Amy Clampitt

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The Stone Face Of Emily Dickinson
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I'm going to begin with some poems of Emily Dickinson.

It was not death, for I stood up
And all the Dead, lie down -
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.

It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos - crawl -
Nor Fire - for just my Marble feetCould keep a Chancel, cool -

And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly for Burial,
Reminded me, of mine -

As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And 'twas like Midnight, some -

When everything that ticked - has stopped -
And Space stares all around -
Or Grisly frosts - first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground -

But, most, like Chaos - Stopless - cool -
Without a Chance, or Spar -
Or even a Report of Land - To justify - Despair.

[end poem: JP 510]

This poem was written, it is believed, in the flood year of 1862. I'm now going to turn to several other poems of Emily Dickinson, written somewhat later. They're, most of them, not to be found in the anthologies. Most of them, when I proceeded to read straight through her work, were new to me. And these were some that struck me particularly:

Oh Sumptuous moment
Slower go
That I may gloat on thee -
'Twill never be the same to starve
Now I abundance see -

Which was to famish, then or now -
The difference of Day
Ask him unto the Gallows led - With morning [in the sky]

[end poem: JP 1125]

The Snow that never drifts -
The transient, fragrant snow
That comes a single time a Year
Is softly driving now -

So thorough in the Tree
At night beneath the star
That it was February's Foot
Experience would swear -

Like Winter as a Face
We stern and former knew
Repaired of all but Loneliness
By Nature's Alibi -

Were every storm so spice
The Value could not be -
We buy with contrast - Pang is good
As near as memory -

[end poem: JP 1133]

Alone and in a Circumstance
Reluctant to be told
A spider on my reticence
Assiduously crawled

And so much more at Home than I
Immediately grew
I felt myself a visitor
And hurriedly withdrew

Revisiting my late abode
With articles of claim
I found it quietly assumed
As a Gymnasium
Where Tax asleep and Title off
The inmates of the Air
Perpetual presumption took
As each were special Heir -
If any strike me on the street
I can return the Blow -
If any take my property
According to the Law
The Statute is my Learned friend
But what redress can be
For an offence nor here nor there
So not in Equity -
That Larceny of time and mind
The marrow of the Day
By spider, or forbid it Lord
That I should specify.

[end poem: JP 1167]

Now here's a satiric poem; sometimes Emily Dickinson wrote that sort of thing:

He preached upon "Breadth" till it argued him narrow -
The Broad are too broad to define
And of "Truth" until it proclaimed him a Liar
The Truth never flaunted a Sign -

Simplicity fled from his counterfeit presence
As Gold the Pyrites [shunned] -
What confusion would cover the innocent Jesus
To meet so enabled a Man!

[end poem: JP 1207]

The Butterfly's Assumption Gown
In Chrysoprase Apartments hung
This afternoon put on -

How condescending to descend
And be of Buttercups the friend
In a New England Town -

[end poem: JP 1244]

To pile like Thunder to it's close
Then crumble grand away
While Everything created hid
This - would be Poetry -

Or Love - the two coeval come -
We both and neither prove -
Experience either and consume -
For None see God and live -

[end poem: JP 1247]

The Mountains stood in Haze -
The Valleys stopped below
And went or waited as they liked
The River and the Sky.

At leisure was the Sun -
His interests of Fire
A little from remark withdrawn -
The Twilight spoke the Spire,

So soft upon the Scene
The Act of evening fell
We felt how neighborly a Thing
Was the Invisible.

[end poem: JP 1278]

How News must feel when travelling
If News have any Heart
Alighting at the Dwelling
'Twill enter like a Dart!

What News must think when pondering
If News have any Thought
Concerning the stupendousness
Of it's perceiveless freight!

What News will do when every Man
Shall comprehend as one
And not in all the Universe
A thing to tell remain?

[end poem: JP 1319]

Without a smile - Without a Throe
A Summer's soft Assemblies go
To their entrancing end
Unknown - for all the times we met -
Estranged, however intimate -
What a dissembling Friend -

[end poem: JP 1330]

Let me not mar that perfect Dream
By an Auroral stain
But so adjust my daily Night
That it will come again.

Not when we know, the Power accosts -
The Garment of Surprise
Was all our timid Mother wore
At Home - in Paradise.

[end poem: JP 1335]

This is the last of the Emily Dickinson poems I've chosen and it may be more familiar. It's interesting to me because it has a quite different pace to it than most of her poems.

There came a Wind like a Bugle -
It quivered through the Grass
And a Green Chill upon the Heat
So ominous did pass
We barred the Windows and the Doors
As from an Emerald Ghost -
The Doom's electric Moccasin
That very instant passed -
On a strange Mob of panting Trees
And Fences fled away
And Rivers where the Houses ran
Those looked that lived - that Day -
The Bell within the steeple wild
The flying tidings told -
How much can come
And much can go,
And yet abide the World!

[end poem: JP 1593]

I'm sure any woman poet is bound to have been influenced by Emily Dickinson. I'm going to read a poem or two that perhaps reflects that influence, but I'm going to read first of my own work, a poem which clearly does not. It was written, I recall, at a time when I was carrying around the work of Alan Ginsberg. Now Alan Ginsberg is a clearly in the line of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson did say about Whitman--she didn't know much about him but she knew she had heard he was a great scoundrel. This poem was one that was probably waiting to be written when I was walking in what we people who live in New York provincially call the Village. And I passed a garden; it's still there. One can't ever be sure those gardens are going to still be there, but I saw it the other day. A garden where there used to be the women's house of detention, and this was in December, and there were things in bloom. That set me on a train of thought, and I wrote in long lines which seemed to have been a reflection of Alan Ginsberg's manner. The poem is called "Time."


It may be we are in the last days.
Seven hundred years ago to the week,
on the eleventh of December, the kingdom of Wales went
Today, the sixth day of the twelfth month of the nineteen
    hundred eighty-second year, according to the current
there are roses the size of an obsolete threepenny bit--
one fingernail-pink, the other minute, extravagant crimson--
flanked by masses of sweet alyssum
and one time-exempt purple pansy
on the site of what was formerly the Women's House of
at the triangular intersection of Tenth Street with Greenwich
    and Sixth Avenue,
just back of the old Jefferson Market courthouse
whose tower clock, revived, goes on keeping time.
And I think again of October violets,
of their hardy refusal to adhere to conventional expectation--
so hardy that I've finally ceased to think of it as startling,
this phenomenon which, in fact, I devoted myself in October to
    looking for--
a tame revenant of the blue fire-alarm of the original encounter
    with the evidence,
among the dropped leaves and superannuated grass of the
    season of hickory nuts,
that neither time nor place could be counted on to remain
that you might find yourself slipping back toward the past at
    any moment,
or watch it well up in artesian springs of anachronism,
with the prospect of being drowned in that aperture's abrupt
in that twinkling, at any moment.
It was November, or near then, I found violets massed at the
    foot of the foundations of the castle of Chepstow,
at the edge of Wales--not any longer, as once, covert,
    fecklessly undermining
that sense of fitness, so fragile that at any moment of one's
     childhood whatever sense of continuity has not ebbed or been marked
    for demolition
may break like an eggshell, and be overrun from within by the
    albumen of ruin--
their out-of-season purple not any longer hinting at something,
    but announcing it with a flourish:
the entire gorgeous, intractable realm of the forgotten,
the hieratic, the heraldic, the royal, sprung open
at the gouty foot of that anachronism
on the fringes of a kingdom that went under
at or near the downward slope of the thirteenth century. I have
the artesian spring of the past foam up at the foot of the castle
    of Chepstow
on a day in November.  I have seen a rose the
    size of a perfectly manicured crimson fingernail
alive in a winter that does not arrive, though we plunge again
    toward the solstice.

[end poem]

Now for a poem which I'm conscious of owing something. Owing perhaps entirely to Emily Dickinson. I'd been reading her work. This was two years ago at Easter. I was in California, and in California that year at Easter the grass, which was still green, had begun to flower. And as it flowered, the color of the hills changed.


Undulant across the slopes
a gloss of purple
day by day arrives to dim
the green, as grasses

I never learned the names of--
numberless, prophetic,
transient--put on a flowering
so multiform, one

scarcely notices: the oats grow tall,
their pendent helmetfuls
of mica-drift, examined stem
by stem, disclose

alloys so various, enamelings
of a vermeil so
craftless, I all but despair of
ever reigning in a

metaphor for: even the plebeian
dooryard plantain's
every homely cone-tip earns a
halo, a seraphic

hatband of guarantee that
dying, for
the unstudied, multitudinously,
truly lowly,

has no meaning, is nothing
if not flowering's
swarming reassurances of one
more resurrection.

[end poem]

Since it's still, in my mind--Easter season--I'm going to read a poem called "Trystic," which is, you see, has to do with Lent and Easter. It's in three parts. I imagined it as being the verbal equivalent of the kind of altar painting one sometimes sees when it's a major, a central, panel that is larger than the two on either side. So there are two short poems on either side of the somewhat longer poem. First is "Palm Sunday."

["Palm Sunday"]

Neither the wild tulip, poignant
and sanguinary, nor the dandelion
blowsily unbuttoning, answers
the gardener's imperative, if need be,
to maim and hamper in the name of order,
or the taste for rendering adorable
the torturer's implements--never mind
what entrails, not yet trampled under
by the feet of choirboys (sing,
my tongue, the glorious battle),
mulch the olive groves, the flowering
of apple and lamond, the boxwood
corridor, and churchyard yew,
the gallows tree.

[end poem]

"Good Friday" 

Think of the Serengeti lions looking up,
their bloody faces no more culpable
than the acacia's claw on the horizon
of those yellow plains: think with what
concerted expertise the red-necked,
down-ruffed vultures take their turn,
how after them the feasting maggots
hone the flayed wildebeest's ribcage
clean as a crucifix--a thrift tricked out
in ribboned rags, that looks like waste--
and wonder what barbed whimper, what embryo
of compunction, first unsealed the long
compact with a limb-from-limb outrage.

Think how the hunting cheetah, from
the lope that whips the petaled garden
of her hide into a sandstorm, falters,
doubling back, nagged by a lookout
for the fuzzed runt that can't
keep up, that isn't going to make it,
edged by a niggling in the chromosomes
toward these garrulous, uneasy caravans
where, eons notwithstanding, silence
still hands down the final statement.

Think of Charles Darwin mulling over
whether to take out his patent on
the way the shape of things can alter,
hearing the whir, in his own household,
of the winnowing fan no system
(it appears) can put a stop to,
winnowing out another little girl,
for no good reason other than
the docile accident of the unfit,
before she quite turned seven.

Think of his reluctance to disparage
the Wedgewood pieties he'd married into,
his more-than-inkling of the usages
disinterested perception would be put to:
think how, among the hard-nosed, pity
is with stunning eloquence converted
to hard cash: think how Good Friday
can, as a therapeutic outlet, serve
to ventilate the sometimes stuffy
Lebenstraum of laissez-faire society:

an ampoule of gore, a mithridatic
ounce of horror--sops for the maudlin
tendency of women toward extremes
of stance, from the virgin blank to harlot
to sanctimonious offical mourner--
myrrh and smelling salts, baroque
placebos, erotic tableaux vivants
dedicated to the household martyr,
underwriting with her own ex votos
the evolving ordonnance of murder.

The spearpoint glitters in the gorge:
wonder, at Olduvai,what innovater,
after the hunting cat halfway sniffed out
remorse in the design of things,
unsatisfied perhaps with even a lion's
entitlement, first forged the iron
of a righteousness officially exempt
from self-dismay: think, whatever
rueful thumbprint first laid the rubric
on the sacerdotal doorpost, whose victim,
knowing, died without a murmur,
how some fragment of what shudders,
lapped into that crumpled karma,
dreams that it was once a tiger.

[end poem]

"Easter Morning" 

a stone at dawn
cold water in the basin
these walls' rough plaster
after the hammering
of so much insistence
on the need for naming
after the travesties
that passed as faces,
grace: the unction
of sheer nonexistence
upwellling in this
hyacinthine freshet
of the unnamed
the faceless

[end poem]

The subject of stone is one that one finds recurring in the work of Emily Dickinson. I think of the poem, it's a familiar one, in which she talks about the bounds of her attention. Let me find it.

I've known her - from an ample nation -
Choose One -
Then - close the Valves of her attention -
Like Stone -

[end poem: JP 303]

And another of her satiric poems about a face:

A face devoid of love or grace,
A hateful, hard, successful face,
A face with which a stone
Would feel as thoroughly at ease
As were they old acquaintances -
First time together thrown.

[end poem: JP 1711]

The subject of stone and people turning to stone, which is obviously something that concerned Emily Dickinson in many ways, is a subject that I've done some thinking about also in the last year or so, and I've been writing, or trying to write, some poems about the Medusa myth. I'm going to read one which isn't really part of that sequence but it does deal with Medusa. It has to do with George Eliot, who, in fact, mentioned Medusa in her work every now and then--which gave me courage to think about mentioning Medusa in connection with her work. This is a poem called "Medusa at Broadstairs" and it's about a time in George Eliot's life when she was not George Eliot; she was Marian Evans. She was a successful editor and translator living in London. She was a friend of Herbert Spencer, the philosopher. In fact, they saw a great deal of each other for a while--went to the opera together, enjoyed each other's company. But the thing about Herbert Spencer was he never married; he really couldn't make up his mind to settle with anybody. He was much too rational, I think. And George Eliot, for all her formidable intellect, was a person capable of great devotion. And she tried very hard to remain detached, and unfortunately, however, these resolutions, when one is a woman--and perhaps it is true of men too--don't always hold. And George Eliot--Marian Evans--went to a little town called Broadstairs on the North Sea, not far from Dover, to spend a couple of weeks vacation, and she wrote Herbert Spencer a note in which she said that she was having a fine time not thinking at all and she thought she might turn into something like a jellyfish pretty soon and, "Maybe you'll say I'm near enough to the Medusa already." She did say that. "But it's a lovely place, won't you come down?" He came down and visited, and something happened that one doesn't know exactly, but there is a letter that she handed him that one can read in the collected letters of George Eliot and it is out of that circumstance that this poem comes:

"Medusa at Broadstairs"

A seaside place so tranquil
her very mind might drift, grow indolent,
become a tidepool: the articulate spine,
its resolutions and attenuations--all
acquired at such a price--
sweetly let go.

This couldn't last, of course. It never did.

On Saturday the 10th, H.S. came down--
to whom she'd cheerfully agreed
(and let the fact be widely known)
that she was not attached.

No use. The unwanted love-child of a note
she evidently handed him survives. The stored-up
spikenard of ardor in its ungainly vessel--
whole forests of it, bending and shimmering--
again refused. Aged thirty-three
and still so quick to feel, so soon
a rigid gazingstock.

Night terrors. The huge claustrophobia of childhood
starting up again: the dried shriek,
the claw about the windpipe.

Medusa, whether stinging jelly with no back bone
or stare of fury petrified,
in wait: the obscure cold pool
where Hetty, unlikely early offspring of George Eliot--
mindless, adorable, the smoldering dark girl
who must, her fatuous ardor ditched,
be done away with--will not be brave enough
to drown herself, to have it over:

The motions of a little vessel without ballast
(she'd write): the horrors
of this cold, and darkness, and solitude,
out of all human reach, becoming greater
every minute . . . The bitter waters spread,
the Arthur Donnithornes, the Stephen Guests
ride by: John Chapman, Herbert Spencer:
"If you become attached to someone else"
(she ignominiously writes) "then I must die."

There will be more: the sudden cold
about the knees, the inundated threshold,
Maggie Tullliver awake, borne outward
by (recurring nightmare of her childhood)
the actual surge: the same dark girl
grown tall and mindful, whose excesses
must be done away with, drowned.

George Eliot is not yet, Hetty Sorel not yet,
nor Maggie Tulliver, except (If you
become attached to someone else . . . )
in aching embryo. Only
long-faced, brainy Marian, prone
to hysterics. Back in London,
the usual observances--four walls
closing in, headache that lasts an age-- are sure to follow.

[end poem]

Another poem about the life of a woman; this is Dorothy Wordsworth. She was a very gifted writer; much too shy about the public to think about getting anything published, but she did keep journals, which she gave to her brother William and which he used in his poetry--they really were collaborators. I don't think she minded that at all, in fact, she kept the journal which she gave to him to read. The story about William and Dorothy Wordsworth is they were two people who had much in common. They were separated at the ages of eight and nine, I believe, when their mother died (their father had died a couple of years before). And they were sent to different relatives and didn't see much of each other until they were in their teens. And when they were reunited, they found so much in common that I think one could say, in a certain sense, they fell in love. In any event, Dorothy soon resolved to keep house for her brother; especially after William went off to France, got involved with a French woman, and produced an illegitimate child. She was the one who broke the news to the family and so she became, I think, indispensable to him in many ways. They did settle, eventually, in the town of Grasmere that is the famous place where they lived--they lived in some other houses too--in a place that is now known as Dove Cottage. The day came, however, when William decided that he would get married to--it was a joint decision; I think that Dorothy had part of it, but he decided to marry Mary Hutchinson, who was Dorothy's old friend, and I saw when I read the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth that the week when these decisions were made was a very traumatic one for both of them. And out of that and a visit I paid to Grasmere a couple of years ago comes this poem called "Grasmere":


Rain storms that blacken like a headache
where mosses thicken, and the mornings
smell of jonquils, the stillness
of hung fells thronged with the primaveral
noise of waterfalls--contentment
pours in spate from every slope; the lake fills,
the kingcups drown, and still it rains,
the sheep graze, their black lambs bounce
and skitter in the wet: such weather
one cannot say, here, why
one is still so happy.

Cannot say, except it's both so wild
and so tea-cozy cozy, so snugly
lush, so English.

A run-into-the-ground complacency nonetheless
is given pause here. At Dove Cottage
dark rooms bloom with coal fires; the backstairs
escape hatch into a precipitous small orchard
still opens; bedded cowslips, primroses,
fritillaries' checkered, upside-down
brown tulips still flourish where
the great man fled the neighbors:
a crank ("Ye torrents, with
your strong and constant voice, protest
the wrong," he cried--i.e., against the Kendal-
to-Windermere railway). By middle age a Tory,
a somewhat tedious egotist even (his wild
oats sown abroad) when young: "He cannot," his sister
had conceded, "be so pleasing as my
fondness makes him"--a coda
to the epistolary cry, "Oh Jane
the last time we were together he
won my affection . . . " What gives one
pause here--otherwise one might not
care, as somehow one does,
for William Wordsworth--
is Dorothy.

"Wednesday . . . He read me his poem. After dinner
he made a pillow of my shoulder--I read to him
and my Beloved slept."

The upstairs bedroom where the roof leaked
and the chimney smoked, the cool buttery
where water runs, still voluble, under the flagstones;
the room she settled into after his marriage
to Mary Hutchinson, and shared with, as
the family grew, first one, then
two of the children; the newsprint
she papered it with for warmth (the circle
of domestic tranquility cannot
guard her who sleeps single
from the Cumbrian cold) still legible:
such was the dreamed-of place, so long
too much to hope for. "It was in winter
(at Christmas) when he was last at Forncett,
and every day as soon as we rose from dinner
we used to pace the gravel in the Garden
till six o'clock." And this,
transcribed for Jane alone from
one of William's letters: "Oh my dear, dear Sister
with what transport shall I again
meet you, with what rapture . . ." The orphan
dream they'd entertained, that she had named
The Day of My Felicity: to live
together under the same roof,
in the same house. Here,
at Dove Cottage.

"A quiet night. The fire flutters, and
the watch ticks. I hear nothing else
save the breathing of my Beloved . . ."

Spring, when it arrived again, would bring
birch foliage filmy as the bridal veil
she'd never wear; birds singing; the sacred stain
of bluebells on the hillsides; fiddleheads
uncoiling in the brakes, inside each coil
a spine of bronze, pristinely hoary;
male clean-limbed ash trees whiskered
with a foam of pollen; bridelike
above White Moss Common, a lone wild cherry
candle-mirrored in the pewter of the lake.
On March 22nd--a rainy day, with William
very poorly--resolves were made
to settle matters with Annette, in France,
and that he should go to Mary. On the 27th,
after a day fraught with anxiety, a morning
of divine excitement: At breakfast
William wrote part of an ode. It was
the Intimations.

The day after, they took the excitement to Coleridge
at Keswick, arriving soaked to the skin. There, after dinner,
she had one of her headaches.

A bad one's ghastly worst, the packed ganglion's
black blood clot: The Day of My Felicity
curled up inside a single sac with its
perfidious twin, the neurasthenic
nineteenth-century housemate
and counterpart of William's incorrigibly
nervous stomach: "I do not know from what
cause it is," he wrote, "but during
the last three years I have never
had a pen in my hand five minutes
before my whole frame becomes a bundle
of uneasiness." To ail, here in this place,
this hollow formed as though to be the vessel
of contentment--of sweet mornings
smelling of jonquils, of tranquillity
at nightfall, of habitual strolls
along the lakeshore, among the bracken
the old, coiled-up agitation
glistening: birds singing, the greening
birches in their wedding veils,
the purple stain of bluebells:

attachment's uncut knot--so rich, so dark,
so dense a node the ache still bleeds,
still binds, but cannot speak.

[end poem]

Thank you.

I'm going to conclude with a shorter poem, which is one of the sequence of a poem having to do with the Medusa story. It is called "Hippocrene." Hippocrene, for those of you who are into Greek mythology will know, is the name given to the pool that was stamped by the foot of the winged horse, Pegasus, who was born of a decapitated corpse of Medusa, after Perseus went on this errand and to get her head, which, as you also know, turned everything/everyone who looked at it to stone. This has to do with the Hippocrene, which is associated with the idea of poetic inspiration. As I thought about that pool, I found it connected in my mind with a passage from Virginia Woolf's novel The Waves, which I first read when I was a sophomore in college, and very unsure of my own identity, and that's perhaps why I've never forgotten this particular passage. It goes like this: "I came to the puddle. I could not cross it. Identity failed me. We are nothing, I said, and fell."


The cold spring
of an intense depression,
moon-horror-struck posthumous
offspring of Medusa,
harbinger of going under,
of death by water.

Though above the pillars
of ruined Sounion the air
is calm, the white-lipped,
violet-hued flowerbed
of drowning, fraying
at the rim,

lies sleek with signals
of unbeing: the cold hoofprint's
doorway into nothing
metamorphosing from a
puddle in a courtyard,
the huge irruption

of blank seas the psyche
cannot cross: the terror-
twinning muse, the siren
and the solace: done and
undone by water--whether
beyond the stormy

Hebrides, the voyage
out, the long-looked-forward-to
excursion to the lighthouse:
the Ouse closing over;
a fin, far out. The waves
break on the shore.

[end poem]

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