07 January 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/2

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

Emily Dickinson

This is #258 in the Thomas H. Johnson edition of the Dickinson's Complete Poems. It's one of my favorites. Have you seen such a slanting winter light? If so, you have probably felt as I did that Dickinson has captured an evanescent and deeply interior moment in words that would forever after cling to the phenomenon. She subtly sanctifies the language and the landscape with references to cathedrals, Heaven, Death ("the Seal Despair" could come straight from the Book of Revelations). Yet the light is actually the most substantial element in the landscape; it's compared, not to cathedrals, or even cathedral tunes, but the heft of cathedral tunes (that strange significance taken on by echoing mighty music in some vaulted holy place). She describes not Heaven, but Heavenly hurt, which leaves no outward sign, only an internal importance so deep it can't be put into words (the "internal difference" and the "Meanings" are all unspecified, as if even Dickinson can only hope we find an echo of them in our own experience). Shadows, already by nature insubstantial, become even less of a presence as they "hold their breath"; and we see not Death itself, or even the look of Death, but the distance of the look of Death. Perhaps the most important distancing, as the poem moves inexorably from painful internal enlightenment towards Death, is of whatever the imperial* power is that sends this affliction – whoever or whatever this power is, it manifests itself only by effects, often sublime but also painful, and is felt mostly as an absence.

*I am reminded of Milton's frequent punning in Paradise Lost on imperial/empyreal


John Marcher said...


I almost hate to be the first to comment on this- perhaps others have done so via email, but I miss the daily haiku. And in retrospect, why no prior announcement to your readers, not even hinted at within the haikus(or perhaps it's there and I just missed it) - just viola! after two years in a row (at least) and you're out?

There is something poetic about that I suppose. C'est la vie. Everything changes and nothing stays the same. Happy New Year, Patrick!

John Marcher said...

Wait- 4 years of daily haiku and then nothing?!? Are you going through 17 syllable withdrawal yet?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Happy new year to you too! Thanks for noticing (others may have, but you're the first one to say something to me about it). I have a post going up shortly about this. As for hints: Haiku 2012/366 plays off the very first one I wrote, four years ago, but I wouldn't expect anyone but me to notice that.

On New Year's Day, as you may remember, it was extremely cold and crisp out. I went for a walk and, since winter rains make California lawns grow, a neighbor had been mowing his lawn, and there was the strong unmistakable smell of just-cut grass, which I associate with summer, but there it was in the dead of winter. And I automatically starting trying to cast the sensation in 17-syllable form. . . . Well, I still have the sensation in reserve in case I decide to resume the haiku.