May 30, 2007

The Two Aunts

I distrust easy dichotomies.

Here's one I've been thinking about lately. A friend tells me, quoting her own teacher: you're either a Whitmanian or a Dickinsonian.

If you're a daughter of Whitman (and you know he was getting busy, though not always did Ms. Whitman walk the procreative path), then you're ecstatic, an hysteric.

Exhibit one: Whitman's oracular, ecstatic voice. At the end of "Song of Myself," he says he can be found under our bootsoles (thigh-high, white pleather go-go boots, since you asked) -- he stops "somewhere waiting for you."

The oracular or ecstatic voice is crafted, I think primarily, through the rush of his syntax, the stretched onslaught of voice. Here's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," which is essentially a life-story in 22 lines (the --- indicates a line stretched out longer than blogger will allow):

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child
---leaving his bed wander'd alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower'd halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as
---if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous'd words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.

There's so much praise in Whitman. He's always been the newest and bad-assest of the sincerists.

And what a passionate hysteric Whitman is, to believe we can transcend time and space. So, a definition of the poet-hysteric: one who is just really, really sincere about really, really improbable things.

Does that make Dickinson insincere? Perhaps she's sincere in a different way.

The dichotomy becomes one of ecstacy vs. irony.

Here's Dickinson's Poem 280:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading — treading — till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through —

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum —
Kept beating — beating — till I thought
My Mind was going numb —

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space — began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here —

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down —
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing — then —

The speaker in this poem is transported beyond space, too; she also has stopped somewhere, waiting for us. Or, maybe she's not waiting. Dickinson is faster than everyone; of the two aunts, she's the less inclined to hand-hold, yelling at the children to catch up, for Chrissakes. She's tougher love.

The subject of both Whitman's Song of Myself and Dickinson's 280 is deathlessness, or the inability of the poetic voice (knowledge, in Dickinson; "kosmos" in Whitman) to be contained by the inevitably-failing flesh.

Dickinson's speaker begins by confessing to one hell of a headache: a funeral in her brain. But, then the dynamics of voice become complicated (as Auntie Em loves to do): she can only hear the mourners in stanza 2 because she's in the box. That's right, folks, the speaker is both inside and outside: she exists as an external person, speaking to us, and as an interior person inside her head—and what's more, she's also inside a box inside her head while speaking. The strangeness of this poem relies on the complexity of what contains us: first, the speaking body. Then, the mourning brain. Then, the triangulated and shifting "I," that fiercely charged and fluctuating moniker of identity, lying inside a coffin.

At the end of the poem, that self plunges down through the universe, hitting "a World, at every
plunge, And Finished knowing -- then --" How strange that "finished" can mean "polished" as well -- so that, indeed, she's put a polish on knowing, she's refined it. Or she's done with knowing, with the limits of how we know the world (each stanza is devoted to sensory perception, after all. So it makes sense that the finish would catapult her beyond perception).

And that "then" is so interesting too: has she finished knowing right then, in that moment? Or has she finished knowing. Then.....? Where are we, in the narrative, at the moment? Has the speaker polished off the story of the funeral, or has she only been interrupted? Is the body of the poem, like the speaker's body, unable to contain the voice? Is Dickinson being ironic about ecstacy, as in so many of her other poems about God and the Afterlife?

The more I think about this poem, the more oracular I find it: the voice of the dead speaking through the living mouth. The more I think about Whitman and Dickinson, the more I find those dichotomies of ecstatic vs. ironic live in shades of gray rather than black or white.

Li-Young Lee once said, in a room where I happened to be listening, that the difference between Whitman and Dickinson is expansiveness and/vs condensation. That's certainly true about their lines, but is Lee's statement more than a cosmetic truth?

I keep coming back to this thought: these poets resist categorization so often. So much is true about their work, because they were both so good at point of view, tone (and its attendant lord, diction), syntax, and metaphor.

Both Whitman and Dickinson wanted to explode easy dichotomies. So many of Dickinson's poems set up impossible situations, limiting paradoxes, and then, ever the Houdini, the speaker creates a large, limitless space ("a World / at every plunge") where before there was only a tiny, measurable cell ("my Brain," "a Box," etc).

Look what we inherit. Doesn't this make you want to refuse to check boxes on every application, on every survey you ever fill out? If you can, check Other. Fill in the blank that asks you what you are:

"I am one of the roughs,"


"I could not see to see."

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