters that even if he disagreed with you he would always let you down slowly, laughing as you went. But he was also adventurous and frank, so you knew where you stood. He did not beat around the bush, as they say.
There is a high seriousness in White but his alembic is humour. For some readers the affect of his poetry is a lightness and pleasure that only humour can provide; for other readers White's seriousness and his language place too much of a demand and, not willing to read and reread his poems, these readers put him down without extracting the intellectual delights; for still others, White has the affect of an invigorating exercise of the mind. For them the laughs are a bonus and the reward is more than pure delight. These readers gain an understanding of the religion they joined at some time in the last half century, an understanding perhaps deeper than any learned commentary or, indeed, the efforts of their own investigation.
28 August 2001
ROOT OUT WEAKNESS
The sky wears masks of smoke and gray
The orchestra of winds performs its strange, sad music
Embittered wine rises from fowl deeds.
Its dregs can root out my weakness. -With thanks to Emily Dickinson in Woman of Letters, Leaves Turco,State University of NY Press, 1993, pp.40-1.
Some deeds are so lonely
they taste of bittered wine.
Iíve walked with them on back-side streets
sorting out their place and time.
Iíve sat with them to cogitate:
what brings them to the fore?
Like some disease they do attack
and peace goes out the door.
For me these lonely deeds are born
in the recesses of my heart,
in anger and depression
they found a good kick-start.
As the years go by Iíve learned
to avoid them like a lion,
but from time to time they come
and remorse takes me far from my Zion.
Sad regrets go to the root
and weed out a weakness
which seems endemic.
Life provides a practice field
for a process far from simple
One day, I trust, Iíll see this weakness
in a new perspective, a new strength
will have emerged
and me, much more selective.
8 July 1995
TAKING ON IMMORTALITY
When One has given up Oneís life
The parting with the rest
Feels easy, as when Day lets go
Entirely the West -Emily Dickinson, number 853.
How many tears have fallen here,
how many little sighs
and more to come for tragedy
and romance are ours beneath the skies.
Theyíre at the heart of human hearts,
as they wither and they die.
They are the seed of solemn consciousness
without which true joy would only fly.
Thank God for that joy; it rains on some
and washes sighs away.
For others sorrow dries them out.
Romance and tragedy lay their hands
on them and make them ready to depart:
theyíve died and can do no more,
but take on immortality.*
*I was thinking of Shoghi Effendi here. Ruhiyyih Rabbani, who knew the Guardian in an intimate sense that noone else did, says seven lines from the end of her Priceless Pearl that "The man had been called by sorrow and a strange desolation of hopes into quietness." Henry Adams once said in one of his letters(1) that "The inevitable isolation and disillusionment of a really strong mind--one that combines force with elevation--is to me the romance and tragedy of statesmanship."
(1) Letters of Henry Adams: 1835-1918, 2 Vols., Houghton Mifflin, 1930, Vol.1, p.314.
26 December 1995
I saw no Way-the Heavens were stitched-
I felt the Columns close-
The Earth reversed her hemispheres-
I touched the Universe-
-Emily Dickinson, Number 512.
There is no first and last here;
all is forever, the feeling near,
noon and centre and a tear,
more than one, for all thatís
gone before and what is to come.
There is a taste of immortality
on these tall marble columns,
the beginnings of a touch of gold
that one senses deep down will
be forever. Many will be the words
that try to describe the trip, but wordless
the conception, tenacious my feeble grip.
When this brief drama in the flesh
shifts beyond our mortal coil,
I hope that I can hover here
in my sub-atomic soul so fresh
where I can juxtapose this time
and immortality in some eternal rhyme.
Meanwhile Iíll take the angles on this place
as they accost my open eye,
Ďtis more than walls and gardens green,
more than land and sky.
One beauteous line that I espy
a spider sewed at night,
an arc of light, an arc of white,
such precision in his sight.
Sometimes a bird will walk along
and drink a dew from grass;
with rapid eyes heíll hurry Ďround
and stir in his sweet song, alas:
he divides this silver world with wings
as he goes splashing past.
So do the butterflies float by
among these banks of noon;
their wings dance through this ocean
and gently they sing of soon!
15 June 1995
Poetic creation is a selective concentration that measures a soulís conversation with some element of society; the valves of the poetís attention close like stone and waters flow refreshing to the bone. -With thanks to Emily Dickinson, Number 303.
Is it simply that this soul
selects its world
and cuts through, clear,
like some finely tempered sword,
through all that earthy matter?
Unmoved, I move across this page
while all the world rings
though the wires at my gate
and even God Himself
stands urging at my door.
From all there is to think and do
I choose this One, His place, this hill
to sing my song, to dance, to concentrate
my will. Then I open up my heart
and all my rivers fill.
24 November 1995
THE NATURAL WAY
...afflication is but the essence of bounty, and sorrow and toil are mercy unalloyed, and anguish is peace of mind; death is life and love of death is love of life. Parching vitalizes the wine as defeat whets the victory. Just ask the Scalding One. -íAbduíl-Baha and Emily Dickinson in Writings of Abduíl-Baha, 1978, p.245 and Emily Dickinson: The Complete Poems, Number 313.
Iíve thought about you long and hard
with your captivating charm: secure and safe
I think Iíll be; Iím prepared to take the harm.
Whatever dread I used to know seems to
have melted with the years.
And now death seems quite cold and bald;
I simply let go of breath
and that pillow at my cheek.
Iíll slip away past all those bones
and what the mind creates.
Iíll disappear right past the door
and up,up and away to liberty,
messenger of some holiday.
It seems the most natural way to go
like leaves from off a tree,
like the changing of a season,
just another stage to Thee.
24 November 1995
It might be easier
To fail-with Land in Sight-
Than gain-My Blue Peninsula-
To perish-of Delight-
-Emily Dickinson, Number 405.
...there is an interdependence of diverse points of view rather than a totality of a single vision. We must get behind the enigmas, the paradoxes, the inter-relationships, the rules that govern all. -Bahiyyih Nakhjavani and Abduíl-Baha in "Artist, Seeker and Seer", Bahaíi Studies, Vol.10, p.3.
These words of mine born from some mist
high upon that tree, are drenched in a silent spring
than noone tastes or sees. Like an Indian summer
entirely, as if a gift on judgement day,
or ressurection at last right here for me.
The sun shone on; the flowers blew;
all things were now made new.
Time went by so fast I thought:
this will not last, this dew.
My glee is quiet, obsessive;
it rolls on wheels of snow.
I feel like Iím in eider down
or in some cedar chest where
moth balls keep whatís best.
24 November 1995
ĎTis a dangerous moment for anyone when the meaning goes out of things and Life stands straight-and...yet no content comes. Yet such moments are. If we survive them they expand us. -Emily Dickinson, Prose Fragment 49.
I clutched at sounds
and groped at shapes
and still my heart did groan
in some endless wilderness
it wailed, lamented bone.
I could not find the golden lines,
silver or hyacinth--only a base metal
from which I made a nail
for my sackcloth shirt and tail.
I felt it in the afternoons
when the light angled low;
it left a scar; it left a hurt
deep down, a feeling, woe.
ĎTwas a sense of full despair
and it hung like weighted rocks.
When it went I felt expanse,
Immortality, like darkness
leaving from the grass and
all creation in a dance.
25 June 1995
TRUTH WILL DAZZLE GRADUALLY
Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant-
Success in Circuit lies
-Emily Dickinson, Number 1129.
This truth will dazzle gradually;
Iíve seen this all these years:
so slow, so slow, so very slow,
success in drops of tears.
Weíre eased into the lightening blast;
weíre eased with bright delights;
weíre eased into truthís high surprise
by beautyís superbly subtle sights.
Iíve been telling truthís tale
since I was young; Iíve been
telling it so slant that up and down
is now quite side on as seen
in truthís etherial blaze.
You donít think truth is simple stuff-
well from one point of view it is.
But there are a thousand different ways
to define what is a complex biz.
27 November 1995
....poetry has always before it.....an endless adventure. -Herbert Read, In Defence of Shelley and Other Essays, Heinemann Ltd., London, 1936, p.38.
Thought belong to Him who gave it-
Then-to Him Who bear
Itís Corporeal illustration...
-Emily Dickinson, Number 709.
These thoughts belong to noone,
not even I, nor some power
that sent them which is unseen
by the eye. Ownership is not
the question; you cannot sell
the mind. How does one invest
in thoughts, proprietorial?
This is a corporeal form for
some distant force, some otherness,
some voice which gushes out,
which I touch with words at a
frontier of ineffability, what she*
called Ďroyal airí. Perhaps I am
a merchant of some heavenly
grace; perhaps I catch a mystery
here and unleash an infinite air;
perhaps I only play, to please,
as I catch some of that awesome
strength that comes in solitude
from a Presence, at once shadowy,
tragic, lustful, full to overflowing
with thought fragments like
crystalline forms, maybe pearls,
maybe the utterance of solemn,
holy things in an endless adventure.
15 January 1996
* Emily Dickinson, "Publication-Is the Auction".
THE MIND, WITHOUT COPROREAL FRIEND
The Letter hangs there in the dark abyss of the Past: if like a star almost extinct, yet like a real star, fixed; about which there is no cavilling possible.
-Jane Welsh in The Collected Letters of Thomas Carlyle, Vol.1: 1812-1821, Duke UP, Durham North Carolina, 1970, p.xii.
A letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.
-Emily Dickinson in Emily Dickinson: The Poet on the Second Story, Jerome Loving, Cambridge UP, Cambridge, 1986, p.ix.
She lived on the edge of my life
where uncles and aunts live, mostly;
in a place I visited every so often,
up past the long hill in a town called
Waterdown, a funny name really, when
you think of it. I havenít thought about
that town for years, really. She was
more my aunt when I was young, little,
just a little boy, an adolescent. Then I
moved and moved and moved, further
and further away until she became a letter.
She got old; she was already old; she became
a grandmother, then great-grandmother,
terribly old to a little boy, but I got older
and I became a grandfather myself, well,
a step-grandfather, really. And I, too, became
a letter: two fixed stars, almost extinct,
but real stars. And, if thatís all youíve got,
thatís all youíve got: something visible,
a picture of the soul, perhaps thatís bit strong,
agents of intimacy, yes, I like that; immortality,
the mind, without corporeal friend. Thatís a bit
archaic(only Emily Dickinson would say that).
But it has a certain ring to it, the more you roll
it around in your mouth and your mind.
7 February 1996
My dearest dream recedes-unrealized
The Heaven we chase,
-Emily Dickinson, Number 319.
My dearest dream recedes-unrealized-
but in some corners of my night journey
the heaven I chase becomes visible
in all its brightness. That illusive
butterfly teases and evades my grasp
and dances always out of reach,
just when I think Iíve got it,
leaving me staring, bewildered
at the indifferent sky and watching it
fly away into other corners of my dream.
I have not yet learned the butterflyís
light play on the air,
its balanced dance with life,
its quick lift, always moving
higher and onward through
His garden and its coloured flowers.
24 November 1995