Saturday, May 15, 2010


It’s the greatest unasked question in American literature: Why couldn’t Emily Dickinson stop for Death? Too busy tying her bonnet? Or sewing poems into "fascicles," her make-believe publishing? 

None of the above. She couldn’t stop for Death because when death arrives, time stops, and that cannot happen as long as consciousness is ticking on. There is no “point in time” (pace Zeno’s arrow – there is no stopping it). Time is motion. 

Even if we lie down and do nothing, our heart keeps marching on "until the end of time" (our personal time, that is). The atrial valves slam shut, then the ventricular valves. They slam so forcefully -- slam-SLAM, slam-SLAM -- that they produce our iambic heartbeat. (Still, I prefer to think that our thoughts march to a different drummer. When I used to indulge in depression, my thoughts resembled repetitious pantoums.)

Love and writing: our outrageous attempts to stop time and take that ride with Death and Immortality, which is Eros, the anagram of ROSE. Our mad faith in words crumbling not to dust, but pollen.


My first love was organ music. I stayed with the poetics of Catholicism until almost fifteen because an aggressive organist loved to make the huge stony church shudder: a whole-body orgasm. 

Then in Krakow, at Saint Anne's, by accident, by grace, a gift. The organist was practicing, but after a while he started playing for his own pleasure. It got more and more ecstatic. The air trembled, everything trembled. Imagine me, love, in that trembling.


A soft morning, deepening the two-tone green of the araucaria in front of my window. Thousands of skyward green fingers. If only I could touch you. If I could touch the sky.

No monks, at least not visible monks, at San Luis Rey, my nearest Franciscan mission. Wasted, my pink turtleneck, concealed breasts under the burgundy jacket, my hair falling in soft curls à la Magdalena. No monks were outside, no one to spiritually direct me in my very lapsed state. No Fra Raul with dark-burning eyes to bless me (he who’d hinted he could be my spiritual director), no Bro. Lawrence to keep stroking the soft skin just above my wrist, as he scandalously did during my first visit.

I talked only to two staff women: the depressed, osteoporotic one (another victim of the lies told to women about hormone replacement) who showed me a typical room for the retreatants -- two single beds; the motel-like bedspread looked ridiculous. The woman at the gift shop sold me, at half-price, a little cross, all floral motifs, with a diamond-shaped opening at the crossways and an oval crystal hung there – finally all suggestion of crucifixion removed.

I asked the gift-shop woman if there was some ritual at mealtimes (monks eat together with the retreatants and staff). Eagerly she answered, “Oh no. No ritual, no prayer, no reading from the gospels. We are soft Catholics here; we are non-denominational.”

So this is what the Vatican II reforms have led to: a Franciscan monastery calls itself non-denominational. Soon the habits will go -- just watch it. Worst of all, a non-Latin mass that’s only dimly connected to the Jerusalem temple ritual of sacrifice, and looks like a combination of a senior exercise class (let us stand, let us sit, let us kneel) and a vestigial bread-and-wine food demonstration. No Dionysian eating of the god. No trembling orgy of the bells shaken with all might by the altar boys.

There are still those beautiful enclosed gardens, all serenity, still some aura of the sacred. The chapel still has the right twilight, and the red canna lilies around the altar, funneling upward like prayers. So not all poetics yet lost, but I'm afraid that the soft Catholics have almost completely lost the great power that hard Catholics had, precisely the poetics.

I’ve wasted my life in many ways, but specifically by falling into my juvenile atheism when I could have entered Carmel. By now I might have a best-seller about my visions and affairs. 

I think ritual is healing, almost like music. In California, religions fuse effortlessly. In Yogananda’s Meditation Gardens, hummingbirds hover like tiny crucifixes.


The night ocean – near the shore all copper sheen from sodium lamps, high surf, tons of glassy water curving and crashing. Not something I would have experienced as an enclosed Carmelite. Being ravished by the sight of the ocean. Copper light licking our bodies as we ride these moments of death and immortality. 
How could Emily even imagine she might rejoice in heaven? How to ride those lights, those moons, the music of the spheres? And not to miss the orchard where her life stood, a loaded gun . . .  and no one identified and carried her away. She said, The only thing that ever happened to me was loneliness. The price of everything.


When my mother was in her last days, I had a dream of being in her house. The living room was in disarray, bookshelves jammed together at jagged angles. I could barely squeeze through. I picked a book at random, and opened it at random, to the sentence: You must become aware of when time stops.

A New Age friend told me, “Her spirit has already left. What’s here is only a robot.”


Einstein said that the faster you travel, the more time slows down. Clocks stop at the speed of light. The richer your life, the longer it seems to last.

But I must affix a caveat: as long as there is the quiet "down time" to contemplate what’s happening. To weave it and unweave it. 

Penelope is memory. What passion greater than Penelope’s patience?  It’s my waiting that creates you, you who are to stop for me. Kindly.

~ Oriana


Beautiful blog. Having been to the Mission several times though not Catholic I related to all you said. There was a friar in his brown belted frock named Father Rusty when I was there the first time and he had on Birkenstocks. 


I was disappointed to see Fra Raul in jeans rather than brown cassock. True, he was returning from town, but I wanted all things monastic, not secularized. The jeans unnerved me more than, previously, Fra Lawrence's stroking my forearm with total fascination, which I let him do out of charity. He was so distracted by a woman's soft skin that he forgot to say "God bless you" as we were leaving.


About Emily: I can’t begin to describe how it felt to be in her room with the white dress on a form. She was tiny. Or to touch her little desk. Such a huge spirit in what seemed a Lilliputian body by comparison.


Medieval suits of armor in museums (not the fake ones in antique stores) shock by their tiny size: the knights were five feet tall! In the past, most people did not have the kind of nutrition (especially protein) that it takes to achieve the full genetic height potential. And childhood was more stressful, which apparently also has an effect on adult size. But what is all that next to the fantastic gifts left to us by those physically tiny composers (think of Mozart), those Lilliputian poets (Keats and many others). Reading biographies, I am stunned by how much they suffered -- (Dickinson said, "All that ever happened to me was loneliness"), and how much they accomplished. 


I admit I never understood Emily Dickinson but I always understood her not stopping for death to mean that she just didn't want to acknowledge that she was mortal.

As for hard vs. soft Catholics, my sympathies lie with the soft because I disagree so violently with the church's politics. I also believe that one should understand what one is reciting in church even if it loses some of the mystery. Other people who I respect disagree with this. I see a parallel between your two posts. Just like Poland for you the Latin mass is a lost country.

Thanks for your wonderful comment! Actually that interpretation never occurred to me: the poet couldn't "stop for Death" because of the psychological denial of mortality. It makes sense. Judging by her amazing poems, Dickinson had trouble believing in heaven, or, if heaven existed, that it would be a satisfying sort of afterlife.

Yes, you are so right, the Latin mass (of which I understood only some words, and -- strange for a child who wanted to learn all the languages -- didn't desire to understand more) is a lost country for me. It was a part of my childhood that I thought I would always be able to revisit, but no . . .  I still chant it in my mind. My grandmother used to take me to the long High Mass, the sung mass. What an opera it was!

I totally oppose the church's politics. It's the ritual I miss, the poetics.

Also, when hostia became victim in the English translation, the archaic origin of the mass was plain: animal sacrifice. And this is historically true: the liturgy grew out of the animal sacrifice ritual at the Jerusalem Temple

Oriana's reply to Marjorie's comment that Emily was too busy.

"Too busy" feels very contemporary. In our manic era, people keep super-busy so they never have the time to think about "life's unanswerable questions," which certainly keeps depression away (and even so, depression is endemic). How do we deal with mortality? By being too busy to think about it. But in Dickinson's times, death struck often. Likewise, it generally didn't take place in a hospital. It was "in your face." There were fewer venues of escape. I suspect people were forced to think about death much more than they are now.

Actually I agree with Freud that the two most important things in life are love and work -- love in the sense of mutually supportive relationships (something many of us experience only in middle age, when we manage to escape from toxic relationships), and work as activities that nourish us, rather than a toxic job that deadens us, or is so exhausting that it feels like giving blood. With luck, we move away from what I call the Vampire Lifestyle -- I don't mean being a vampire, but his/her/its victim: being drained of energy, of joie de vivre and your own life and purpose -- but usually as a willing victim, a collaborative victim.

Dickinson  has many metaphysical poems that end on "we don't know." In this famous poem, the very presence of Immortality inspires hope, even though Eternity remains utterly vague, and no bliss is promised -- unless we take Death's courtesy ("kindly") as a sign that something good awaits. I agree that this ride with Death and Immortality -- a magnificent image that makes this poem unforgettable -- does not inspire dread, even if it doesn't really answer the questions we dare not ask. In this particular poem, Dickinson appears to show a calm acceptance of death. Death comes not as the Grim Reaper, but as a gentleman. And of course Emily would want Death to be a courteous gentleman, just as I imagined a young and handsome Thanatos, endearingly shy, in "April Snow."

Note how very different in tone this poem is from Jack Gilbert's "The End of Paradise."


Lots of beautiful writing here. Am thinking at the moment that it is better than poetry, although it is poetry. Lots of sexuality. Poetry =  dreams.

Thank you. I meant it as poetic prose. Lush imagery has a way of coming across as erotic. 

Bill Mohr: 

Your meditation on Dickinson is a prose poem. The last two lines are pure poetry:

Penelope is memory. What passion greater than Penelope's patience? 
It's my waiting that creates you, you who are to stop for me. Kindly.

I look forward to reading Dickinson's letters some day. I was astonished to realize a couple years ago that there is a concordance to her letters. Now that is the sign of a great writer!

Thank you for showing me how the ending would work with line breaks. I think I could transform some of this into a regular poem . .  . 


  1. Marjorie RosenfeldMay 18, 2010 at 3:31 PM

    I always thought Dickinson couldn't stop for death because she was too busy. She speaks of Death's kindness, so I don't think--in this poem, at least--Death is dread inspiring. And how do we interpret Immortality? Or, more interestingly, Eternity, which the carriage is going toward? Eternity is something that lasts forever, but not an unpleasant something, and surely not, in this poem, the unpleasant permanence of death. Therefore, I think the poem could easily be read as suggesting a permanent afterlife.

  2. Yes, love and writing stop time. In fact, I sometimes think that what all artists are trying to do is stop time and teach the people who look at their art how to stop time too.

    Sharing the time stopping gift is an act of love.

    The artist says, I can stop time, and I will show you how to do that too, if you stop with me here for just a little while.

  3. Yes, and "look for me under your boot soles." "Soles" and "souls." Ah, nothing like a cosmic self! I love it when a poet manages to become that large.

  4. Oriana, I can't say I understand what Emily D. meant by the word "kindly" but I have thought about it and written about it. Here's a poem I wrote to Emily in Heaven, asking her to tell me what she has learned about death and dying.

    To E. Dickinson in Heaven

    So Emily, tell me
    what is it—
    that so finally
    kindly stops for us—

    Is it the heart
    at last saying yes
    to cholesterol
    to blockage
    in the ascending aorta?

    The not wholly
    chromed bumper slapping
    our bones as quick
    as children changing
    their minds among swings
    slides and jungle gyms?

    Or is it the life
    that passes
    before our eyes
    as the gas

    hisses from the shower head
    the knife tears,
    the water darkens
    the bear spreads
    his arms,
    the lover
    enters the half circle
    of our vision?

    Let me know.
    John Guzlowski

  5. Thank you, John.

    From college I remember the interpretation that Death comes as a "gentleman caller," chivalrous -- hence "kindly." I don't find that completely convincing. But note that Death is driving -- I know it's a horse-driven carriage, but these days it would be a luxury car, I suppose . . . Death offers us a ride -- how American that is! Death doesn't walk up to us, European style. Death drives up, "kindly" stops, we get in, and off we go, into eternity. Immortality, in the back seat, doesn't seem to play an active role . . .

  6. A late addendum: I think it's striking that Dickinson did not equate heaven with happiness. More than one poem indicates her discomfort with the idea of not only not having a body, but of having nothing to do. I think she secretly dreamed of roaming the "sovereign woods." In this, she was like Catherine in "Wuthering Heights," who preferred the moors to heaven. That's what happens when you love the beauty of nature -- a vague existence in the clouds just isn't attractive.