Reflections on Dickinson 598
i’m in the process of moving at the moment. a couple of weeks ago, some friends helped me box up some books but we didn’t have time to actually move them. as we left my old house, i grabbed two books to drop into my purse to take with me. i showed them to my friends with a smile and explained: “my scriptures.” one book was the bible. the other was emily dickinson’s complete poetry.
i have long considered dickinson both a poet and a prophet. her poetry has opened some of the most revelatory experiences of my life. she captures ideas and insights so beautifully. and in such a small space. her poetry always leaves me in awe. so i thought, since i’m feeling a bit raw about things mormon at the moment, that i’d share a dickinson poem and some of my thoughts about it. i’ll post another poem soon for you to read in advance of discussing it. here’s today’s poem:
The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –
The Brain is deeper than the sea –
For – hold them – Blue to Blue –
The one the other will absorb –
As Sponges – Buckets – do –
The Brain is just the weight of God –
For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –
And they will differ – if they do –
As Syllable from Sound –
whenever i read this poem, i’m struck by its regularity. dickinson’s poetry is usually regular in structure, in spite of its many unconventionalities. but this poem’s regularity goes beyond that quality; it repeats words to such an extent that the change of single words or phrases demands we ask why—why change just that word? why that specific progression of comparison?
“wider” to “deeper” to “just the weight.” (comparative measure). i love the radical equality of this progression. that where the brain is more comprehensive than the sky and the sea, it is precisely the equal of god. although this idea isn’t heretic in mormonism, as it is in some other faiths, it’s not often discussed. which i find unfortunate because it’s an idea i love.
“put” to “hold” to “heft.” (comparative action). the poem moves from passively letting go, to passively holding on, to actively hoisting two things. it demands that we not simply compare, but that we also know. intimately. that we pick up and balance the brain and the divine to test their weight. that we understand their significance through personal experience.
“side by side” to “blue to blue” to “pound for pound.” (standard for comparison). i like the simultaneously abstract and concrete nature of the standards for comparison. while the grounds for comparison become more concrete, the things compared become more abstract. even if comparing two things by hefting them “pound for pound” is perhaps the most objective comparison proposed, is such a thing possible when the two things compared are radically other?
“contain” to “absorb” to “differ – if they do.” (comparative results). “contain” as in violently restrict? or “contain” as in hold within? “absorb” as in completely and utterly using up something else? or “absorb” as in holding within? both words imply both options—violence and oneness. but either way, the two entities end up conflated—whether through violence or tenderness it almost doesn’t matter. but the brain and god—they are permitted to differ, to maintain their distinct identities even as they are as similar as syllable and sound. and that, to me, is revelation.
* Dickinson didn’t title her poems. They’re known by numbers. I use the R.W. Franklin edition of Dickinson’s complete works. His numbering scheme is different from the standard numbering scheme developed by Thomas H. Johnson, the first editor to publish Dickinson’s complete works without radically changing her punctuation, etc. If you want to find Dickinson poems I present here, I suggest you search by first line since the Franklin numbers aren’t as common as the Johnson numbers.