Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Emily Dickinson: Cats & the Ample Life

My old orange tabby Slick, built much like John Goodman, lies near me as I try to read myself to sleep with Emily Dickinson's poems. 

I love this woman. While her poems are small, they contain not one syllable of small talk -- light as a thing with feathers, as dense as uranium. There is not a trace of bullshit in her entire canon.

All her works are about God, nature, death, love. And the former is called on the carpet a few times by Emily's original thinking, her unshackled views.

Emily will always have my undying gratitude for pondering death with references to flies, carriages and gentleman callers rather than with such vacuous platitudes as "she's in a better place" or "you can bet old Lester is looking down and laughing at us now." 

Anyway, it's late and old Slick and old Roy are down for the night, the human with his Emily Dickinson and the cat with his dreams of slow mice. 

Slick sleeps bridging the space between my pillow and my wife's, his head usually within inches of mine, making a kind of raspy asthmatic sound as he breathes, then the raspiness amps up into a wheezy purr as I scratch his head and take in the outline of this benevolent carnivore, the kindest most hospitable animal I've ever known. 

He rewards my attention by sandpapering my forehead with his tongue, his eyes closed, groggy with cat sleep, inviting me to cease upon the midnight with no pain. He drifts off with his tongue still about half out.

Seems like a good time to take another look at Emily's poem that begins with the command (by whom?) "Ample make this bed" (her poems have no titles).

Slick, "Excellent and  Fair"

"Ample"? Slick is ample in most of the word's meanings:
 enough, adequate; sufficient for the cause; or more than enough; or full, large, as in "an ample bosom."  

No one could ask Slick to be more. His cat wisdom and serenity, how nothing is worth getting rattled about, welcoming a new puppy or stray cat into his home, he doesn't give a damn, come on in the house, yo, here's the litter box, the tall cats who walk on two legs provide the necessary protein and they mean well and they're comfortable to sleep on and the very sound of their innards, the pulsing and thumping heart and the belly gurgling is oddly comforting, now watch your step, Melfi just coughed up a hairball.

Slick is so enough there is no room for him to be more than enough.

He came to us a tiny feral kitten the day after we had said goodbye to our old, old, epileptic cat Lena -- did Slick know this? -- who finally had one too many seizures and we did what was right for her, and wept ourselves silly, and I dug a hole, and then put her body, limp with death, in it and . . . 

Ample make this bed -- 
Make this Bed with Awe --

While Slick emits his muted teapot snore, I stare at the second line. "Make" could mean create: "Make me a bed. Create it. You'll need a saw, maybe a hammer and nails, a level."

Or "make" in the sense of pulling the cover back up, restoring it to order, i.e., its condition before you did what beds are (primarily) made for. Make this functional object more pleasing to the eye in case someone walks in, I suppose, because what do you care what your bed looks like, hey, you're gonna get back in it the first chance you get anyway.

And she means "this" bed must be made with awe, a particular bed. Is it this bed I'm in, the only one in the world currently inhabited by me, Slick and my wife? Or some other kind of bed -- a river bed, a flower bed? But that doesn't account for "awe." I go to the next two lines: 

In it wait till Judgment break
Excellent and Fair.

"Judgment break" is typical Emily: Why bother writing out an entire metaphor when you can save space and words by implying it? 

I remember teaching this during a first period class, and just when we reached this line we saw out the window the sun's fiery tip appear over the horizon.

What do we call that, what you're seeing out the window? "Daybreak," exactly. Judgment break? Judgment Day break? "In this bed wait till the sun rises on the morning of Judgment day." Emily's line is definitely better.

This is followed by "Excellent and Fair," which modifies either "Judgment" or how "Judgment" will break. God help me, she's saying too much with so few words, the reader thwarted in his effort to leap over or around them to reach the poem's final syllable. 

An odd pairing of words: "Fair" can mean "free from injustice, ample, neither excellent nor poor, moderately or tolerably good". So "Judgment" is excellent, not excellent, and ample like the bed.


Big Slick groans, stretches in his sleep. He rests in this ample bed, with no thoughts of Judgment whether excellent or fair. Slick is a cat without sin. He follows his instincts as he is wired to do, but clothes them with gentleness, tolerance and acceptance. 

Damn if he's not a Zen master.

Sure, as a kitten he often woke me before sunrise, pulling the cover back from my face, then tapping my chin, first gently, then more insistently with a little claw enforcement.

And sure he left his little tooth marks on my books, nipping at them as I read, and my ballpoint pens still have his signature on them as well, and, okay, he would climb up my leg while I was scooping out his wet food, sinking his claws into my flesh for traction, and he wasn't the neatest cat ever to use a litter box, but what was he supposed to do? 

I glance over at him now. What good would come of my keeping count of his shortcomings, then asking him to pay up when he is least able to, when he . . .

Final stanza, please:

Be its Mattress straight --
Be its Pillow round --
Let no Sunrise' yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.

"Do it right" is what I see in those first two lines. In the context of the entire poem, that's no small thing. Make it ample, do it with awe, make it right -- sounds hieratic,  like something from a short-fused prophet out of Hebrew scripture. Is there an "or else" implied?

Who is requesting this?

Then the final two lines spring out at us with no transition, no conditional tense to help a sleepy reader, giving him an easy moral to send him into the peaceful land of dreams. No "If we do it right, then ____," and I thank Emily for that. 

The "Sunrise' yellow noise" (that's called synesthesia) is a sound never heard by human ear, yet loud enough to "Interrupt this ground." There's the daybreak again, and the "this" again, which makes "ground" parallel with "bed."  "This" bed from line 1 must be the ground the narrator doesn't want interrupted by the Sunrise' noise, the noise which refers us back to the sound of breaking judgment. 

This bed is the life she made for herself through her choices, made ample with awe, a life authentically and uniquely Emily's (or the narrator's or both), and it is enough, and it is finished, but a disruption looms on the horizon, annoying as a buzzing fly or an alarm clock radio endlessly playing "I Got You, Babe." 

It's the sun rising in the East, a new but unwanted day, Judgment Day announced by a sound nothing like the Last Trumpet from Revelation, but ominous just the same, fair or not. 

I've been in Emily's bedroom and seen her small bed and the window through which the sun beaks in the morning. Not so different from how its rays, coming too soon, intrude into our little room through the slats of the blinds, and I close my eyes in vain to extend my rest. 

We can do most of what she asks of us -- make our bed ample and make it with awe; make the mattress straight and the pillow round, but what can we do about the Sunrise' yellow noise? We cannot keep the sun, with its yellow light, from rising. Who can? Or would? And why?

This is troubling.

Now who's the audience? Is the speaker someone speaking from the grave? Someone who wants the light out of her eyes, maybe someone who died for Beauty, but even in death retains the gift of sharing it? Here it still is, the light shining from the pages as I read and Slick sleeps.

Slick stirs again, the lion not too soundly sleeping tonight.

He's an old boy. Soon, he too would be a shade, with the shade of Lena, maybe before I become one. I will carry his heavy limp body out back next to Lena's resting place. Digging his deep grave will hurt, but filling it will be unbearable. I will be shoveling the dirt on top of me and I know it. Blotting out a life is blotting out life, mine included. 

Filling a grave is a task with no illusions. This is really what it is. This is an act of realizing it. 

So one day I'll pull Slick's covers back up, healing the breach in nature and bringing the troubled earth back to order. With a rake, I'll level the fresh soil, nice and smooth. His life was ample, and he's all done now. He isn't going to come back, he has no need to. He won't be purring down at us from afar.

He will rest in this bed. For him, his bed was always "a better place."

And let no Sunrise' yellow noise interrupt this ground.
Finally, a good film about Emily.

Editor's Note: The author has, as he often does, sampled from his favorite writers to add the spice not currently on his rack. Among them, John Keats, James Joyce and Joyce Carol Oates.

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