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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Emily D., Part 2

Apparently with no surprise
To any happy flower,
The frost beheads it at its play
In accidental power.

The blond assassin passes on,
The sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another day
For an approving God.

My son asked me the other day, what's a prophet? I wasn't sure if he was asking about profit or prophet, but I went with prophet, as in seer, as in predictor of the future. 

I'd been reading this Emily D. poem for the last few days, and thinking how it seemed she could see into the future--either that or it's a great coincidence that her use of slant rhyme and her choice of subject matter feel eerily contemporary from this vantage point 130 years in the future. 

It was right around five years ago that the Abu Ghraib photos first appeared. I was living off the grid (no electricity) in a remote section of wilderness in southern Oregon with my husband and son, far away from a TV or a newsstand, but we did own a crank-up radio, and sometimes in the late afternoon, if we titled the antenna just so, we could catch a bit of NPR on a Northern CA radio station. 

The initial reports tried their best to cover up the fact that torture was sanctioned by the highest in command; instead, as you recall, we were told that these were the actions of a few renegade frat-boy types getting their jollies out, going a little too far with their antics, then posing for the camera with thumbs-up goofiness. 

But then the truth started coming out, and now we know that these pictures were more about business as usual, in fact, business as expected; this was how prisoners were supposed to be treated. This wasn't just a bunch of dumb kids playing around; this was official, top-down military policy. 

What does any of this have to do with the Dickinson poem, you ask? I know that when I read this poem in high school and college, I was told that it was about God being out to lunch (distant, unreliable, unable to stop beautiful, innocent things from being killed), but now I see something more here than nature beheading a happy flower. Now I sense much more going on in this poem than a study of how nature spares not the young, beautiful, or innocent. 

"Apparently" is an interesting word to begin a poem. It sets a conversational tone. It's not necessarily true or not true, what follows this word. It is perhaps the case, or perhaps not, that there is no surprise when a happy flower is beheaded by frost. We can decide later for ourselves. In fact, maybe the flower WAS surprised. In fact, maybe most citizens were outraged about Abu Ghraib, but only a few spoke up. 

Also: it's a play at accidental power. The frost is playing at being powerful, and this power is accidental. How so? Well, the frost didn't, perhaps, even know it had the power to kill. Or in another universe, where perhaps flowers are sturdier, the frost couldn't harm a flower. Or, on this earth, power sometimes falls into the wrong hands, into the hands of people who will misuse it. Or the power is given to someone by accident (by a few votes, because the country could not continue without a winner in the election, because a bunch of kids end up fighting our wars).  

And that's that. The deed is done, or in this case the flower is beheaded, and nothing is changed. The sun doesn't stop rising or setting. It just does what God set it in motion to do (if you believe in a Creator): measure off another day. But who or what does the sun represent? And who feels all smug in his belief in God? The sun is the witness to the crime. The sun is those who witness a criminal act and do nothing to stop it. The sun is humanity, or, better, yet, the status quo, those in command and in power, who continue to feel smug that God is on their side. 

No, no, no! I'm not saying ED foresaw the torturing of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Not anything close. What I am doing here is using Abu Ghraib to talk about things Dickinson knew about in her own time: those in power do what they will, the masses stay quiet, and the powerful continue to feel that what they are doing is right by God. Abu Gharaib is just one example of that. 

Am I way off base here? Please tell me if I am, because I am obsessed with this poem's ambiguous power. The words accidental and play will not leave me alone. And, of course, apparently, which reminds me of Auden's "The Unknown Citizen": Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: / Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard."



seanag said...

Although I agree with much of your interpretation or reflection on this, I'd read the 'at its play' in relation to the happy flower, not the frost. I think where our sense of this overlaps is in the shock value of 'beheads' and 'assassin',so that the poet or the narrator, anyway, does not let the frost off the hook, nor the sun, even if an 'approving God' does.

I am sure that Dickinson's poem is a big enough container to speak to Abu Ghraib and the machinery of power among its many meanings. What I personally find interesting in the poem is that the voice of the poet takes a stance against the 'natural order of things'. I love that she is willing to take issue with even accidental power of whatever kind because it causes this death. It's not a poem about acceptance of suffering.

It reminds me, in a much more humorous vein, of someone who was trying to talk a boss of mine, a vegetarian, into accepting that in Nature, beings eat other beings.

"Then Nature is wrong," she replied, brooking no further argument.

I always liked her for that.

Martha Silano said...

Thanks for the clarification on who is at play in this poem. That adds a dimension I hadn't considered!

seanag said...

Glad if it helped at all, Martha. I certainly wouldn't want to take away from your interpretation in any way.

verification word is 'forks'!

rams said...

Maybe more like Lenny in Of Mice and Men?

And just to complicate things up, it's not (at least according to the account of farm behavior in Wilder's FARMER BOY) the frost but the sun hitting it which kills the plant. Ha! The sun is implicated!

And Seanag, what did that boss exist on? Dew? Cabbages which had died a natural death?

Martha Silano said...

Rams, thanks for the reminder that the sun is implicated. I know this b/c you can save plants from frost bite if you wipe off the frost before the sun hits them. It just goes to show how careful Dickinson was w her word choices. I love her lovely ambiguities and complications . . .

seanag said...

Yes, I like the whole sun being implicated too imagery.

As for my boss, well, I am not sure how far she would have taken her philosophy, but pretty far, I would suspect. I am not saying I was a disciple of hers, but I do think some extremes of empathy can make others stop and think. Simone Weil springs to mind, who starved to death trying to live on what she believed the people of Occupied France were given during World War II. It's crazy from our perspective, but the statement of it expresses solidarity with suffering beings that I find admirable, if impossible to emulate.