The occasion for today’s post and audio piece is Emily Dickinson’s birthday, but I chose this poem of hers to set to music for other reasons. It’s been quite the year since spring for my little family, and this past month has had some additional things to deal with. I keep meaning to find a way to write about those things, but despite the large presence of I-own-my-part-of-the-story writing on the Internet and elsewhere, I can’t feel comfortable writing for the public about personal journeys of others I love and are close to me.
I’ve read through various collections of Emily Dickinson’s poetry over the years, and I even attended online a reading this past September of all 1,789 of her poems from one ascribed complete edition. Here’s one thing I notice about reading or listening to Dickinson: while I’m always ready to wave my hands in the air for her greatest hits, each time you dive into that alternate hymnal of hers some poem will seem new to you, will grab you with a fresh surprising turn of phrase or thought.
And so, it was a few weeks ago when someone shared today’s poem on the Internet. I wished I’d taken notes, as I have that person to thank. Even before I finished reading “I felt my life with both my hands” I said to myself “Is Dickinson talking about what I think she’s talking about — and if she isn’t, has she written a poem that accidentally speaks to certain things we think of as modern concerns?” I think the question comes around to if this is a spiritual poem about immortal souls, or if it’s a body image poem — and then, if we must necessarily divide those things, if Dickinson wanted us to. On the outward level this poem speaks of our inner spirit, of consciousness of selfhood, but the metaphors are often physical things one can touch and see, and since Dickinson has shown in other poems that she is comfortable writing in incorporeal abstracts, I can easily believe this imagery is a choice here.* In short, before I finished that singular reading of this poem this fall, I thought “Dickinson is writing a poem about body dysmorphia, or plausibly gender dysphoria.”
Both of those things weren’t named until after Dickinson’s death, and discussion and understandings about gender dysphoria are still somewhat new in our century, so it’s a leap to say that our mid-19th century poet means to write about those things. So let me go through the poem and try to extract a gloss of what Dickinson wrote.
I added an “inline epigraph” to the text of Dickinson’s poem. It appears in quotes above.
The first stanza refers to an antiquated test for life, holding a mirror up to a subject’s nose and mouth to see if it mists over from respiration — but she’s also portraying by association looking in a mirror. Of course in our day the glass we hold up to our faces is likely the screen of a smartphone with a selfie camera, but the image retains.
I don’t think one needs to insert much into the second stanza to see body dysmorphia. Sure, she could be reaching for a rhyme for “round” when she uses “pound.” I’m not knowledgeable enough to know what weight ideals were for Dickinson’s time and place, but what’s clear here imagistically is that the poem’s speaker is examining their body and feeling like they are not that body. Is it because they, their self, are philosophically a soul — or because that body doesn’t agree with their soul?
Third stanza. More body examination. “Jarred my hair” is a particular image. Is this some kind of pomade or other cosmetic? I think Dickinson has chosen jarred to pun on “jarring” here. The dimples image would again speak perhaps of weight concerns/dysmorphia.
The last four lines, Dickinson’s final stanza, indicates again the spirit or soul as essential self. Having left off with knowledge that the self/spirit and the body are not the same, the new place, the new home, the poem’s speaker finds themselves in is Heaven.
Nowadays speculations learned and affinititory about Dickinson’s sexuality have become common, yet I don’t see any first page search hits on her and gender dysphoria. The case for that here in this poem may well be accidental, if none-the-less striking, as the narratives of folks experiencing gender dysphoria might well fit into these poetic lines: the separation of the spirit and the body, the disconnection of the body from the authentic self, the feelings of relief when expressing outwardly their inner conviction. The third stanza’s jarring of hair and pushing in dimples takes another vivid incarnation if viewed in that frame.
Now those with the patience to read this far may still be interested in what I did with this experience of the poem — though if you’re a patient reader who is muttering “Balderdash” as you read the above, you are excused to go do something worthwhile. My impression from my encounter led me to alter Dickinson’s text with a sort of in-line epigraph from the song “Candy Says,” written by Lou Reed for the opening track on the LP eponymously called The Velvet Underground.* * The unpredictability and distress of the past couple of weeks has, I fear, given forth a less than ideal performance — but perhaps it’s imperfection has a certain authenticity to the times it was composed and recorded in. You can hear it with the player gadget below (where seen) or with this backup highlighted link.
May you find your joy and help others find theirs too. Production of new pieces and new blog posts here may be erratic, or they may be therapeutic, in unpredictable proportions, but there are the over 650 pieces in our archives here.
*Another choice is her use of “both my hands” in the first line. It’s not like the body would slip out of one’s grasp if you didn’t grab it with two hands. I think this is a choice to highlight duality.
**This song from 1969 opens with a clear dysphoria statement: “Candy says, I’ve come to hate my body, and all that it requires in this world.” I’m sure there are clever thinkers among spiritual people who can consolidate the idea of an inner soul which is not the physical body with a disbelief in gender dysphoria.