Posted by: Tom Triumph | July 12, 2014

210. I started Early – Took my Dog -: Emily Dickinson

What do you do with texts that may or may not be sexual?

I’m not talking about handling clearly sexual material, like a Judy Blume book or a racy poem. This is more about innuendo, and not clear innuendo but what a reading might interpret from the text.

For example, a very good professor I had at SUNY Cortland was fond of gender criticism. It was the lens he saw literature through, and he would always share a gender–often homosexual–interpretation of the text. By having most of the action happen on a boat, for example, the author was able to explore male relationships without the reader wondering why no one had a wife. This isn’t even sexual, but a look at how males interact with each other without women about. He never pushed it, but made us think about the author’s intent and what, as T.S. Eliot notes, we, as critics, bring to the text. I benefited from it greatly, even as I thought some critics pushed things a bit far.

It is not something I would even mention to my students, but what do you do when you know it’s a possible reading? I teach Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, but stop short of talking about the “wolf” wanting to “Eat you up.”

See, now it’s in your head. And while I have no doubt the Brothers Grimm did not have that in mind, gender criticism would argue that the deeper lessons about the dangers that prey on young women in society underlie many of the cautionary and horrific stories we tell each other. The Grimms were just collecting established folk tales, after all.

And I would not touch it. But, every time I do this unit, I get some boy who snickers when that line comes up. As a scholar, I can’t deny anything. Not wanting the topic to dominate the lesson–and it would–I give the “joke” a nod and move on. The child is, after all, acting immature and not providing an alternative interpretation of “The Story of Little Red Riding Hood.”

My wife came home from a week-conference on Emily Dickinson that was held at Amherst College, the holder of most archival information you might want on her and a stone’s throw (literally) from her house. She had a great time. But one of the professors there looked at all of Dickinson’s work as being sexual. I can see it. She’s an intelligent women who explored passion and life in great depth.

But then the professor examined “My Life had Stood–A Loaded Gun.” The link to my post on that poem is here.

My argument is that Dickinson was experimenting with point-of-view and giving an inanimate object a personality–a soul. Simple. Looking at the development of American literature, and her groundbreaking work, it seems the obvious answer. Occam’s Razor and all of that.

But the more I talked about it with my wife, the more I thought it might be both. It’s certainly an interesting idea, which was fleshed out through discussion. I’m skeptical, but the door is open.

So what do you do when something else might be there? As Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” And certainly, a gun is often just a gun. This was written long before Hemingway and the cliche of phallic symbols existing on every page. You CAN find sex everywhere, but where does that get us? I think it diminishes greatness. But I also don’t want to be naive. And we seek truth.

That professor tipped her hand, a bit, when she kept emphasizing the loaded gun was dangerous. Not only was it sexual, but Dickinson, the professor argued, saw that topic as to be handled with kid gloves because guns are dangerous. But that’s a modern view of guns. At the time Dickinson wrote, guns were useful tools. Powerful, but not seen as inherently dangerous as we often see them in our post-Columbine world. Again, I defer to T.S. Eliot’s concerns that the critics sees him or herself in the poet.

My solution, as I’ve noted, is not to raise the issue. I tend to steer towards safer poems and push interpretation in all sorts of directions. Still, we know that even innocent children’s stories often have deeper allegories and symbols.

I leave with a link to a post written by Professor Lilian Milani for a course she taught at CUNY Brooklyn on Emily Dickinson. It offers a balanced look at the many interpretation of this Dickinson poem. One is sexual, but several are not. Her final thoughts are worth noting, but she’s also writing for mature adults.

Looking at my old post for “Loaded Gun”, I noticed I had used Milani there, too. For a better analysis of that poem, and an argument for it being Art, read this analysis.

Milani’s final thoughts bring around, for me, a point I’d raised earlier: Where does that get us? I cannot imagine Dickinson’s be-all landing on sex, although I can see it being a stepping stone to several deeper themes. Perhaps I’ll just skip that stone as I make my way down the path.

In fact, I’d skip this poem and focus on her other works. But my wife doesn’t feel comfortable with “Loaded Gun” now that her professor’s argument is in her head. Don’t get me thinking about “A narrow fellow in the grass”, an old staple of my classroom which has only a kid’s snicker of underlying sexuality (it’s a nature poem!)….

How would you teach this poem, if you’d teach it at all?

I started Early – Took my Dog -
Emily Dickinson

I started Early – Took my Dog -
And visited the Sea -
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me -
And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands -
Presuming Me to be a Mouse -
Aground – upon the Sands -

But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe -
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Bodice – too -

And made as He would eat me up -
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve -
And then – I started – too -

And He – He followed – close behind -
I felt His Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle – Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl -

Until We met the Solid Town -
No One He seemed to know
And bowing – with a Mighty look -
At me – The Sea withdrew -

Posted by: Tom Triumph | July 4, 2014

209. Burnt Norton: T.S. Eliot

It was the quote “distracted from distraction by distraction ” used in the article “Surrounded By Digital Distractions, We Can’t Even Stop to Think” that made me choose this poem. It has been awhile since I got lost in an Eliot poem (lost being the most accurate term–he turns me around quite a bit) and untangling the ideas in them is a test for any middle school classroom.

But it was the content of that article that intrigued me as a teacher.

It would be tough to think up a more plum assignment for a test subject: Simply step into an empty room, sit down, and think.

Just think.

But in a study to appear in Thursday’s issue of the journal Science, participants found the experience within their own heads surprisingly difficult to manage — if not downright unpleasant.

Stripped of their books, cellphones and other distractions, many, including a majority of men, preferred to instead pass the time by reaching for the sole form of electronic entertainment in the room: a 9-volt battery administering a “severe static shock” when touched.

I think I’ve taught those kids.

Long have I made the claim that boredom is the pathway to reading.  Given nothing to do, and a book in their hands, I believe students will read.  If that is done often (say, daily sustained silent reading time with no bathroom breaks), the switch will, eventually, click.  My theory.

Speaking to many readers, when I ask them about the day (they have to remember the specific day, and they often can) when they went from being someone who can read to someone who is a reader, they all pin it to a day they had nothing else to do.  Long car ride.  Week with relatives.  Ski or summer cabin vacation.  My own experience was a rainy day in front of a rare fire in our living room.

My article on this can be found here.

Moving forward, try boredom and reading.  It has to be better than a 9 volt shock!

Burnt Norton
T.S. Eliot


Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.


Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long forgotten wars.
The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars
Ascend to summer in the tree
We move above the moving tree
In light upon the figured leaf
And hear upon the sodden floor
Below, the boarhound and the boar
Pursue their pattern as before
But reconciled among the stars.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
Erhebung without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.
Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure.
Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.


Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
Wtih slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plentitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

Descend lower, descend only
Into the world of perpetual solitude,
World not world, but that which is not world,
Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Dessication of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit;
This is the one way, and the other
Is the same, not in movement
But abstention from movememnt; while the world moves
In appetency, on its metalled ways
Of time past and time future.


Time and the bell have buried the day,
the black cloud carries the sun away.
Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray
Clutch and cling?
Fingers of yew be curled
Down on us? After the kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.


Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

The detail of the pattern is movement,
As in the figure of the ten stairs.
Desire itself is movement
Not in itself desirable;
Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless, and undesiring
Except in the aspect of time
Caught in the form of limitation
Between un-being and being.
Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always-
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | May 26, 2014

Shooting an Elephant: George Orwell

Not a poem, but a very useful story….

Because of the nature of our blocks, I recently read this aloud four times in two days. With each reading, I appreciated the story more and more.

While not a poem, “Shooting and Elephant” is a stock essay in many anthologies. It is used for most any point the anthology editor is trying to make (personal essay, cultural differences, peer pressure, etc.) because it is pretty straightforward and written by George Orwell.

I enjoy it as a read aloud because there is plenty to ponder as the story presses forward. Originally, it was part of my unit on India, which followed units on Western Civilization (where we focused on the United Kingdom) and colonialism. In that context, it made sense. As we eased into Gandhi and the Indian independence movement, the view of people like Orwell dovetailed nicely with Kipling’s white man’s burden. But now I am teaching just Language Arts, so the context of the British Empire is lost. Now, I focus on the choices we make versus the ones we want to make.

Much of the focus is on Orwell’s attitude before confronting the elephant. It’s pretty cavalier. That pretty much sums up the moments before every bad decision a middle school student makes. Then, as the moment presses on Orwell, we see the doubt and finally the regretful, inevitable action. In the end, the results are not too bad for the speaker, but that’s not the point. The reader knows that’s not the point.

This is a great essay to use before you ask your own students to write their own personal essay. First of all, it is distant enough not to be copied. The elements are there, but no student is going to identify or not identify as they would with the typical teen story. This is too foreign. Second, everyone has an opinion if Orwell should or should not have killed that elephant. It’s also graphic.

And it s a classic, Orwell and is chock full of good vocabulary. The older stories have so much valuable vocabulary, now lost in our wealth of more accessible YA literature. For this last reason, I do it as a read aloud. Between the vocabulary check and the discussions it works much better than a silent read.

Note, I skip the second paragraph. It goes over their heads and is meant more for the British audience at the time of the writing. And, in the end, I tend to use “native” instead of coolie. Censorship, which has its own Orwellian irony, but I let the kids know I’m doing it. Sometimes I don’t edit at all.

In the next post I’ll return to poetry.

Shooting an Elephant
George Orwell

In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

All this was perplexing and upsetting. For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically — and secretly, of course — I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos — all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism — the real motives for which despotic governments act. Early one morning the sub-inspector at a police station the other end of the town rang me up on the phone and said that an elephant was ravaging the bazaar. Would I please come and do something about it? I did not know what I could do, but I wanted to see what was happening and I got on to a pony and started out. I took my rifle, an old .44 Winchester and much too small to kill an elephant, but I thought the noise might be useful in terrorem. Various Burmans stopped me on the way and told me about the elephant’s doings. It was not, of course, a wild elephant, but a tame one which had gone “must.” It had been chained up, as tame elephants always are when their attack of “must” is due, but on the previous night it had broken its chain and escaped. Its mahout, the only person who could manage it when it was in that state, had set out in pursuit, but had taken the wrong direction and was now twelve hours’ journey away, and in the morning the elephant had suddenly reappeared in the town. The Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless against it. It had already destroyed somebody’s bamboo hut, killed a cow and raided some fruit-stalls and devoured the stock; also it had met the municipal rubbish van and, when the driver jumped out and took to his heels, had turned the van over and inflicted violences upon it.

The Burmese sub-inspector and some Indian constables were waiting for me in the quarter where the elephant had been seen. It was a very poor quarter, a labyrinth of squalid bamboo huts, thatched with palm-leaf, winding all over a steep hillside. I remember that it was a cloudy, stuffy morning at the beginning of the rains. We began questioning the people as to where the elephant had gone and, as usual, failed to get any definite information. That is invariably the case in the East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes. Some of the people said that the elephant had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in another, some professed not even to have heard of any elephant. I had almost made up my mind that the whole story was a pack of lies, when we heard yells a little distance away. There was a loud, scandalized cry of “Go away, child! Go away this instant!” and an old woman with a switch in her hand came round the corner of a hut, violently shooing away a crowd of naked children. Some more women followed, clicking their tongues and exclaiming; evidently there was something that the children ought not to have seen. I rounded the hut and saw a man’s dead body sprawling in the mud. He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and he could not have been dead many minutes. The people said that the elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with its trunk, put its foot on his back and ground him into the earth. This was the rainy season and the ground was soft, and his face had scored a trench a foot deep and a couple of yards long. He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony. (Never tell me, by the way, that the dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I have seen looked devilish.) The friction of the great beast’s foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit. As soon as I saw the dead man I sent an orderly to a friend’s house nearby to borrow an elephant rifle. I had already sent back the pony, not wanting it to go mad with fright and throw me if it smelt the elephant.

The orderly came back in a few minutes with a rifle and five cartridges, and meanwhile some Burmans had arrived and told us that the elephant was in the paddy fields below, only a few hundred yards away. As I started forward practically the whole population of the quarter flocked out of the houses and followed me. They had seen the rifle and were all shouting excitedly that I was going to shoot the elephant. They had not shown much interest in the elephant when he was merely ravaging their homes, but it was different now that he was going to be shot. It was a bit of fun to them, as it would be to an English crowd; besides they wanted the meat. It made me vaguely uneasy. I had no intention of shooting the elephant — I had merely sent for the rifle to defend myself if necessary — and it is always unnerving to have a crowd following you. I marched down the hill, looking and feeling a fool, with the rifle over my shoulder and an ever-growing army of people jostling at my heels. At the bottom, when you got away from the huts, there was a metalled road and beyond that a miry waste of paddy fields a thousand yards across, not yet ploughed but soggy from the first rains and dotted with coarse grass. The elephant was standing eight yards from the road, his left side towards us. He took not the slightest notice of the crowd’s approach. He was tearing up bunches of grass, beating them against his knees to clean them and stuffing them into his mouth.

I had halted on the road. As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant — it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery — and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided. And at that distance, peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow. I thought then and I think now that his attack of “must” was already passing off; in which case he would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and caught him. Moreover, I did not in the least want to shoot him. I decided that I would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home.

But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing — no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted to. (Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal.) Besides, there was the beast’s owner to be considered. Alive, the elephant was worth at least a hundred pounds; dead, he would only be worth the value of his tusks, five pounds, possibly. But I had got to act quickly. I turned to some experienced-looking Burmans who had been there when we arrived, and asked them how the elephant had been behaving. They all said the same thing: he took no notice of you if you left him alone, but he might charge if you went too close to him.

It was perfectly clear to me what I ought to do. I ought to walk up to within, say, twenty-five yards of the elephant and test his behavior. If he charged, I could shoot; if he took no notice of me, it would be safe to leave him until the mahout came back. But also I knew that I was going to do no such thing. I was a poor shot with a rifle and the ground was soft mud into which one would sink at every step. If the elephant charged and I missed him, I should have about as much chance as a toad under a steam-roller. But even then I was not thinking particularly of my own skin, only of the watchful yellow faces behind. For at that moment, with the crowd watching me, I was not afraid in the ordinary sense, as I would have been if I had been alone. A white man mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives”; and so, in general, he isn’t frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.

There was only one alternative. I shoved the cartridges into the magazine and lay down on the road to get a better aim. The crowd grew very still, and a deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last, breathed from innumerable throats. They were going to have their bit of fun after all. The rifle was a beautiful German thing with cross-hair sights. I did not then know that in shooting an elephant one would shoot to cut an imaginary bar running from ear-hole to ear-hole. I ought, therefore, as the elephant was sideways on, to have aimed straight at his ear-hole, actually I aimed several inches in front of this, thinking the brain would be further forward.

When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick — one never does when a shot goes home — but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time — it might have been five seconds, I dare say — he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did not collapse but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright, with legs sagging and head drooping. I fired a third time. That was the shot that did for him. You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skyward like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay.

I got up. The Burmans were already racing past me across the mud. It was obvious that the elephant would never rise again, but he was not dead. He was breathing very rhythmically with long rattling gasps, his great mound of a side painfully rising and falling. His mouth was wide open — I could see far down into caverns of pale pink throat. I waited a long time for him to die, but his breathing did not weaken. Finally I fired my two remaining shots into the spot where I thought his heart must be. The thick blood welled out of him like red velvet, but still he did not die. His body did not even jerk when the shots hit him, the tortured breathing continued without a pause. He was dying, very slowly and in great agony, but in some world remote from me where not even a bullet could damage him further. I felt that I had got to put an end to that dreadful noise. It seemed dreadful to see the great beast Lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him. I sent back for my small rifle and poured shot after shot into his heart and down his throat. They seemed to make no impression. The tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of a clock.

In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away. I heard later that it took him half an hour to die. Burmans were bringing dahs and baskets even before I left, and I was told they had stripped his body almost to the bones by the afternoon.

Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | May 2, 2014

208. Knots: R. D. Laing

I tend to find that the best education books are business books. There is a certain bluntness in speaking of widgets and organizational structures that appeals to me at just the point when I’m going to tear off a head during a scheduling meeting.

The problem, of course, is that education and business are two different things. Few businesses run on a model where the supplier backs up a truck and dumps a heap of materials of various levels of quality on the loading dock, and then expects near identical product of high quality to be shipped at the end of the day. Under NCLB and our own morality and ideals, we can’t reject defective kids.

So, the business model has its limits.

Still, management books and systems do help. A cursory glance of the Toyota Way shows a precursor to the Standards Based Grading model currently being touted in our district.

It is, though, economic theory that most gives me context when looking at scheduling, teaching assignments and the like. Recently, the work of David Ricardo and his theory of Comparative Advantage had me thinking. Here is a case study, adapted for education:

At David Ricardo Middle School, both Bob and Sally teach Science and Math. Because of the teaming system old DRMS embraces, students have one or the other teacher for both subjects. Every year, when the scores come out, Bob is shown to be the better teacher in both subjects. In economic terms, his class has an absolute advantage in Science and Math instruction. His Science instruction is by far better than Sally’s, while his Math scores indicate only a slight-but-clear edge.

When DRMS gets a new principal, she looks at the numbers and decides to departmentalize. All students, she decides, will have Bob for Science and Sally for Math. It is, she tells the school board, best for all students.

Now, all students get excellent Science instruction. Scores have gone up. The gap has been closed. In Math, the overall scores for the school have dipped, settling in at where only Sally’s students had been. It is not a huge dip, but noticeable.

Did the principal make the right choice?

This was inspired by Comparative Advantage, but the case study loses some of its edge when you think about the fact that kids won’t all have an all around excellent academic experience. We all know that mediocre teacher. When scanning the lists on move-up day, we know which teachers are sending kids prepared, and which are less so. If only you could clone Teacher Bob.

But Ricardo’s original theory, dealing with developed nations and trade policy, was set up so that it was a win-win situation for all. Although one party might have an absolute advantage, the trading brought a certain efficiency that still made that party gain in the transaction.  Everyone gained.

In this case, the students who would have had just Bob gain nothing by having Sally for math. They, in fact, lose. If you are a parent of one of the kids who would have had just Teacher Bob, you are clearly angry at the principal. Your child has to suffer for the good of Sally’s students.

Within the limits of this scenario, though, the principal made the right decision for all students. he will, no doubt, balm his conscious by providing some mentoring or professional development, but that’s not going to help the first crop of students under the new plan.

Of course, a microeconomic look at Ricardo can poke holes, especially when the human element is put into it–perhaps the workers in his scenario did not find personal satisfaction in making that other product?  And, in our situation, Sally might have been a more pleasant person while Bob got results from being a rageaholic.  From a kid’s perspective, logic often goes out the window.  But economics and data still, for the most part, guide us to the right choice.

If only poetry was so logical.  Wait, it can be.

Let me say for the record that it is unclear to me if the poem below is, indeed, “Knots”. It is from the book Knots. But I don’t have a copy of Laing’s work in front of me, and the internet, for all of its worth, is often full of holes and easy answers when time is short.

Let them follow the logic.  Perhaps only give them each of the three sections at a time.  What is Laing getting at?  Can they even follow the logic?  It will, guarenteed, wake up the math kids sitting in the center-middle and the jailhouse lawyers in the back row.   Then, roll out the next section and compare.

Laing is a therapist who rallied against therapy, of sorts.  That’s a simplification of his life.  Then he wrote the book “Knots” with the temperament of a rebellious scientist.  An interesting post about the book can be found here.  Logical kids will love it so much that they will either embrace it or throw the book across the room–get a second copy.  Those who profess to love moon-spoon-June poetry, not so much.

R.D. Laing

They are playing a game. They are playing at not
playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.

it hurts Jack
to think
that Jill thinks he is hurting her
by (him) being hurt
to think
that she thinks he is hurting her
by making her feel guilty
at hurting him
by (her) thinking
that he is hurting her
by (his) being hurt
to think
that she thinks he is hurting her
by the fact that

da capo sine fine

They play a play. They do not play
on plays of a play. If I show it that I see, they are, I
break the guidelines and they punish me. I
must play their play, from not seeing me see the play.

it hurts Jack,
in order to think
that Jill thinks, it it to be hurt,
through (it) be hurt
to think
it hurt that it thinks, it,
by forming their feeling guiltily
at hurting it
through (it) thinking
that it hurts it
that through (seins) it are hurt
for thinking
that she thinks, it, hurt them
by the fact the

dacapo Sinusgeldstrafe

They play a play. They do not
play on plays of a play. If I show it that I see, they are,
break I the korrekturlinien and they punish me.
I must play their play, from seeing I do not see the play.

it hurts Jack,
in order to think
that Jill thinks, it to be hurt it,
through (it) is hurt,
in order to think
that it that it thinks, hurt it,
by forming guiltily its feeling
at hurting it
by (it) thinking
that it hurts it
that by (seins) it for thinking
that it thinks,
hurt it it
by the fact

dacapo sine fine

Look, there’s only so much grading you can do. And when you assign writing, you might as well resign yourself to a long week of commenting. After such an assignment, I offer up work that is easy and quick to grade.

One such assignment is to find an author interview. Students choose a book or author they really, really like and find an interview with the author. Text, video or audio, the interview has to be focused on the creative process. Nancie Atwell has written about the importance of students identifying themselves as writers, and seeing themselves as peers of their favorite writers. I find this assignment does the trick.

For assessment, I have created a Google Form where they submit their name, author, book/series and the URL of the interview. Next time, I’ll add a check box for content being mature (the interview with the author of “The Kite Runner” is a tad graphic, considering the subject matter). At the due date, I can look at the responses and see who did and who did not. Then, I post the spreadsheet and use it as a resource for a later lesson.

While creating an “exemplar” (a word I try to sneak into every conversation, because it is so edu-speak), I read a series of interviews with Robert Cormier. ‘The Chocolate War’ is one of the first YA books I saw, as an adult, as being real Literature (capital L). I still love it for its honesty and violence and serving a theme and never letting the reader go from it. The ending is still the best YA ending ever (it was tied by ‘The Giver’, but then Lowry ruined it with the sequels. But, I guess, Cormier did the same thing with ‘Beyond the Chocolate War’, so….) In scanning one site, I read his other works and saw ‘The First Death’. I have a vague memory of this being an After School Special that still sticks with me, but that might have been another kids-surviving-in-a-school-bus movie. Then, that same week, I happened to be reading some Atwell (which I do every few months when I feel insecure about my program) and she mentioned reading this Dylan Thomas and connecting it to the book.

All of which leads to the obvious class activity: What is the significance of the title of your book? An old saw, but one I love. So simple. So concrete. Yet, complex and deep. Support with evidence, blah, blah. You can push them beyond the literal (‘Yes, they are selling chocolates, but what does the ‘war’ indicate?’)

You can/could also have them find a new title. Have it come from a poem that matches the theme.

I don’t think this poem comes from this book, but the cover’s great!


Reworking book packaging can have many lessons. Redesign the cover (the one above is great, even if the dog is a poor role model). Rewrite the copy on the back (a lesson in summary writing, details and creating writing that hooks the reader). Even crafting a quote from the book–THE quote from the book–into a bumpersticker.

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London
Dylan Thomas

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | March 31, 2014

206: Paradise Lost: Book II: John Milton

Common Core a bit overwhelming?

One afternoon, I was going to do the hard work of going through my ELA Common Core standards line by line and pulling out the recurring verbs–dull stuff–when I figured that, in this computer age, there must be a better way.  

And it hit me: Wordle.

Like Xerox, a Wordle is a specific site and not a generic noun or verb, so let’s call them “word clouds” because…. we care about words and being exact.  Plus, my chosen word cloud renderer is called ABCya!, as Wordle demanded I download a program that I didn’t have time to install, but you can find half a dozen sites that do the same thing.  Word cloud.

This is a word cloud of the English Language Arts Standards: Reading: Literature: Grade 7:



Of course, that doesn’t tell us much (too many words), but ABCya! lets you adjust it a bit.  It came to this:


ABCya! also allows you to delete specific words, so “eg” and “CCSSELALITERACYYRL73″ can be deleted as they are probably not very important in designing lessons for next year.  But, looking at the word clouds above, you can see the patterns: Analyze, text, story, compare, contrast, determine, etc.  Theme, on the other hand, is less important.  And while “poem” makes the cut, “verse” does not.

It is a quick way to cut through the clutter.  You can drop all of your standards in there (both Reading and Writing, for whatever multiple grades you teach) and see what the big ideas are.  Then, hit those concepts again and again.

This came up in a unit on symbolism.  Besides the fact that I love symbolism, I wanted to have kids break down text so that they could understand how it works.  Since as long as they remember, students have been drilled on how to write, but in middle school they start to wonder how it all actually works.  Nancie Atwell embraces this, inviting experimentation and reflection as a reader and writer, but in this age of NCLB those types of programs are rare.  Why do we write in five paragraphs instead of four?  Six?  Hmmmm….  But important questions to ask if we want kids who can really write.

In this unit we also looked at experimental writing and criticism.  Let me give you a few links before I continue:

It was this last presentation where the issue of textual analysis, formalism and semiotic criticism came up.  It so happened that Slate magazine did a piece on the frequency of certain words, sentences, adjectives and adverbs in popular YA literature.  One of the lists was this:


My Google Presentation for this can be found here.  Looking at the lists above, you can see the clear difference between the “Twilight” series and “Harry Potter”.  My students could see it, too.

Which brings it all back to poetry and text.  If textual criticism can be used on YA novels and the Common Core, why not use it to analyze poetry?  Using Book 2 from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, here is the results of Stanford University’s WordSift:


Not only did it give me a word cloud, but it began graphing the words and offering up visuals that might (or might not) go with it.  I don’t know if the results are useful in a real, critical sense, but they can get kids thinking about hard texts.  More important, it can get them thinking about text in ways other than the traditional lines of a poem.

Below are the first few lines from “Paradise Lost: Book II”, where Milton makes the devil a really interesting character (William Blake’s knock on the poem), but also sets up his doomed fate that plays out through the rest of the poem.  Ask the students about the images they see in this wonderfully over-the-top chapter.  Can they picture it?  Then, throw it through a word cloud.

Paradise Lost: Book II
John Milton

HIGH on a throne of royal state, which far
Outshon the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,
Satan exalted sat, by merit raised 5
To that bad eminence; and, from despair
Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires
Beyond thus high, insatiate to pursue
Vain war with Heaven; and, by success untaught,
His proud imaginations thus displayed:—


Posted by: Tom Triumph | February 27, 2014

205. what your mother tells you now: Mitsuye Yamada

I thought I might find a poem called “Frequently Asked Questions”.  The prompt of “Frequenty Asked Questions (about me)” would, I thought, tie together a lot of insights, both concrete and ethereal, in a poet looking to use a modern phrase to explore their inner self.  But no one has yet produced such a work worthy of notice, according to Google.

Then I typed in “procedure” in hopes of finding a poem that used a process as its backbone.  I know they exist, but they are not so easily found.  Instead, I got back hospitals who offer Peroral Endoscopic Myotomy (POEM) for the treatment of Achalasia.  Because it has to do with the esophagus, I’ll allow the link between the acronym and the procedure it relates to.  Still, not helpful.

Is this, I wonder, the state of poetry?  That the word now is simply an acronym?

This search began because parent conferences just ended.  When I began teaching, my two-person team cycled  through our parents, many of which were together or, if separated, amicably came at the same time to respect the outlay of our time.  Now, being a four person team with over one hundred students, we host a cattle call.  We are available for an eight hour block and parents simply walk in when convenient.  For many students, we have a separate conference for each of their parents.  

And many parents don’t make it in.  

For them, I created a “Frequently Asked Questions” email based on what I was being asked over and over.

When I first began in the field (and I began as a high school teacher), I created a syllabus.  That was the tradition, as taught to me.  It came out the first day, and meant nothing to the students because it was all just theoretical.  Until the first few assignments came back graded, late penalties were handed out, and kids began to wonder what texts were next, the syllabus had no real meaning. 

And they are so unfriendly.  Someone once told me that the syllabus needed to be intimidating in order to set the tone for the year.  We WILL do this.  Your GRADE will be determined like so.  My POLICIES are that.  And so on.

But businesses use the FAQ.  It’s friendly, even if they are snowing you into a huge disappointing rip-off.  I’m not so devious, but I recognize that most parents a) want to do what’s best for their child, b) having the parent on your side really helps the kid succeed (and makes your life easier), and c) most parents come to parent conferences just to gauge you as a person.  So, I created my own FAQ and sent it out via email following the last conference.

Here is a sample:


It was great to see parents at conferences, but I know a number of parents could not make it for a variety of reasons.  As I sat listening to and answering questions, I found myself repeating certain things.  For those who could not speak to me in person, I thought it might be helpful to offer a post-conference “Frequently Asked Questions” email.
What is homework, typically?
I assign homework on Monday and collect it the following Monday.  It is called the Packet of Fun, which can be ironic at times.  Students have one week.
We all live busy lives and this allows students to work around obligations to family, school and activities.  But, they need to plan–they will need this skill come CVU (and life).  If they struggle with planning, this assignment provides a safe way to develop the skill (see late penalties below).  I recommend they do their homework for me on Monday, if they can, and be done.  Assignments done Sunday night tend to be rushed, and not their best work.
In addition, students are to read their own independent reading book each night for at least twenty minutes.  My rule-of-thumb is a new book every two weeks.
Where is work passed in?
Any work due for me is placed by the student in a picnic basket next to my desk.  I never take it myself because I don’t want to misplace it.  From the basket it goes into my bag, is taken out only to be corrected in a single spot, and put directly back in the bag.  I keep the loop tight so nothing is lost.  The first step, though, is a student placing it in the basket.
How does my child earn a B, or an A?
The grade of B indicates a student shows proficiency on that assignment: They understand the content and can do the skill.  The B is about the student repeating what has been taught.  
To earn an A, the student needs to shift focus to the reader–the student needs to have something to say, and then focus on the needs of the reader so that the reader leaves the assignment having gained something.  The skills serve the ideas, and the ideas need to have insight.  It is a high bar.
How is my student doing?
Hopefully, you are checking JupiterGrades from time to time.  It can be set up so that you receive a grade report weekly–I recommend Friday afternoon (the default) as most grades are entered by the….
See?  Now you know the beginning of how my class works–and a little about me, too!
If you are sick of “I am…” poems (your students are, except the ones who don’t really like a challenge), try to work on some sort of “FYI About Me” assignment.
Lacking a decent FAQ poem, it is instructive to look at a poem about advice.  This is from a collection by Mitsuye Yamada written shortly after her internment during World War II.  
This poem was reprinted in the collection “Poetry Speaks: Who I Am”.  I do not have it (yet), but the reviews are quite positive.  From the comments on Amazon, its contents clearly touched a number of people.
Perhaps, if reworked for today, Ms. Yamada’s follow-up might be “FAQ From My Mother.”  That, too, might serve as a good prompt.  Imagine the amount of empathy required (and research) to answer questions as another person–a parent, a friend or even an unknown peer.  And it allows the student to direct the advice to, really, those questions they want to ask most frequently.
Not to show my ignorance, but I am assuming that the first lines are phonetic translated Japanese.  Also know that the formatting of the English text is unclear in my sources (it varies).

what your mother tells you now
Mitsuye Yamada

haha ga ima yu-koto
sono uchi ni
wakatte kuru

What your mother tells you
in time
you will come to know.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | January 18, 2014

204. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note: Amiri Baracka

I know, another suicide poem. But this poignant and ends with hope.

I write this a week after Amiri Baracka died. His death made me think about his post 9/11 poem, “somebody blew up america”. It’s quite the polemic. A study in anger–a dream denied (as Langston Hughes observed) just explodes, and Baracka is plenty explosive in this poem. Worth a read. Poet Laureate of New Jersey, at the time. He wasn’t fired for the piece–they just abolished the position while he had it.

He’s an interesting cat, who the Poetry Foundation lists as being “free verse.” Okay. You can read their piece on him here. My question is: Are our most important artists anti-social? Looking at Baraka’s biography, why would someone make him Poet Laureate and expect him NOT to write something that would create controversy? Stir the pot.

And there is room for stirring the pot.

Some do it as Amiri Baraka did. Larkin liked to swear to get attention and make their point. Others, quiet like Emily Dickinson.

Have students look at themselves. Who, in the class, stirs the pot? To what end? Do they serve a positive purpose in the class–a reality check or truth teller? Or are they just vandals and foul mouth punks? What is the profile of the model student? Citizen? Who moves the class forward? Profiles.

Looking at this poem, ask them how they are weird? I have a student who thinks she’s weird because she likes watching the Discovery Channel. Today, I stumbled across a student at a wrestling meet–I hadn’t known he was a wrestler. Last week another revealed he was a fencer. A third let it be known she was into making people up as monsters for horror films.

How do they look at the world? Are they so different?

Looking at the speaker of this poem–someone who is depressed–how does Baraka make their outlier way of seeing the world accessible to the reader? Let’s assume the reader is “normal”. How does he bridge that gap?

Looking at their own oddity, how do they bridge the gap to classroom normalcy? Humor? Secrets? Acceptance? Perhaps their lives are poetry. How does that work? Discuss.

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
Amiri Baraka

Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus…

Things have come to that.

And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter’s room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there…
Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands

Posted by: Tom Triumph | January 12, 2014

203. Richard Cory: Edwin Arlington Robinson

The last post–Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”–was a bit long and deep and could be considered a downer.  Suicide.

This  is about a suicide, too.   Not as much of a downer.  Perhaps it’s Aristotle’s often quoted “comedy = tragedy + time”.  Not that Robinson is funny, but Cory’s death isn’t as tragic as the narrator in Carson’s poem.

“Richard Cory” is a staple of the American Literature textbooks.  For some reason, in eleventh grade, I took a shine to the poem.  This poem was the one I analyzed for one of the three required papers we wrote–I even made a graphic novel of the story for extra credit.  I think it might be because  nobody seemed to champion Robinson.  He was a stop in the chronological march through the text, obligatorily tossed into the Realists.  This is the only poem they gave us.

I hadn’t come into contact with “Richard Cory” again until I took an Introduction to Poetry class in graduate school (I was making up for not having taken any English classes as an undergraduate–one of three “older” people among the nineteen year-olds.)  Our professor, Del Janik, used to the appropriately titled “Introduction of Poetry” by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia.  The class was transformative, showing poetry to not be a quirky writing style but an intentional manipulation of language leading the reader towards art.  Professor Janik helped.  But Kennedy and Gioia broke poetry down element by element, chapter by chapter, and built it back up.  By the end of the course, I realized that I would never be a poet because, darn it, it’s hard work.

Let me take a moment to recommend X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia’s “Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama and Writing”.  The section on poetry is really the “Introduction to Poetry” book.  Like poetry, Kennedy and Gioia do the same break-down with fiction and drama.  It is full of great stories, poems and plays.  A nice variety, both classic and modern.  The editors have a great sense of humor and understand the Literature is not all weight, but can be fun.  My favorite aspect of the text is that, in the back, they index the Literature by themes.  When I’m teaching a certain theme, I flip to the back and find several great pieces.  It’s a hefty, textbook price, but worth it.

And, he included not only Robinson’s “Richard Cory”, but compared it to Simon & Garfunkel’s version.  Here is them singing it live, 1966

I offer the lyrics below Robinson’s original.  Note the similar perspective, but with slightly different emphasis. Robinson wrote during the Progressive Era, and this is certainly a product of those times. Still, ask students which is the better poem? Which do THEY relate to?

You can also get into a whole “are songs poetry” discussions, but….

It might also serve as a springboard into historical criticism. Does it being historically significant (Progressive Era, 1960′s) matter? Why, or why not? Taking away the historical significance, which is the better piece? Neither? Does time pass it by?

And, you could touch on the suicide/death thing. Is this tragic? Really? How so? Or, looking at that Aristotle idea of time, does this no longer sting?

Richard Cory
Edwin Arlington Robinson

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Richard Cory
Simon & Garfunkel

They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town,
With political connections to spread his wealth around.
Born into society, a banker’s only child,
He had everything a man could want: power, grace, and style.But I, I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes:
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show.
And the rumor of his parties and the orgies on his yacht!
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he’s got.

But I, I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch,
And they were grateful for his patronage and they thanked him very much,
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
“Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head.”

But I, I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | January 8, 2014

202. The Glass Essay: Anne Carson

Okay, this is a really long poem.

Okay, this poem is very mature and serious.  Not with language, but with ideas and suicide and death.  Not for kids, perhaps, but….

In the previous post, I wrote about how publishers use different covers to attract different markets.  What brought me there was Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” and an interesting post about the 50th Anniversary Edition.

For older, mature YA readers “The Bell Jar” is a great book.  Several of my 8th grade girls have responded positively, and it is much better written than other youth-with-problem titles.  Still, mature (overall, the protagonist sinks into depression and tries to commit suicide.  She’s goes into an institution, and even receives electroshock treatment.   There is also smoking, alcohol and a disastrous loss of virginity.  So, mature.  But, no worse than Ellen Hopkins).  But when I spoke with my students, they said they liked Plath because of the strong female protagonist.  Suicide did not interest them, but her maturity and strength did.  It was in looking for more such women that I came across the blog about the covers, and the trends in books with strong female  protagonists.  It went into the reselling of “Wuthering Heights” and its connection to the “Twilight” series (“Bella and Edward’s favorite book!” the jacket copy exclaims).

From which, I  found Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” as a line from it was mentioned in the comments’ section.

I’m not going to go into all of the ways you can teach this.  One is how to read a long poem.  Two is how Literature gives us context in our lives.  Three is how suffocating our homes can be, and the adults in our lives.  Four is how things like eating toast can be signals writers use to express personality.  Five is emotions, depression and the like.  Want to talk about mental illness: Go!  You can pick a few lines, a bit of stanzas or whatever you need.  So much here.

The Glass Essay
Anne Carson


I can hear little clicks inside my dream.
Night drips its silver tap
down the back.
At 4 A.M. I wake. Thinking

of the man who
left in September.
His name was Law.

My face in the bathroom mirror
has white streaks down it.
I rinse the face and return to bed.
Tomorrow I am going to visit my mother.

She lives on a moor in the north.
She lives alone.
Spring opens like a blade there.
I travel all day on trains and bring a lot of books—

some for my mother, some for me
including The Collected Works Of Emily Brontë.
This is my favourite author.

Also my main fear, which I mean to confront.
Whenever I visit my mother
I feel I am turning into Emily Brontë,

my lonely life around me like a moor,
my ungainly body stumping over the mud flats with a look of transformation
that dies when I come in the kitchen door.
What meat is it, Emily, we need?


Three silent women at the kitchen table.
My mother’s kitchen is dark and small but out the window
there is the moor, paralyzed with ice.
It extends as far as the eye can see

over flat miles to a solid unlit white sky.
Mother and I are chewing lettuce carefully.
The kitchen wall clock emits a ragged low buzz that jumps

once a minute over the twelve.
I have Emily p. 216 propped open on the sugarbowl
but am covertly watching my mother.

A thousand questions hit my eyes from the inside.
My mother is studying her lettuce.
I turn to p. 217.

“In my flight through the kitchen I knocked over Hareton
who was hanging a litter of puppies
from a chairback in the doorway. . . .”

It is as if we have all been lowered into an atmosphere of glass.
Now and then a remark trails through the glass.
Taxes on the back lot. Not a good melon,

too early for melons.
Hairdresser in town found God, closes shop every Tuesday.
Mice in the teatowel drawer again.
Little pellets. Chew off

the corners of the napkins, if they knew
what paper napkins cost nowadays.
Rain tonight.

Rain tomorrow.
That volcano in the Philippines at it again. What’s her name
Anderson died no not Shirley

the opera singer. Negress.
Not eating your garnish, you don’t like pimento?

Out the window I can see dead leaves ticking over the flatland
and dregs of snow scarred by pine filth.
At the middle of the moor

where the ground goes down into a depression,
the ice has begun to unclench.
Black open water comes

curdling up like anger. My mother speaks suddenly.
That psychotherapy’s not doing you much good is it?
You aren’t getting over him.

My mother has a way of summing things up.
She never liked Law much
but she liked the idea of me having a man and getting on with life.

Well he’s a taker and you’re a giver I hope it works out,
was all she said after she met him.
Give and take were just words to me

at the time. I had not been in love before.
It was like a wheel rolling downhill.
But early this morning while mother slept

and I was downstairs reading the part in Wuthering Heights
where Heathcliff clings at the lattice in the storm sobbing
Come in! Come in! to the ghost of his heart’s darling,

I fell on my knees on the rug and sobbed too.
She knows how to hang puppies,
that Emily.

It isn’t like taking an aspirin you know, I answer feebly.
Dr. Haw says grief is a long process.
She frowns. What does it accomplish

all that raking up the past?
Oh—I spread my hands—
I prevail! I look her in the eye.
She grins. Yes you do.

Emily’s habitual spelling of this word,
has caused confusion.
For example

in the first line of the poem printed Tell me, whether, is it winter?
in the Shakespeare Head edition.
But whacher is what she wrote.

Whacher is what she was.
She whached God and humans and moor wind and open night.
She whached eyes, stars, inside, outside, actual weather.

She whached the bars of time, which broke.
She whached the poor core of the world,
wide open.

To be a whacher is not a choice.
There is nowhere to get away from it,
no ledge to climb up to—like a swimmer

who walks out of the water at sunset
shaking the drops off, it just flies open.
To be a whacher is not in itself sad or happy,

although she uses these words in her verse
as she uses the emotions of sexual union in her novel,
grazing with euphemism the work of whaching.

But it has no name.
It is transparent.
Sometimes she calls it Thou.

“Emily is in the parlour brushing the carpet,”
records Charlotte in 1828.
Unsociable even at home

and unable to meet the eyes of strangers when she ventured out,
Emily made her awkward way
across days and years whose bareness appalls her biographers.

This sad stunted life, says one.
Uninteresting, unremarkable, wracked by disappointment
and despair, says another.

She could have been a great navigator if she’d been male,
suggests a third. Meanwhile
Emily continued to brush into the carpet the question,

Why cast the world away.
For someone hooked up to Thou,
the world may have seemed a kind of half-finished sentence.

But in between the neighbour who recalls her
coming in from a walk on the moors
with her face “lit up by a divine light”

and the sister who tells us
Emily never made a friend in her life,
is a space where the little raw soul

slips through.
It goes skimming the deep keel like a storm petrel,
out of sight.

The little raw soul was caught by no one.
She didn’t have friends, children, sex, religion, marriage, success, a salary
or a fear of death. She worked

in total six months of her life (at a school in Halifax)
and died on the sofa at home at 2 P.M. on a winter afternoon
in her thirty-first year. She spent

most of the hours of her life brushing the carpet,
walking the moor
or whaching. She says

it gave her peace.
“All tight and right in which condition it is to be hoped we shall all be this
day 4 years,”
she wrote in her Diary Paper of 1837.

Yet her poetry from beginning to end is concerned with prisons,
vaults, cages, bars, curbs, bits, bolts, fetters,
locked windows, narrow frames, aching walls.

“Why all the fuss?” asks one critic.
“She wanted liberty. Well didn’t she have it?
A reasonably satisfactory homelife,

a most satisfactory dreamlife—why all this beating of wings?
What was this cage, invisible to us,
which she felt herself to be confined in?”

Well there are many ways of being held prisoner,
I am thinking as I stride over the moor.
As a rule after lunch mother has a nap

and I go out to walk.
The bare blue trees and bleached wooden sky of April
carve into me with knives of light.

Something inside it reminds me of childhood—
it is the light of the stalled time after lunch
when clocks tick

and hearts shut
and fathers leave to go back to work
and mothers stand at the kitchen sink pondering

something they never tell.
You remember too much,
my mother said to me recently.

Why hold onto all that? And I said,
Where can I put it down?
She shifted to a question about airports.

Crops of ice are changing to mud all around me
as I push on across the moor
warmed by drifts from the pale blue sun.

On the edge of the moor our pines
dip and coast in breezes
from somewhere else.

Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is
to watch the year repeat its days.
It is as if I could dip my hand down

into time and scoop up
blue and green lozenges of April heat
a year ago in another country.

I can feel that other day running underneath this one
like an old videotape—here we go fast around the last corner
up the hill to his house, shadows

of limes and roses blowing in the car window
and music spraying from the radio and him
singing and touching my left hand to his lips.

Law lived in a high blue room from which he could see the sea.
Time in its transparent loops as it passes beneath me now
still carries the sound of the telephone in that room

and traffic far off and doves under the window
chuckling coolly and his voice saying,
You beauty. I can feel that beauty’s

heart beating inside mine as she presses into his arms in the high blue room—
No, I say aloud. I force my arms down
through air which is suddenly cold and heavy as water

and the videotape jerks to a halt
like a glass slide under a drop of blood.
I stop and turn and stand into the wind,

which now plunges towards me over the moor.
When Law left I felt so bad I thought I would die.
This is not uncommon.

I took up the practice of meditation.
Each morning I sat on the floor in front of my sofa
and chanted bits of old Latin prayers.

De profundis clamavi ad te Domine.
Each morning a vision came to me.
Gradually I understood that these were naked glimpses of my soul.

I called them Nudes.
Nude #1. Woman alone on a hill.
She stands into the wind.

It is a hard wind slanting from the north.
Long flaps and shreds of flesh rip off the woman’s body and lift
and blow away on the wind, leaving

an exposed column of nerve and blood and muscle
calling mutely through lipless mouth.
It pains me to record this,

I am not a melodramatic person.
But soul is “hewn in a wild workshop”
as Charlotte Brontë says of Wuthering Heights.

Charlotte’s preface to Wuthering Heights is a publicist’s masterpiece.
Like someone carefully not looking at a scorpion
crouched on the arm of the sofa Charlotte

talks firmly and calmly
about the other furniture of Emily’s workshop—about
the inexorable spirit (“stronger than a man, simpler than a child”),

the cruel illness (“pain no words can render”),
the autonomous end (“she sank rapidly, she made haste to leave us”)
and about Emily’s total subjection

to a creative project she could neither understand nor control,
and for which she deserves no more praise nor blame
than if she had opened her mouth

“to breathe lightning.” The scorpion is inching down
the arm of the sofa while Charlotte
continues to speak helpfully about lightning

and other weather we may expect to experience
when we enter Emily’s electrical atmosphere.
It is “a horror of great darkness” that awaits us there

but Emily is not responsible. Emily was in the grip.
“Having formed these beings she did not know what she had done,”
says Charlotte (of Heathcliff and Earnshaw and Catherine).

Well there are many ways of being held prisoner.
The scorpion takes a light spring and lands on our left knee
as Charlotte concludes, “On herself she had no pity.”

Pitiless too are the Heights, which Emily called Wuthering
because of their “bracing ventilation”
and “a north wind over the edge.”

Whaching a north wind grind the moor
that surrounded her father’s house on every side,
formed of a kind of rock called millstone grit,

taught Emily all she knew about love and its necessities—
an angry education that shapes the way her characters
use one another. “My love for Heathcliff,” says Catherine,

“resembles the eternal rocks beneath
a source of little visible delight, but necessary.”
Necessary? I notice the sun has dimmed

and the afternoon air sharpening.
I turn and start to recross the moor towards home.
What are the imperatives

that hold people like Catherine and Heathcliff
together and apart, like pores blown into hot rock
and then stranded out of reach

of one another when it hardens? What kind of necessity is that?
The last time I saw Law was a black night in September.
Autumn had begun,

my knees were cold inside my clothes.
A chill fragment of moon rose.
He stood in my living room and spoke

without looking at me. Not enough spin on it,
he said of our five years of love.
Inside my chest I felt my heart snap into two pieces

which floated apart. By now I was so cold
it was like burning. I put out my hand
to touch his. He moved back.

I don’t want to be sexual with you, he said. Everything gets crazy.
But now he was looking at me.
Yes, I said as I began to remove my clothes.

Everything gets crazy. When nude
I turned my back because he likes the back.
He moved onto me.

Everything I know about love and its necessities
I learned in that one moment
when I found myself

thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon
at a man who no longer cherished me.
There was no area of my mind

not appalled by this action, no part of my body
that could have done otherwise.
But to talk of mind and body begs the question.

Soul is the place,
stretched like a surface of millstone grit between body and mind,
where such necessity grinds itself out.

Soul is what I kept watch on all that night.
Law stayed with me.
We lay on top of the covers as if it weren’t really a night of sleep and time,

caressing and singing to one another in our made-up language
like the children we used to be.
That was a night that centred Heaven and Hell,

as Emily would say. We tried to fuck
but he remained limp, although happy. I came
again and again, each time accumulating lucidity,

until at last I was floating high up near the ceiling looking down
on the two souls clasped there on the bed
with their mortal boundaries

visible around them like lines on a map.
I saw the lines harden.
He left in the morning.

It is very cold
walking into the long scraped April wind.
At this time of year there is no sunset
just some movements inside the light and then a sinking away.

Kitchen is quiet as a bone when I come in.
No sound from the rest of the house.
I wait a moment
then open the fridge.

Brilliant as a spaceship it exhales cold confusion.
My mother lives alone and eats little but her fridge is always crammed.
After extracting the yogurt container

from beneath a wily arrangement of leftover blocks of Christmas cake
wrapped in foil and prescription medicine bottles
I close the fridge door. Bluish dusk

fills the room like a sea slid back.
I lean against the sink.
White foods taste best to me

and I prefer to eat alone. I don’t know why.
Once I heard girls singing a May Day song that went:

Violante in the pantry
Gnawing at a mutton bone
How she gnawed it
How she clawed it
When she felt herself alone.

Girls are cruelest to themselves.
Someone like Emily Brontë,
who remained a girl all her life despite her body as a woman,

had cruelty drifted up in all the cracks of her like spring snow.
We can see her ridding herself of it at various times
with a gesture like she used to brush the carpet.

Reason with him and then whip him!
was her instruction (age six) to her father
regarding brother Branwell.

And when she was 14 and bitten by a rabid dog she strode (they say)
into the kitchen and taking red hot tongs from the back of the stove applied
them directly to her arm.

Cauterization of Heathcliff took longer.
More than thirty years in the time of the novel,
from the April evening when he runs out the back door of the kitchen
and vanishes over the moor

because he overheard half a sentence of Catherine’s
(“It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff”)
until the wild morning

when the servant finds him stark dead and grinning
on his rainsoaked bed upstairs in Wuthering Heights.
Heathcliff is a pain devil.

If he had stayed in the kitchen
long enough to hear the other half of Catherine’s sentence
(“so he will never know how I love him”)

Heathcliff would have been set free.
But Emily knew how to catch a devil.
She put into him in place of a soul

the constant cold departure of Catherine from his nervous system
every time he drew a breath or moved thought.
She broke all his moments in half,

with the kitchen door standing open.
I am not unfamiliar with this half-life.
But there is more to it than that.

Heathcliff’s sexual despair
arose out of no such experience in the life of Emily Brontë,
so far as we know. Her question,

which concerns the years of inner cruelty that can twist a person into a pain
came to her in a kindly firelit kitchen
(“kichin” in Emily’s spelling) where she

and Charlotte and Anne peeled potatoes together
and made up stories with the old house dog Keeper at their feet.
There is a fragment

of a poem she wrote in 1839
(about six years before Wuthering Heights) that says:

That iron man was born like me
And he was once an ardent boy:
He must have felt in infancy
The glory of a summer sky.

Who is the iron man?
My mother’s voice cuts across me,
from the next room where she is lying on the sofa.

Is that you dear?
Yes Ma.
Why don’t you turn on a light in there?

Out the kitchen window I watch the steely April sun
jab its last cold yellow streaks
across a dirty silver sky.
Okay Ma. What’s for supper?

Liberty means different things to different people.
I have never liked lying in bed in the morning.
Law did.
My mother does.

But as soon as the morning light hits my eyes I want to be out in it—
moving along the moor
into the first blue currents and cold navigation of everything awake.

I hear my mother in the next room turn and sigh and sink deeper.
I peel the stale cage of sheets off my legs
and I am free.

Out on the moor all is brilliant and hard after a night of frost.
The light plunges straight up from the ice to a blue hole at the top of the sky.
Frozen mud crunches underfoot. The sound

startles me back into the dream I was having
this morning when I awoke,
one of those nightlong sweet dreams of lying in Law’s

arms like a needle in water—it is a physical effort
to pull myself out of his white silk hands
as they slide down my dream hips—I

turn and face into the wind
and begin to run.
Goblins, devils and death stream behind me.

In the days and months after Law left
I felt as if the sky was torn off my life.
I had no home in goodness anymore.

To see the love between Law and me
turn into two animals gnawing and craving through one another
towards some other hunger was terrible.

Perhaps this is what people mean by original sin, I thought.
But what love could be prior to it?
What is prior?

What is love?
My questions were not original.
Nor did I answer them.

Mornings when I meditated
I was presented with a nude glimpse of my lone soul,
not the complex mysteries of love and hate.

But the Nudes are still as clear in my mind
as pieces of laundry that froze on the clothesline overnight.
There were in all thirteen of them.

Nude #2. Woman caught in a cage of thorns.
Big glistening brown thorns with black stains on them
where she twists this way and that way

unable to stand upright.
Nude #3. Woman with a single great thorn implanted in her forehead.
She grips it in both hands

endeavouring to wrench it out.
Nude #4. Woman on a blasted landscape
backlit in red like Hieronymus Bosch.

Covering her head and upper body is a hellish contraption
like the top half of a crab.
With arms crossed as if pulling off a sweater

she works hard at dislodging the crab.
It was about this time
I began telling Dr. Haw

about the Nudes. She said,
When you see these horrible images why do you stay with them?
Why keep watching? Why not

go away? I was amazed.
Go away where? I said.
This still seems to me a good question.

But by now the day is wide open and a strange young April light
is filling the moor with gold milk.
I have reached the middle

where the ground goes down into a depression and fills with swampy water.
It is frozen.
A solid black pane of moor life caught in its own night attitudes.

Certain wild gold arrangements of weed are visible deep in the black.
Four naked alder trunks rise straight up from it
and sway in the blue air. Each trunk

where it enters the ice radiates a map of silver pressures—
thousands of hair-thin cracks catching the white of the light
like a jailed face

catching grins through the bars.
Emily Brontë has a poem about a woman in jail who says

A messenger of Hope, comes every night to me
And offers, for short life, eternal Liberty.

I wonder what kind of Liberty this is.
Her critics and commentators say she means death
or a visionary experience that prefigures death.

They understand her prison
as the limitations placed on a clergyman’s daughter
by nineteenth-century life in a remote parish on a cold moor

in the north of England.
They grow impatient with the extreme terms in which she figures prison life.
“In so much of Brontë’s work

the self-dramatising and posturing of these poems teeters
on the brink of a potentially bathetic melodrama,”
says one. Another

refers to “the cardboard sublime” of her caught world.
I stopped telling my psychotherapist about the Nudes
when I realized I had no way to answer her question,

Why keep watching?
Some people watch, that’s all I can say.
There is nowhere else to go,

no ledge to climb up to.
Perhaps I can explain this to her if I wait for the right moment,
as with a very difficult sister.

“On that mind time and experience alone could work:
to the influence of other intellects it was not amenable,”
wrote Charlotte of Emily.

I wonder what kind of conversation these two had
over breakfast at the parsonage.
“My sister Emily

was not a person of demonstrative character,” Charlotte emphasizes,
“nor one on the recesses of whose mind and feelings,
even those nearest and dearest to her could,

with impunity, intrude unlicensed. . . .” Recesses were many.
One autumn day in 1845 Charlotte
“accidentally lighted on a MS. volume of verse in my sister Emily’s

It was a small (4 x 6) notebook
with a dark red cover marked 6d.
and contained 44 poems in Emily’s minute hand.

Charlotte had known Emily wrote verse
but felt “more than surprise” at its quality.
“Not at all like the poetry women generally write.”

Further surprise awaited Charlotte when she read Emily’s novel,
not least for its foul language.
She gently probes this recess

in her Editor’s Preface to Wuthering Heights.
“A large class of readers, likewise, will suffer greatly
from the introduction into the pages of this work

of words printed with all their letters,
which it has become the custom to represent by the initial and final letter
only—a blank
line filling the interval.”

Well, there are different definitions of Liberty.
Love is freedom, Law was fond of saying.
I took this to be more a wish than a thought

and changed the subject.
But blank lines do not say nothing.
As Charlotte puts it,

“The practice of hinting by single letters those expletives
with which profane and violent persons are wont to garnish their discourse,
strikes me as a proceeding which,

however well meant, is weak and futile.
I cannot tell what good it does—what feeling it spares—
what horror it conceals.”

I turn my steps and begin walking back over the moor
towards home and breakfast. It is a two-way traffic,

the language of the unsaid. My favourite pages
of The Collected Works Of Emily Brontë
are the notes at the back

recording small adjustments made by Charlotte
to the text of Emily’s verse,
which Charlotte edited for publication after Emily’s death.
“Prison for strongest [in Emily’s hand] altered to lordly by Charlotte.”

I can tell by the way my mother chews her toast
whether she had a good night
and is about to say a happy thing
or not.

She puts her toast down on the side of her plate.
You know you can pull the drapes in that room, she begins.
This is a coded reference to one of our oldest arguments,
from what I call The Rules Of Life series.
My mother always closes her bedroom drapes tight before going to bed at night.

I open mine as wide as possible.
I like to see everything, I say.
What’s there to see?

Moon. Air. Sunrise.
All that light on your face in the morning. Wakes you up.
I like to wake up.

At this point the drapes argument has reached a delta
and may advance along one of three channels.
There is the What You Need Is A Good Night’s Sleep channel,

the Stubborn As Your Father channel
and random channel.
More toast? I interpose strongly, pushing back my chair.

Those women! says my mother with an exasperated rasp.
Mother has chosen random channel.

Complaining about rape all the time
I see she is tapping one furious finger on yesterday’s newspaper
lying beside the grape jam.

The front page has a small feature
about a rally for International Women’s Day—
have you had a look at the Sears Summer Catalogue?

Why, it’s a disgrace! Those bathing suits—
cut way up to here! (she points) No wonder!

You’re saying women deserve to get raped
because Sears bathing suit ads
have high-cut legs? Ma, are you serious?

Well someone has to be responsible.
Why should women be responsible for male desire? My voice is high.
Oh I see you’re one of Them.

One of Whom? My voice is very high. Mother vaults it.
And whatever did you do with that little tank suit you had last year the green
It looked so smart on you.

The frail fact drops on me from a great height
that my mother is afraid.
She will be eighty years old this summer.

Her tiny sharp shoulders hunched in the blue bathrobe
make me think of Emily Brontë’s little merlin hawk Hero
that she fed bits of bacon at the kitchen table when Charlotte wasn‘t around.

So Ma, we’ll go—I pop up the toaster
and toss a hot slice of pumpernickel lightly across onto her plate—
visit Dad today? She eyes the kitchen clock with hostility.

Leave at eleven, home again by four? I continue.
She is buttering her toast with jagged strokes.
Silence is assent in our code. I go into the next room to phone the taxi.

My father lives in a hospital for patients who need chronic care
about 50 miles from here.
He suffers from a kind of dementia

characterized by two sorts of pathological change
first recorded in 1907 by Alois Alzheimer.
First, the presence in cerebral tissue

of a spherical formation known as neuritic plaque,
consisting mainly of degenerating brain cells.
Second, neurofibrillary snarlings

in the cerebral cortex and in the hippocampus.
There is no known cause or cure.
Mother visits him by taxi once a week

for the last five years.
Marriage is for better or for worse, she says,
this is the worse.

So about an hour later we are in the taxi
shooting along empty country roads towards town.
The April light is clear as an alarm.

As we pass them it gives a sudden sense of every object
existing in space on its own shadow.
I wish I could carry this clarity with me

into the hospital where distinctions tend to flatten and coalesce.
I wish I had been nicer to him before he got crazy.
These are my two wishes.

It is hard to find the beginning of dementia.
I remember a night about ten years ago
when I was talking to him on the telephone.

It was a Sunday night in winter.
I heard his sentences filling up with fear.
He would start a sentence—about weather, lose his way, start another.
It made me furious to hear him floundering—

my tall proud father, former World War II navigator!
It made me merciless.
I stood on the edge of the conversation,

watching him thrash about for cues,
offering none,
and it came to me like a slow avalanche

that he had no idea who he was talking to.
Much colder today I guess. . . .
his voice pressed into the silence and broke off,

snow falling on it.
There was a long pause while snow covered us both.
Well I won’t keep you,

he said with sudden desperate cheer as if sighting land.
I’ll say goodnight now,
I won’t run up your bill. Goodbye.

Goodbye. Who are you?
I said into the dial tone.

At the hospital we pass down long pink halls
through a door with a big window
and a combination lock (5—25—3)

to the west wing, for chronic care patients.
Each wing has a name.
The chronic wing is Our Golden Mile

although mother prefers to call it The Last Lap.
Father sits strapped in a chair which is tied to the wall
in a room of other tied people tilting at various angles.

My father tilts least, I am proud of him.
Hi Dad how y’doing?
His face cracks open it could be a grin or rage

and looking past me he issues a stream of vehemence at the air.
My mother lays her hand on his.
Hello love, she says. He jerks his hand away. We sit.

Sunlight flocks through the room.
Mother begins to unpack from her handbag the things she has brought for him,
grapes, arrowroot biscuits, humbugs.

He is addressing strenuous remarks to someone in the air between us.
He uses a language known only to himself,
made of snarls and syllables and sudden wild appeals.

Once in a while some old formula floats up through the wash—
You don’t say! or Happy birthday to you!—
but no real sentence

for more than three years now.
I notice his front teeth are getting black.
I wonder how you clean the teeth of mad people.

He always took good care of his teeth. My mother looks up.
She and I often think two halves of one thought.
Do you remember that gold-plated toothpick

you sent him from Harrod’s the summer you were in London? she asks.
Yes I wonder what happened to it.
Must be in the bathroom somewhere.

She is giving him grapes one by one.
They keep rolling out of his huge stiff fingers.
He used to be a big man, over six feet tall and strong,

but since he came to hospital his body has shrunk to the merest bone house—
except the hands. The hands keep growing.
Each one now as big as a boot in Van Gogh,

they go lumbering after the grapes in his lap.
But now he turns to me with a rush of urgent syllables
that break off on a high note—he waits,

staring into my face. That quizzical look.
One eyebrow at an angle.
I have a photograph taped to my fridge at home.

It shows his World War II air crew posing in front of the plane.
Hands firmly behind backs, legs wide apart,
chins forward.

Dressed in the puffed flying suits
with a wide leather strap pulled tight through the crotch.
They squint into the brilliant winter sun of 1942.

It is dawn.
They are leaving Dover for France.
My father on the far left is the tallest airman,

with his collar up,
one eyebrow at an angle.
The shadowless light makes him look immortal,

for all the world like someone who will not weep again.
He is still staring into my face.
Flaps down! I cry.
His black grin flares once and goes out like a match.

Hot blue moonlight down the steep sky.
I wake too fast from a cellar of hanged puppies
with my eyes pouring into the dark.

and slowly
consciousness replaces the bars.
Dreamtails and angry liquids

swim back down to the middle of me.
I t is generally anger dreams that occupy my nights now.
This is not uncommon after loss of love—

blue and black and red blasting the crater open.
I am interested in anger.
I clamber along to find the source.

My dream was of an old woman lying awake in bed.
She controls the house by a system of light bulbs strung above her on wires.
Each wire has a little black switch.

One by one the switches refuse to turn the bulbs on.
She keeps switching and switching
in rising tides of very hot anger.

Then she creeps out of bed to peer through lattices
at the rooms of the rest of the house.
The rooms are silent and brilliantly lit

and full of huge furniture beneath which crouch
small creatures—not quite cats not quite rats
licking their narrow red jaws

under a load of time.
I want to be beautiful again, she whispers
but the great overlit rooms tick emptily

as a deserted oceanliner and now behind her in the dark
a rustling sound, comes—
My pajamas are soaked.

Anger travels through me, pushes aside everything else in my heart,
pouring up the vents.
Every night I wake to this anger,

the soaked bed,
the hot pain box slamming me each way I move.
I want justice. Slam.

I want an explanation. Slam.
I want to curse the false friend who said I love you forever. Slam.
I reach up and switch on the bedside lamp. Night springs

out the window and is gone over the moor.
I lie listening to the light vibrate in my ears
and thinking about curses.

Emily Brontë was good at cursing.
Falsity and bad love and the deadly pain of alteration are constant topics in
her verse.

Well, thou halt paid me back my love!
But if there be a God above
Whose arm is strong, whose word is true,
This hell shall wring thy spirit too!

The curses are elaborate:

There go, Deceiver, go! My hand is streaming wet;
My heart’s blood flows to buy the blessing—To forget!
Oh could that lost heart give back, back again to thine,
One tenth part of the pain that clouds my dark decline!

But they do not bring her peace:

Vain words, vain frenzied thoughts! No ear can hear me call—
Lost in the vacant air my frantic curses fall. . . .

Unconquered in my soul the Tyrant rules me still—
Life bows to my control, but Love I cannot kill!

Her anger is a puzzle.
It raises many questions in me,
to see love treated with such cold and knowing contempt

by someone who rarely left home
“except to go to church or take a walk on the hills”
(Charlotte tells us) and who

had no more intercourse with Haworth folk
than “a nun has
of the country people who sometimes pass her convent gates.”

How did Emily come to lose faith in humans?
She admired their dialects, studied their genealogies,
“but with them she rarely exchanged a word.”

Her introvert nature shrank from shaking hands with someone she met on the moor.
What did Emily know of lover’s lies or cursive human faith?
Among her biographers

is one who conjectures she bore or aborted a child
during her six-month stay in Halifax,
but there is no evidence at all for such an event

and the more general consensus is that Emily did not touch a man in her 31
Banal sexism aside,
I find myself tempted

to read Wuthering Heights as one thick stacked act of revenge
for all that life withheld from Emily.
But the poetry shows traces of a deeper explanation.

As if anger could be a kind of vocation for some women.
It is a chilly thought.

The heart is dead since infancy.
Unwept for let the body go.

Suddenly cold I reach down and pull the blanket back up to my chin.
The vocation of anger is not mine.
I know my source.

It is stunning, it is a moment like no other,
when one’s lover comes in and says I do not love you anymore.
I switch off the lamp and lie on my back,

thinking about Emily’s cold young soul.
Where does unbelief begin?
When I was young

there were degrees of certainty.
I could say, Yes I know that I have two hands.
Then one day I awakened on a planet of people whose hands occasionally

From the next room I hear my mother shift and sigh and settle
back down under the doorsill of sleep.
Out the window the moon is just a cold bit of silver gristle low on fading banks
of sky.

Our guests are darkly lodged, I whispered, gazing through
The vault . . .

The question I am left with is the question of her loneliness.
And I prefer to put it off.
It is morning.

Astonished light is washing over the moor from north to east.
I am walking into the light.
One way to put off loneliness is to interpose God.

Emily had a relationship on this level with someone she calls Thou. She describes Thou as awake like herself all night
and full of strange power.

Thou woos Emily with a voice that comes out of the night wind.
Thou and Emily influence one another in the darkness,
playing near and far at once.

She talks about a sweetness that “proved us one.”
I am uneasy with the compensatory model of female religious experience and yet,
there is no question,

it would be sweet to have a friend to tell things to at night,
without the terrible sex price to pay.
This is a childish idea, I know.

My education, I have to admit, has been gappy.
The basic rules of male-female relations
were imparted atmospherically in our family,

no direct speech allowed.
I remember one Sunday I was sitting in the backseat of the car.
Father in front.

We were waiting in the driveway for mother,
who came around the corner of the house
and got into the passenger side of the car

dressed in a yellow Chanel suit and black high heels.
Father glanced sideways at her.
Showing a good bit of leg today Mother, he said

in a voice which I (age eleven) thought odd.
I stared at the back of her head waiting for what she would say.
Her answer would clear this up.

But she just laughed a strange laugh with ropes all over it.
Later that summer I put this laugh together with another laugh
I overheard as I was going upstairs.

She was talking on the telephone in the kitchen.
Well a woman would be just as happy with a kiss on the cheek
most of the time but YOU KNOW MEN,

she was saying. Laugh.
Not ropes, thorns.
I have arrived at the middle of the moor

where the ground goes down into a low swampy place.
The swamp water is frozen solid.
Bits of gold weed

have etched themselves
on the underside of the ice like messages.

I’ll come when thou art saddest,
Laid alone in the darkened room;
When the mad day’s mirth has vanished,
And the smile of joy is banished,

I’ll come when the heart’s real feeling
Has entire, unbiased sway,
And my influence o’er thee stealing
Grief deepening, joy congealing,
Shall bear thy soul away.

Listen! ’tis just the hour,
The awful time for thee:
Dost thou not feel upon thy soul
A flood of strange sensations roll,
Forerunners of a sterner power,
Heralds of me?

Very hard to read, the messages that pass
between Thou and Emily.
In this poem she reverses their roles,

speaking not as the victim but to the victim.
It is chilling to watch Thou move upon thou,
who lies alone in the dark waiting to be mastered.

It is a shock to realize that this low, slow collusion
of master and victim within one voice
is a rationale

for the most awful loneliness of the poet’s hour.
She has reversed the roles of thou and Thou
not as a display of power

but to force out of herself some pity
for this soul trapped in glass,
which is her true creation.

Those nights lying alone
are not discontinuous with this cold hectic dawn.
It is who I am.

Is it a vocation of anger?
Why construe silence
as the Real Presence?

Why stoop to kiss this doorstep?
Why be unstrung and pounded flat and pine away
imagining someone vast to whom I may vent the swell of my soul?

Emily was fond of Psalm 130.
“My soul waiteth on Thou more than they that watch for the morning,
I say more than they that watch for the morning.”

I like to believe that for her the act of watching provided a shelter,

that her collusion with Thou gave ease to anger and desire:
”In Thou they arc quenched as a fire of thorns,“ says the psalmist.

But for myself I do not believe this, I am not quenched—
with Thou or without Thou I find no shelter.
I am my own Nude.

And Nudes have a difficult sexual destiny.
I have watched this destiny disclose itself
in its jerky passage from girl to woman to who I am now,

from love to anger to this cold marrow,
from fire to shelter to fire.
What is the opposite of believing in Thou—

merely not believing in Thou? No. That is too simple.
That is to prepare a misunderstanding.
I want to speak more clearly.

Perhaps the Nudes are the best way.
Nude #5. Deck of cards.
Each card is made of flesh.

The living cards are days of a woman’s life.
I see a great silver needle go flashing right through the deck once from end to
Nude #6 I cannot remember.

Nude #7. White room whose walls,
having neither planes nor curves nor angles,
are composed of a continuous satiny white membrane

like the flesh of some interior organ of the moon.
It is a living surface, almost wet.
Lucency breathes in and out.

Rainbows shudder across it.
And around the walls of the room a voice goes whispering,
Be very careful. Be very careful.

Nude #8. Black disc on which the fires of all the winds
are attached in a row.
A woman stands on the disc

amid the winds whose long yellow silk flames
flow and vibrate up through her.
Nude #9. Transparent loam.

Under the loam a woman has dug a long deep trench.
Into the trench she is placing small white forms, I don’t know what they are.
Nude #10. Green thorn of the world poking up

alive through the heart of a woman
who lies on her back on the ground.
The thorn is exploding

its green blood above her in the air.
Everything it is it has, the voice says.
Nude #11. Ledge in outer space.

Space is bluish black and glossy as solid water
and moving very fast in all directions,
shrieking past the woman who stands pinned

to nothing by its pressure.
She peers and glances for some way to go, trying to lift her hand but cannot.
Nude #12. Old pole in the wind.

Cold currents are streaming over it
and pulling out
into ragged long horizontal black lines

some shreds of ribbon
attached to the pole.
I cannot see how they are attached—

notches? staples? nails? All of a sudden the wind changes
and all the black shreds rise straight up in the air
and tie themselves into knots,

then untie and float down.
The wind is gone.
It waits.

By this time, midway through winter,
I had become entirely fascinated with my spiritual melodrama.
Then it stopped.

Days passed, months passed and I saw nothing.
I continued to peer and glance, sitting on the rug in front of my sofa
in the curtainless morning

with my nerves open to the air like something skinned.
I saw nothing.
Outside the window spring storms came and went.

April snow folded its huge white paws over doors and porches.
I watched a chunk of it lean over the roof and break off
and fall and I thought,

How slow! as it glided soundlessly past,
but still—nothing. No nudes.
No Thou.

A great icicle formed on the railing of my balcony
so I drew up close to the window and tried peering through the icicle,
hoping to trick myself into some interior vision,

but all I saw
was the man and woman in the room across the street
making their bed and laughing.

I stopped watching.
I forgot about Nudes.
I lived my life,

which felt like a switched-off TV.
Something had gone through me and out and I could not own it.
“No need now to tremble for the hard frost and the keen wind.

Emily does not feel them,”
wrote Charlotte the day after burying her sister.
Emily had shaken free.

A soul can do that.
Whether it goes to join Thou and sit on the porch for all eternity
enjoying jokes and kisses and beautiful cold spring evenings,

you and I will never know. But I can tell you what I saw.
Nude #13 arrived when I was not watching for it.
It came at night.

Very much like Nude #1.
And yet utterly different.
I saw a high hill and on it a form shaped against hard air.

It could have been just a pole with some old cloth attached,
but as I came closer
I saw it was a human body

trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off the bones.
And there was no pain.
The wind

was cleansing the bones.
They stood forth silver and necessary.
It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.
It walked out of the light.

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