Mar 22, 2011

Emily Dickinson, "There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House"





There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.


Photos: a country graveyard in southern Ohio. These aren't my relatives; it’s just that I was struck by the theme of anonymity on some of the stones.

In my scouting over the last few weeks, I’ve been hitting Emily Dickinson poems that didn’t wow me. Then at a Mom&Pop lunch today (Romira’s, a good sop of chicken stir fry), I once again stumbled onto the well-known “There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House.” I hadn’t read it for years, and it struck me as E.D. at her best.

It also seemed a natural follow-up to Hirsch’s poems about Christopher Smart—that lost, essentially anonymous man, except for his insanity, that man who’s been resurrected by poetry—his own work and that of others who have loved his gentle spirit. Upon his death, surely Christopher Smart’s neighbors might have made some of E.D.’s remarks about him.



Maybe “There’s been a Death” should have depressed me, but I was so dazzled by some of the skill with language that the poem did what poetry is supposed to do: triumph over death, even as it examined death’s aftermath.



I especially like these un-sentimental details:

The speaker would know the decedent’s name in a small town, but E.D. insists upon his anonymity. It’s only a “Death, in the Opposite House.” The distancing from him as a personality begins immediately.

“Such Houses” have a “numb look.” Numbness is important in these situations; it’s a time for vultures, not Hallmark cards.

“A Window opens like a Pod—“ Like a pod it opens. Who else would have seen that?

The pea that falls from the pod is the decedent’s mattress. It is flung out “mechanically,” and children passing by, getting some value-added education, as they “wonder if it died—on that—“

It died on that! Death neuters the corpse, de-humanizes it. The kids’ understanding leads them to impersonal pronouns to portray what they see. The corpse is reduced to an object. Whatever else death does, it reduces; it demands that we see ourselves as matter; even if angels will be swooping in soon, we are, for a time, mere matter, an it.

The speaker, who was a boy once, can speak for the children because “he” remembers noticing and wondering about such things, upon passing such a house. About the gender switch: did little girls in Amherst around 1860 not notice and wonder about such things? Was it just too grisly a matter for girls to speak about? Maybe little girls were too homebound to be out and about and observing death’s aftermath? Whatever the reasons, Dickinson’s sense that she needs to speak as a male is curious.

The minister goes “stiffly” in. Don’t all ministers go stiffly, lest they be perceived as having un-puritan pleasure? And this minister has “owned” both the house and the mourners at such a time; ministers own little boys too.

Death makes good business for the clergy, for milliners and morticians. One has to wonder if such enterprises might like death. In addressing what a society does in the face of death, any writer could have fallen into facile, overwrought social criticism; I find Dickinson’s restraint tough and effective.



“We’re not very good at death,” a friend of mine once said, meaning we don’t know how to deal with it. Without lambasting her culture for its awkwardness concerning death, Dickinson points out deftly and quickly three trades that might be glad we have death for their continued prosperity. It’s just a fact, worth exposing, but not worth a rant.

Also in “just a Country Town’’ one wouldn’t want to lay it on too heavily against some pillars of the community. They might be superiors, or they might be pals; if it were the 1950s, you might have coffee with them tomorrow at Smitty’s Drug Store or run into them at the Little League game Tuesday afternoon.

Finally, let me just quickly mention that Dickinson’s quirky dashes seem unusually effective in “There’s been a Death.” Each pause seems appropriately longer than a comma, even though it’s doubtful that’s what the poet had in mind.

Maybe I’ll find more cheerful topics soon, but it seemed like a sign to stumble onto E.D.’s poem just after a review of Christopher Smart’s portrait of “the country of the mad.”

There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.


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8 comments:

altadenahiker said...

Dark Parade is such a brilliant pairing. So I googled, thinking perhaps I could write the mystery novel I never intended to write, just for the title. I found one out of print book and, of course, one blog.

altadenahiker said...

Dark Parade is such a brilliant pairing. So I googled, thinking perhaps I could write the mystery novel I never intended to write, just for the title. I found one out of print book and, of course, one blog.

Banjo52 said...

AH, I glided (glid?) right over Dark Parade. Don't let the others stop you. You'd make it a page-turner. (And I got so excited I printed you twice--didn't know I was able).

altadenahiker said...

Glidded.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Best Emily D. poem I have ever read! How descriptive! Authors spend pages in books describing the mood of a death in a small town. Didn't Emily just do it in a few short lines? Wow.
And Banjomyn, your post so much set the mood! I think you must have been that young boy...

Now I gotta go hunt for Dark Parade? Is it like Dark Shadows? Jonathan Pryce?

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, thanks. I don't know if I was E.D.'s young boy, though I seem to have developed an affinity for the morbid, without any idea where it came from. And the folly of social customs--maybe I picked up on that as a kid. Yet I was no rebel, no hippie, but maybe a kid who kept thinking, "That's odd. Why do they do that?"

gothpunkuncle said...

I just wish I'd never read that all of E.D.'s poems can be sung to "The Yellow Rose of Texas." That melody in my head lightens the mood but prevents a clean reading. ARRRGGGHHHH!!!!

Pasadena Adjacent said...
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