And Zero At The Bone - With Dirks Of MelodyThursday, March 24, 2011
|Jerome Charyn by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward|
One of my treasured delights of this week has been my reading of Jerome Charyn’s The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson.
After reading this novel that reads somewhat like an autobiography written by Dickinson in a parallel universe I wanted to do one thing (something I will do this coming Monday when I have time to visit the Vancouver Public Library). Charyn in his novel places words and expressions from Dickinson’s poems into her conversations. But the novel does not have one single example of a Dickinson poem. This intelligent technique by Charyn has thrust the imperative that I must take out a tome of Dickinson’s output.
If this was Charyn’s intention he has in the very least succeeded with me. I have never been much of reader of poetry. And there is a reason for this that is based on my poor memory. I have in later years found tools to help me remember things and I have developed a sort of photographic memory for passages in books that I may have read many years ago. This was not always the case.
I remember in Brother Edwin’s religion class at St. Ed’s in Austin that he would tell us we could have extra points if we would memorize a longish passage from the bible. He would give us a day and on the next we would stand up and recite the passage. I could never do this as memorizing anything past a few lines was an impossible chore. I recall that the absolute worst was the homework from Brother Francis (he taught American History) instructing us to memorize President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I suffered and managed to pass it. But it was sheer terror for me.
Poetry has thus never been my forte but in the last 20 years I have warmed up to William Carlos Williams via (!) Ogden Nash. Reading the stories by Borges, and then running out of them, led me to read his poems which I do appreciate. And I happen to love the poetry of Mexican novelist, poet, diplomat and environmentalist Homero Aridjis. His novels (with their poetic writing) helped me understand the power of using the right words and putting them in a particular order.
As far as I know Jerome Charyn, one of my favourite American novelists, does not write poetry. But in his introduction to The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson he writes:
She was the first poet I had ever read, and I was hooked and hypnotized from the start, because in her writing she broke every rule. Words had their own chain reaction, their own fire. She could stun, delight, and kill “with Dirks of Melody.” I never quite recovered from reading her. I, too, wanted to create “ [a} perfect – paralyzing Bliss,” to have my sentences explode “ like a Maelstrom, with a notch.”
It was the old maid from Amherst who lent me a little of her own courage to risk becoming a writer. “A Wounded Deer – leaps highest,” she wrote, and I wanted to leap with Emily.
From Charyn’s book I found out that Dickinson was not in the habit of titling her poems. One that is mentioned is The Snake and Dickinson objected to the publishing of this poem (one of the very few that was published while she was alive) and the fact that the publisher called it The Snake. Dickinson in Charyn's novel says, " I is not about a snake." Here it is:
A narrow fellow in the grass
You may have met him, -did you not?
His notice sudden is.
The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.
He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn.
Yet when a child, and barefoot,
I more than once, at morn,
Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
Unbraiding in the sun, -
When, stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled, and was gone.
Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.
And from Charyn’s comment of “with Dirks of Melody”
One Joy of so much anguish
Sweet nature has for me
I shun it as I do Despair
Or dear iniquity --
Why Birds, a Summer morning
Before the Quick of Day
Should stab my ravished spirit
With Dirks of Melody
Is part of an inquiry
That will receive reply
When Flesh and Spirit sunder
In Death's Immediately –