It’s time once more to perform the brilliance of Emily Dickinson. Today’s text, “Answer July” is Dickinson in her seeming simple mode. Read quickly, it might strike one as almost a nursery rhyme or maybe as one of those playful listing or counting folk songs. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem.
But when I looked again, “Answer July” appears to be a debate or interrogation between nature’s seasons and the consciousness of souls, a rather strange thing to put into such a brief and unfancy piece of poetry. Emily Dickinson loves strange, and if you’re a reader or listener who’s stuck around here, you’re comfortable with it too. What’s being debated here?
It starts with the poem’s speaker — let’s call them Dickinson, though obviously, it’s a creation of Emily Dickinson, and as its creator she knows more than this character — demands of nature’s mid-summer month of July just where certain summer things are. July, like a party in a legal dispute or sidestepping debater replies that the things that would allow it to produce those summer things are not in its control. There could be a supply chain issue, and maybe the real problem is with its supplier: the spring month of May.
Where is the Bee — Where is the Blush? Got it right here Emily.
May is called in. “Nay,” says May. Tell me about supply chain issues! I’ve got suppliers too, like winter. Subpoena the jay, a winter bird.
The jay is sworn in. Look I need food in the winter they testify. Where’s the leftover autumn corn, the periods of hazy-thaw less-severe cold, and those burred seeds still in their protective casing? The implication here is that we could next look to question fall, though by now we suspect fall will blame summer. And round and round we would go.*
Dickinson gives us two lines that may be a break in the circle. When July, the first month/season to be questioned ends their reply, I think July suggests that May/spring is not a calendar month, but instead a creature of the questioner in the poem. The syntax is broken and unclear here, so who speaks each word is uncertain — but at the time I performed it, I went with this understanding (in paraphrase): July replies (answering to Dickinson’s opening line of questioning) “You’ve called on me to answer. Well, I’ve got one for you, ‘Where is May?’ Come on, you (thee) answer! Because I know what you should answer when asked about where things spring from: ‘It’s me.” That is, Dickinson, July questioner, is responsible.
I could be wrong on that somewhat convoluted reading. It could also be July saying “If May was here, they could answer your question for you (thee) and for me too.”
And then again, as the poem ends, the jay has a cryptic answer to where it can find its winter sustenance: “Here — said the Year.” Unlike summer, winter seems like a time of scarcity, but nature provides the jay what they need. There the implication is that Dickinson’s original complaint to July about where are the summer things she wants is being answered by the jay saying that nature will provide, if your soul seeks for things rather than asking for it to be summer ample and at every hand. This reading of the last line is what drew me to my more complicated reading of the earlier “Answer Thee — Me —” line. The poet Dickinson is telling the character of the questioner in her poem that it’s not the seasons that provide, it is the soul that seeks that finds. She is her own spring, summer, harvest and survival.
Musically I had some fun with this one. On one hand the harmony is simple, a I V progression, but I used some less-common voicings for the Ab (it’s an AbMaj13) and Db (a DbMaj7) and I played sitar.** Why not! Emily loved strange, and if you’ve stuck around here this summer, you have to have some tolerance for that. The player gadget will appear below for some of you, but don’t ask July where it is if you don’t see the player. Instead, click this highlighted hyperlink, which will open an new tab-window and play my musical performance of “Answer July.”
*Once again, I’m working on my theory that Emily Dickinson’s sharp intelligence was surrounded by a family that worked as lawyers, and that may have provided a frame for some of her poetry. As I write this there happen to be many supply chain issues ascribed to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and other causes, but neither legal precedents nor logistical savvy is the real subject for this poem, rather it’s about a Transcendentalist understanding of how the soul must partner with nature.
Emily Dickinson herself was also a gardener and the Dickinson household raised a wide variety of food and feed crops. Any farmer or gardener knows that it’s not just the calendar page that brings in food and crops, but effort and seeking.
**Well, not exactly. I’ve never owned a real sitar. I have owned an electric sitar with a plastic rounded bridge that sought to emulate their buzzy sound. I’ve used MIDI “virtual instruments” that allow a guitar or keyboard to play sitar notes with attempts at following sitar articulations. Today’s piece uses a Line6 Variax guitar that has a sitar sound setting, and it tracks guitar string vibrato precisely, a necessity for this piece’s main sitar line motifs.