Thursday, January 19, 2017

Emily Dickinson: Knowing Animals, Finale

If you're just joining us, we are early in a discussion of how Emily Dickinson -- one of our nation's great botanists, zoologists and theologians* --  perceives our relationship with animals, and our efforts to connect with them on some mutual ground. 

Editors call the poem "A Bird came down the Walk," even though Emily herself did not give titles to any of her work. 
Honk if you love geese.

Her first stanza, discussed here, depicts a bird eating a worm off a (side)walk while a human watches, even though Emily's diction makes this harmless scene a little eerie. For example, she (or her narrator) calls the lowly angleworm a "fellow," then makes sure we know the bird ate it raw, not even bothering to sauté it.

Now the second: 

And then, he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass -
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass -

Again Emily offers a double vision, two views for the price of one. On top, the bird drinks water off grass, then hops around a beetle. On bottom, i.e., below, or sub textually, the bird drinks a Dew out of a convenient "glass," due/dew to Emily's subliminal pun. 

Why not get carried away and claim "a Dew" also suggests "I hate to eat and run, but adieu, I'm outta here, gotta fly now." He is about to leave. Too much?

Maybe, but "You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough," according to William Blake. Stop too soon, and you might deprive yourself of a literary Easter egg or the end of a Golden Thread . . .

But back to the two layers: 

Because the bird "let [the] Beetle pass" (my emphasis), we imagine the bird possessing human courtesy.

And as in the first stanza, Emily's use of "hopped" emphasizes the unnatural nature (ha!) of the scene. The bird is out of his element, both by being on the ground, hopping rather than flying, and being clothed in human attributes. The natural bird is either sated or picky, or he would eat the beetle.

In the next stanza, the narrator continues to burden the bird with domesticated humanness: His natural avian surveillance makes his "rapid eyes" look like "frightened Beads," and he stirs "his Velvet Head / Like one in danger."

Whatever Emily is doing here, she is not helping us see the genuine, unadulterated, untainted beauty of a bird. It's almost as if an inferior poet took Emily's place for a stanza while she cleaned her windows or swept dust bunnies from underneath her bed or unlearned her received wisdom.

The real Emily would've used a conceit so fresh, apt and witty, we would've seen the bird in its full birdness, perhaps for the first time, shining forth in its normality like a Joycean epiphany or a Hopkinsean inscape.

But wait. The poem isn't over yet. After reading the final two stanzas, try illustrating them. Simply turn her word pictures into picture pictures (Hint: You'll need a boat):

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home

Than Oars divide the Ocean,

Too silver for a seam --
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

Your illustration should include a person (probably a woman) offering a crumb to a bird; then a bird with oars rowing a boat so softly that there's no break in the water's surface; then butterflies diving off the banks of 12 o'clock, then swimming without making the sound of water hitting something or vice versa. Clear enough?

The narrator's sole gesture in the poem is an attempt to break bread with the bird, and that gesture, apparently misguided and certainly futile, calls back the real Emily Dickinson and she quickly unleashes a quiet outburst of metaphysical imagery which has nothing to do with realistic representation, but everything to do with animals, specifically birds, and our relationship with them.

"I offered him a Crumb" is the first of four enjambed or run-on lines with no punctuation to slow the flow. The moment the communion crumb is offered, the bird prepares for lift-off, then navigates his way back to his nest so effortlessly, he achieves a mystical stillness manifested by Emily's menagerie of metaphors that I'm pretty sure you were unable to draw -- a far caw from the awkwardness of the previous stanzas.

Emily sounds out this stillness with sibilant euphony, replacing the harsh dental sounds of the first two stanzas with f's, m's, n's, s's, v's and w's. This is soothing. This is true. I can feel cosmic correctness, dulce et decorum, the wonder of a plain old bird being a Bird.

The voyeuristic, crumb-bearing narrator cannot bind to herself a joy, but must kiss the joy as it flies** -- or kiss off!

Now we shall see if the bird can express its feelings with a Haiku: 

"Get the f*ck out of my face, / I'm not ur friend & I can find my own food, / So take ur godforsaken crumb & shove it!"

And that comes in way under 140 characters.

*Dickinson had no college degree and was rumored to have practiced autodidactism in her bedroom, alone.

**The joy-kissing lines are from Blake, of course.

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