The Beetle or the Bellflower

A poem for Emily Dickinson on Her birthday, December 10

In late 2019/early 2020 I wrote the following poem in and around Emily Dickinson’s birthday. “For Emily Dickinson” was published to Sonder Midwest, Issue V in Spring 2020 where it was paired to a facing page featuring the powerful and innovative artwork of Leah Oates. Sonder Midwest: https://sondermw.com/issues-2/

As for the poem, the observations of the tireless twitching of the natural world in the transition from Spring to Summer could have come from my own backyard. I made little effort to borrow Dickinson’s voice, except to imagine her Greenwood, which appeared in one of her very early poems. It is a 13th Century term for the woodlands and often a den for outlaws. Of course, ours’ is an original Outlaw Poet, long before Ginsberg, Corso and Waldman. She lived near Amherst, where she likely wandered into her Greenwood and maybe even sometimes napped upon its mulchy floor. The rest of it comes from the American West where I live and Spring to Summer days vary from still to vigorously windy, snowy wet to spells where things bake and become as “tawny as wolf lint.” An mp3 recording of a reading is included below.

For Emily Dickinson
a poem by Vincent Hostak
© 2019

So, take me to the greenwood--
I want to know it all:
the story of the understory,
how you wandered, slept and woke in the woods.

Show me where you stood--
the dissolving mound of fallen oak ribs,
jaded with lichen and splitting under your soles, 
where you spoke your vows to the sky and Him.
Then take me to the meadow
where, were I a mite,
could climb a crocus, 
Find the sacred insects there,
comb through pollen froth
and count the hustling legs of bees.

Tell me how everything quivers heavenward--
bursting up from clay in coils:
the beetle or the bellflower.
Things unfolding eyeless and dew drenched.
Eating heat, sweating sugar through their days--
then baking dry and tawny as wolf lint.

None rising ever expected
to be shredded by the sparrows,
made midden for nest beds
or scattered to tether to a tree trunk.
But you told us so.
Chant from this secret songbook 
pecked in slanted script- those dashes,
those measures on chocolate wrappers
or cleaved on yellow parchment.
Sing to me from all the scraps
that were never fed to the fire.

Recording of reading:

As it was read by the poet in 2020 at a Landon Review of the Arts in Texas: Tejascovido gathering of poets

Notes, Two Things I Borrowed:

The Dash: Her manuscripts have dashes that are short and longer, often represented in typography as “-” and “–“. Scholars of her work will long postulate on the meanings of the ciphers. Personally, I think they just work to add rhythmic color to your silent reading across the stanza. The dash and longer dash has been adopted by many contemporary writers. I don’t read to much into this “comma with more drama.”

Him (?): “Him” is a reference found in Dickinson’s poems, such as “I could suffice for Him, I knew” (643). The protagonist is in conversation with god/a greater presence, using the symbolic notation of poets before her for that presence. Like others, I don’t read it as explicitly signaling a being, let alone a gendered one. She was appreciative of the place of the human in the natural and spiritual or metaphysical world, perhaps a transcendentalist. In fact, poem (643) explores the questions of “Would I be Whole (?)” without nature or humanity, as if it were asked by god/a greater presence. I suppose these identities would have helped the reader contemporary to the time. Readers, you say? While she published only ten poems in her lifetime, she embedded her verse in letters to private, trusted readers like writer and abolitionist, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and certainly Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson.

Capitalization: You can find other manifestations of energy in her universe, capitalized, both elemental varieties and some things greater: the Sun, Nature, “the furthest Star.” Here she addresses the Moon, personified as Her, in the same Poem (643) :

The Answer of the Sea unto
The Motion of the Moon—
Herself adjust Her Tides—unto—
Could I—do else—with Mine?

https://poets.org/poem/i-could-suffice-him-i-knew-643

Published by Vincent Hostak

Vincent Hostak, vmh, is a writer, podcaster and filmmaker. His poetry has appeared in Sonder Midwest, Tejascovido and the Langdon Review of the Arts. Vince is Executive Producer of Crossings-the Refugee Experience in America Podcast.

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