Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A disc of snow

We've all had those moments when what we want to say is "on the tip of our tongue." The desired word - a name, a phone number, or nearly anything else - stubbornly escapes us. The only thing to do is to put the problem out of our mind and trust that the answer will pop into our heads before too long. And it generally does just that.

But what about times when the answer to a question - or at lease a possible answer - takes years (hell, decades) - to pop?

Such was the case with this poem, which blew my poor brain when I came across it as a very young man. It is a rather simple poem (by Emily Dickinson) that seems rather too simple ... just a lead-in to the final punch line. But what a line!

The poem, dated from 1861, the start of Dickinson's early prolific period during the Civil War, is a reflection on death. It goes like this:

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers -
Untouched by Morning -
And untouched by noon -
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of Satin and Roof of Stone -

Grand go the Years,
In the Crescent above them -
Worlds scoop their Arcs -
And firmaments - row -
Diadems - drop -
And Doges - surrender -
Soundless as Dots,
On a Disc of Snow

"Soundless as dots on a disc of snow?!" Holy shit! The rest of the poem is easy: The dead are untouched by the passage of time, the swirl of planets and stars, and the death or downfall of the great and powerful. But this dot-on-a-disc-of-snow stuff poleaxed me. What was that about?

Years later, I was remembering my youth, as old farts do. I recalled winters sledding down our inclined driveway, making ice, much to the displeasure of my Dad ... the sound of my Dad, in the middle of a minus-20 night, trudging down to the basement to shovel coal into the furnace ... the fact that eating snow - what fun! - became problematic when the soot from our coal furnace and everybody else's coal furnace in the neighborhood began coating the snow with dots of black.

Light bulb! Back in Dickinson's time, as in my youth (at least in my neighborhood), there were no gas lines. Coal was burned in the winter, and it sent little dots of soot out through the chimney to fall upon the snow. Ever so silently. Each dot marking, to the observant, the center of a little disc.

Is this the explanation of that enigmatic ending to the poem? Of course I don't know, but I'd bet on it. I think Dickinson got this image into her head, and wrote the poem so that she could put it to use.

And also, of course, to give a guy like me a lot of fun figuring it out, however belatedly.

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