POETRY AND HEALING
Tell It Slant: Emily Dickinson and the Importance of Indirection
by David Shaddock
This regular column for Poetry Flash looks at poetry to illuminate issues relevant to health, mental health, and coping with our lives today.
I RECALL A SOLAR ECLIPSE from elementary school. After dire warnings not to look directly, we created our own shadow projectors and watched its progress on butcher paper. Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality writes Eliot in "Burnt Norton." Or Exodus 33, I will take away my hand, and you will see my back. But my face must not be seen. Or Emily Dickinson:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant— Success in Circuit lies Too bright for our infirm Delight The Truth's superb surprise As Lightning to the Children eased With explanation kind The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind—
We are like infants, it seems, with alternating waves of terror and excitement passing over our faces. Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror writes Rilke, a phrase that came back to me last summer, watching sheet lightning (rare in California) from my bedroom in Berkeley; the hills that ring the Bay serially illuminated, barely a one-one-thousand between the flash and the clap. Impressions laced into my retina. Two weeks later, smoke from lightning-caused fires rendered the day dark as midnight at noon.
At the neurological level wonder and terror are indeed twins. Both limbic, our deepest animal inheritance. We are a house of wonder blown down continuously by terror. And rebuilt with the help of the ministrations of others and our own innate resilience. Disruption and repair, the infant researchers tell us, is the process through which our psyche develops. Success in Circuit lies. Versus trauma: disruption with no repair.
From After great pain, a formal feeling comes to Good morning—Midnight / I'm coming home Emily Dickinson reigns as the singular poet of disruption and repair. She lulls you and conks you in equal measure; her density the "slant" that keeps you coming back for more. I've never been impressed with the argument that Dickinson's poems were a product of her isolated circumstances. I think her slant rhymes and apparent obscurity are aesthetic responses to the truth that our most vital comprehension is formed and reformed at the boundary where understanding dances with chaos. As in the poem above, her instinct is kindness—she protects not (or not only) herself, but you the reader. A kindness to mediate with indirection, both the too-bright light and the you-are-nothing-but-a-loathsome-spider darkness that her New England Puritan ancestors poured on. She shows but stops short of the abyss, then flashes something quietly miraculous.
Here's a poem that takes up the Puritanical theme of the abasement of our vanity, but does it so slant that we are left as enchanted as we are chastened:
Banish Air from Air—
Divide Light if you dare—
While Cubes in a Drop
Or Pellets of Shape
Films cannot annul
Odors return whole
And with a Blonde push
Over your impotence
Beyond the limits of our will lies terror, or is it consolation? The poem asks, but does not reveal. It catalogues futility, the futility Buddhists call Samsara, the world of illusions. How do you take all the air out of air? How do you get the ship out of the bottle? Is this a chastisement? Or is it a Koan, meant to take us beyond words? A paradox of Pellets of Shape, squares fit into circles. Force Flame if you dare, she writes, as if taking on the Industrial Revolution. But her point is to show us the blonde push, the flit of the steam. The futility list is an abasement, a distraction, an indirection. Now look, she tells the reader: consider this vapor, shape shifting, disappearing in air. Floating above your impotence.
The "odors that return whole" in line eight are the unpleasant whiffs of our own mortality. Some of Dickinson's best known and most harrowing poems directly confront death and the death-in-life of depressed mental states. Here is the end of her poem "I Felt a Funeral in My Brain," in which the glue that holds the self together seems to fail, plunging the speaker into an abyss. Even here we find a touch of buffering ambiguity, if only in the last dash, opening a space beyond what would have been a period:
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down—
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing—then—
To be finished knowing is not, perhaps, to be finished. Dickinson's telling it slant reminds us that it is a kindness to leave both our portents and love-nods open-ended. Useful instruction for therapists and lovers.
David Shaddock PhD is a poet and psychotherapist. His most recent poetry book is A Book of Splendor: New and Selected Poems on Spiritual Themes. He is also the author of Poetry and Psychoanalysis: The Opening of the Field, from Routledge, and two books on relationships and couples therapy. He lectures widely on those topics, and maintains a private practice in Berkeley.
— posted OCTOBER 2021