Did you know that Emily Dickinson wrote a Thanksgiving poem? It’s not one of her “Greatest Hits” or anything, but it does represent a couple of Dickinsonian traits: skeptical humor and puzzling philosophical concision. You can read the text of it here as I discuss my encounter with it.
Dickinson didn’t use titles, and the first line, our entry into the poem, starts off with a strange tentativeness. What’s the series? All the days of our lives, of history? Or a series of holidays? I suspect the last, in that the next line throws up the American holiday inside quotes. It’s hard not to read “Thanksgiving Day” in Dickinson’s text without intonating the words with “air quotes,” that at least slightly dismissive way of saying “Well, you can call it that if you want.”
I’m not a Dickinson scholar but I get the impression that Dickinson uses quotes literally—that is, when she’s quoting someone*—but there is a sense here of our modern manner in the poems first half. And as the poem continues, its opening comments could be written this week by someone musing on the holiday. Yup, Thanksgiving is a strange mix: part a big meal, a gluttonous celebration; and part memories of worshiping dissenter pilgrims and family. And Dickinson, in her thirties as she wrote her poem, notes she’s not sitting at the kids table nor is she some honored elder closer to the pilgrims than the present. So, outsider in a middle place, she says she’ll post a review, from her “Hooded thinking.”
Maybe you’re visualizing The Handmaids Tale when you read “Hooded.” I think Dickinson is taking a bit of a religious acolyte’s stance in her review, even if playfully. Her two-word review: “Reflex Holiday.” You’re just going through the motions she seems to be saying.
One won’t get a turkey drumstick: Emily Dickinson on the left with her siblings.
The poem could end there, but Dickinson takes off in the second half in gnomic concision. This is often beautiful as word music, but it’s hard to follow her mind.
What’s the sharp subtraction for the early sum? A falling away from religious immediacy? Mankind’s fall from grace? Forgetting the history or piety of the holiday? The next two lines are even more weird. What the heck does “Not an acre or a Caption/Where was once a Room” mean? This is Dickinson the hermetic riddler. I’ve rolled that couplet around in my head for a week and it always slips from my grasp.
The tossed pebble wrinkling the sea lines have a Blakean tone. Here the mystic Dickinson is plain as any mystic can be in words: our lives, our actions, are small against creation—just visible, just for so long. Her final couplet seems to say that our thanks, our Reflex Holiday, is insufficient to the gift. This realization combined with the reflex action is, in a way, a more sublime and awe-some thanks.
What an odd poem! It starts out witty and lightly skeptical and (as best as I can figure it) closes on a humble mysticism.
Musically, I tried to hew to the mystery, if a strange resonant piano and wavery synth can portray that. The player is below. Thanks for reading and listening!
*If she is quoting a person, it may well be Sarah Hale, a New England journalist who campaigned for the importance of a Thanksgiving holiday during Dickinson’s day.