Sunday, April 1, 2012


Browsing through Christian Wiman’s Ambition and Survival, I came upon an epigraph to the chapter “A Mile from Hell”:

Elder, Today, a session wiser
And fainter, too, as Wiseness is—
I find myself still softly searching
For my Delinquent Palaces—

Ravished by the phrase “Delinquent Palaces,” I looked up the rest. Because the poem spoke so powerfully to me in the context of my life, I ended up misreading it – a fact I discovered only when John Guzlowski (a professor of American literature) pointed out the standard interpretation. I am still tempted to think that the religious interpretation, though most plausible, is perhaps not the only one after all – the loss might be multiple, and maybe even different from what Emily herself tried to narrow it down to.

A loss of something ever felt I—
The first that I could recollect
Bereft I was—of what I knew not
Too young that any should suspect

A Mourner walked among the children
I notwithstanding went about
As one bemoaning a Dominion
Itself the only Prince cast out—

Elder, Today, a session wiser
And fainter, too, as Wiseness is—
I find myself still softly searching
For my Delinquent Palaces—

And a Suspicion, like a Finger
Touches my Forehead now and then
That I am looking oppositely
For the site of the Kingdom of Heaven—

~ Emily Dickinson, 959, c. 1864

But let me briefly be an eccentric misguided reader just for the pleasure of it. The intoxicating phrase, “Delinquent Palaces,” made me remember something delicious:

We stand over the black
gleam of the canal,
weeping willows on both sides;
a statue with a raised saber behind us,
poised to lead a charge.

The royal park is dark,
except one row of windows
in a palace where secret talks
are being held between
America and China.

~ Oriana (the opening stanzas of “Secret Talks” © 2012)

This memory goes back to the years of the Cold War when the U.S. and China had no official diplomatic relations. The two powers were talking in secret, however. The talks took place in the smaller of the two royal palaces in Warsaw’s Lazienki Park, then and even now one of the places I’d equate with heaven. 

On this beautiful overcast morning, the sky blank (I’ve come to accept blank sky as almost fog – how have I been able to live with so little fog?) – with this sky like a blank page, I could almost ask, “Where does heaven start?” – coming from a language in which “sky” and “heaven” are the same word, as in most languages. And the answer comes instantly: “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” It’s not a place. It’s a state of mind.


But something in us craves a tangible, breathable place as well, with paths to walk on. Heaven used to be defined as an actual place, up in the clouds. I think that in Dickinson’s times, no one questioned the idea of heaven as a place. That’s why she says,” the site of the Kingdom of Heaven.” The “within you” state-of-mind definition had to wait two millennia for a modern psychological worldview, and is still far from being embraced by those who are thrilled with the idea that “in my end is my beginning” (although, as Milosz observed, it’s pretty impossible to convince a modern person that real life begins after death).  

Even now, in the twenty-first century, millions of people yearn for an actual place to go to once the body is dead. Of course nobody wants a place of suffering, but an enchanting domain, a fabulous kingdom with a thousand mansions, a city with streets of gold, or a garden with fruit trees similar to the Garden of Eden. If not that, the dead might settle for going to Paris, or returning to whatever town or village they loved most. There is no guarantee, but, as Jake says in The Sun Also Rises, “It’s pretty to think so.”

Lilacs in bloom in Lazienki Park

For me, the heavenly city was my favorite part of Warsaw, the wide avenue that goes past the Lazienki Garden. The loss of Warsaw came to symbolize all loss – of rich human connections, intellectual stimulation, the energy of a great city and my “owning” those parks and avenues, owning even its church bells and baroque clouds – and those rows of small curly clouds we called baranki, little lambs. All the losses and disappointments that followed were added to the huge compound loss of losing Warsaw and all it offered. When I contemplated that loss and the rest that followed, I wasn’t a mere mile from hell; I was fully in hell, brooding on everything that went wrong in my life. And that brooding was the opposite of heaven understood as a state of mind. That’s why I read “oppositely” as “the opposite of”; being a mourner and a dispossessed princess who’s continually “still softly searching” for those “delinquent palaces” closes the rainbow gate to a joyful state of mind.

“Oh, it’s about her loss of the Kingdom of Heaven,” was all that John needed to say to bring me around to the standard interpretation, shattering my seeing the remembered palaces as the landscapes and cityscapes of the lost childhood and early youth. In terms of Emily’s life, a case could be made that the speaker was thinking of the death of her childhood friend, Sophia Holland (it’s an interesting coincidence that “Sophia” means “wisdom”), or perhaps the lack of love from her depressed mother and distant father; still, the most plausible interpretation is indeed the religious one, reminiscent of Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode. The fifth stanza ("Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting") sets forth the idea that the human soul comes from heaven, and can at first remember heaven's glories. Then gradually “shades of the prison-house begin to close,” and the vision of splendor fades “into the light of common day” – the ordinary life of quiet desperation, as Thoreau would later say. 

Does adult life have to be so constrained with hardship? Shouldn't there be more time for joy? 

Wiman comments: “ ‘A loss of something ever felt I,’ Emily Dickinson wrote, who could never quite bring herself to call that ‘something’ God, though she sensed the source of that loss was as early as her earliest memories: ‘Too young that any should suspect / A Mourner walked among the children.’ If I could trace my own losses back, could read my life by blood and bone, would there be a single source? Do I want that charge again, or the time that it enlivened? Is God merely a synonym for gone?”

The word “charge” seems to refer to Wiman’s experience in church one time, an experience he can’t really recall, but still refers to as “my conversion, when I was so filled and frightened by God that I fled the service deep into the bowels of that Baptist church.” He also says, “Even in my most pious days I detested church.” During the services, he’d become “a hive of nerves, wanting it only to be over.” What riveted him, however, were the stories of radical conversion, usually preceded by a great affliction. The most I can make of it is a yearning for transcendence.


Though now and then I wondered what a religious mystical experience might be like, the closest I could come to feeling an intensity of delight so intense that it might be called transcendent was through encounters with the beauty of nature, especially the great energies of nature (what Kant calls the sublime; something that is both beautiful and terrifying; Rilke: “for beauty is but the beginning of terror / we are still barely able to endure, / and we adore it so / because it serenely / disdains to destroy us.”)

Falling in love had some similarity to that – a trance-like feeling of hushed amazement, being startled and mastered by something I didn’t expect. But sooner or later anguish would replace the eerie calm, as if to say that life must go on with all its difficulties. So I’ve settled for moments of beauty as my sufficient nourishment – the critical words here being “moments” and “sufficient.” The sense of loss that was my daily companion is a half-remembered phantom now. But this is already my current self speaking. My earlier self was a mourner – a Mourner with a capital M, in fact. And that was how I kept away from the kingdom that is both within us and around us.


Can a constant feeling of loss be a burden preventing us from enjoying the feast of life? Jane Hirshfield’s “Burlap Sack” gives an answer that speaks to me.


A person is full of sorrow
The way a burlap sack is full of stones or sand.
We say, “Hand me the sack,”
But we get the weight.
Heavier if left out in the rain.
To think that the stones or sand are the self is an error.
To think that grief is the self is an error.
Self carries grief as a pack mule carries the side bags,
Being careful between the trees to leave extra room.
The self is not the load of ropes and nails and axes.
The self is not the miner nor builder nor driver.
What would it be to take the bride
And leave behind the heavy dowry?
To let the thin-ribbed mule browse in tall grasses,
Its long ears waggling like the tails of two happy dogs?
~ Jane Hirshfield, After  (my thanks to Panhala for both text and image)


This is a poem of wisdom rather than a poem that’s delightful as poetry. The message is too explicit, we could argue. As Henry James said, “To be direct is to be inartistic.” But the wisdom is delightful. And perhaps wisdom is a kind of poetry (to steal from Wallace Stevens, who said that money is a kind of poetry). There is imagery here, but no music, and not much surprise once we absorb the initial lesson: to think that grief is the self is an error. Overall the poem doesn’t, ahem, enthrall me. It’s too didactic and general for that (Jack Gilbert often fails in this manner). Still, what the poem says is a gift the way that a compact little essay can be gift, or an aphorism, a mantra that helps us be resilient in adversity.

A person is full of sorrow
The way a burlap sack is full of stones or sand. . . .
To think that the stones or sand are the self is an error.
To think that grief is the self is an error.

I can’t begin to say how wonderful this observation is. If you happen to be in a place of sorrow, it might be good to write or type these lines in large bold font and tape them to the mirror, to remind yourself that you are not the heavy sack you are carrying. This includes physical afflictions, such as suffering from a chronic illness – you have to keep reminding yourself that you are not the disease; that you are still you, a bright and loving person, funny and generous, passionately interested in poetry and music and astronomy (or whatever it happens to be).

I admit that when you are in the heavy clutches of medicine, it’s difficult to remember that you are not the disease. Difficult but possible, between visits to see the various doctors. And during such times it’s more important than ever, this love for whatever it is that you love, for what carries your essence apart from your affliction.

Just my use of the word “carries” reminded me of the saying that language is fossil poetry, metaphors we no longer even notice. A poet can remind us of what is precious by using images, making us notice the metaphors. Any poet who puts on the page the statement of what is important is writing wisdom poetry. Harold Bloom said, “The ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy can never end, and wisdom writing is more poetic than philosophical.”  

True, Jane Hirshfield does use poetic metaphor and imagery to convey her message, and tells us,

Self carries grief as a pack mule carries the side bags,
Being careful between the trees to leave extra room.

~ a reminder that the self carries the grief, but the self is not the grief. The self is not the sack, the side bags, the sand and stones in them (or did we expect the load to be gold and precious stones? In traditions that exalt suffering [Nietzsche: All religions are at bottom a system of cruelties], that would not be far-fetched). As for being careful to give extra room to the side bags when you pass between the trees, that reifies the self-as-mule, and also points out the difficulty of carrying such a load of losses and disappointed expectations.

It’s a full-time job, carrying those bags, jealously preserving the grief, making sure we don’t come too close to anything that might dislodge it – an encounter with the freshness of the present rather than the half-real past. But that’s going beyond the poem, into the marshy terrain of questions such as “Is depression self-limiting, or self-perpetuating and self-enhancing?” It depends on the individual case, and on how the present changes the past – the present that, minute by minute, we still have the power to create.

The ending seems to return to the first statement that the self is not the burdens it carries. In the end, the self is compared to both a bride and a mule (I find this a marvelous conjunction):

What would it be to take the bride
And leave behind the heavy dowry?
To let the thin-ribbed mule browse in tall grasses,
Its long ears waggling like the tails of two happy dogs?


As if to provide an uncanny illustration for Hirshfield’s poem, a friend of mine had a dream in which he was carrying a burlap bag of sand. He knew it was sand because the bag had SAND printed on it, and a hole in the middle from which sand was seeping out. He had to carry it in his arms, cradled like a baby, to prevent the loss of sand. And the bag was growing heavier by the second.

Fortunately he found the man to whom the bag belonged – a Hassid in full garb – and handed the bag over to him. He felt great relief, but also some loss. Loss? Interesting. Well, we get attached to our burdens. It could be argued that, for all the torture, people may be deriving some sense of meaning from this. In Waiting for Godot, the slave Lucky carried a suitcase full of sand to show that he was a good carrier, and thus shouldn't be sold at an auction. How many of us carry burdens to show that we are such nice good people, so excellent at suffering, and thus we don’t deserve to die?

Even the bride’s dowry – perhaps the weight of expectations – is seen as not much more valuable than sand and stones. It’s wonderful that Jane Hirshfield doesn’t use the modern colloquial term for the stuff we drag along from the past: baggage. By going back to earlier times when a person or a mule carried the bags, she makes the pointlessness of that behavior more vivid and pathetic (and the bags get heavier and heavier the longer we carry them). It’s up to us to interpret what the heavy bags stand for: our possessions? memories of negative events to look over like photo albums? too much responsibility that shouldn’t be ours? Resentment that the richer, larger life that seemed to be our birthright lies somewhere else, and we can’t get there from here?

But what about those palaces in Warsaw? Are they just sand and stones, worthless rubble of memory? No, I want to save those. For some reason, happy memories don’t weigh as much. But even they can become dysfunctional if too much time is spent in the country that now exists only in my mind. There are limits even to nostalgia.

Everyone knows that Hirshfield has a Buddhist orientation, and we can recognize the image of dropping the burden, the sack full of stones and sand, as the moment of enlightenment. But I also see something marvelously American here. The individual is seen as having a great value, even stooped under the burden s/he’s carrying. The soul is a bride, happiest when unencumbered. In the ending of the poem there is, I dare say, the pursuit of happiness.

My special thanks to John Guzlowski 


The new blog is stunning....I love most the park of blooming lilacs.  That is enough heaven for me, and I have missed lilacs so much since moving to Southern California.


They are heaven. As you can imagine, I spent much time with my face pressed to the Lazienki lilacs! I used to kiss them -- literally. After rain, there'd be tiny rainbows on the blossoms, and I'd lick them off. Lilacs appear in my poems -- whenever I say lilacs, I mean THOSE fabulous Warsaw lilacs, that incredible moist abundance . . . 

After the lilacs are done, chestnut trees begin to bloom, and Warsaw is heaven again, a somewhat different variety. Then the linden trees. The fragrance of the northern plants is glorious.

John sends us this quote:

People living deeply have no fear of death.   ~ Anaïs Nin


There is simply no mental space for that fear – people who live deeply have so much to do and think about. And they feel grateful (to the universe? to life? to their friends? it doesn’t matter to whom or what) for the richness. They feel they’ve had their share – when it’s time to go, they’ll say “I’ve had a great life. In my memory, dance and sing and be happy.” When one of Jung’s daughters died, the mourners waltzed out of the church – according to her wishes.


Why shouldn't your interpretation of “delinquent palaces” be just as valid?

My favorite photograph is the woman walking into the sunset. Love the colors.


A literary critic would point out that Dickinson lived in an era when Christians believed that heaven was a place (vaguely depicted , but with palaces a strong possibility); what’s more, they believed that the soul descended from heaven to enter the body as if the soul were given a prison sentence. Life was a Vale of Tears.  In terms of the historical context, the religious interpretation is the most plausible.

But a poem belongs to the reader, and sometimes the reader gets more out of a “strong misreading.” I have an unusually specific vision of my delinquent palaces – I know their exact location. But they have a broader symbolic meaning of something wonderful that we had in childhood and early youth, and then lost. Post-war Poland was full of people who lost something valuable they had before the war – sometimes a city they loved, such as Lvov or Vilnius. That was their very specific Paradise Lost. Immigrants are notorious for idealizing their country of origin, of secretly visiting in their dreams and daydreams those parks and fountains and old churches . Some mourning for lost paradise is only human. It’s only when it interferes with making the best of the present that it becomes dysfunctional. In my misreading, I read the poem as a warning against becoming a perpetual mourner (actually I love Emily’s capitalization here: a Mourner). To be a Mourner is to lose the kingdom of heaven which is in the present.

Yes, the colors in that photograph of a women carrying a sack on her back have a subtlety. The photo is the opposite of hype. The path is dusty; it’s already slipping into the past. 

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