Poetry

All things poetical

Night Driving

I left late yesterday, with the day already ending; tired and numb from the trip. The traffic was light, scattered along the road like crumbs on a path to follow.

In my rearview mirror, I spotted them first: a line of semis approaching me fast. I'd seen this before–a series of trucks moving as one, with road cleared of trouble ahead. Normally I would pull to the left and wait for them to pass. This time, though, I waited a break and popped my little car into the queue.

Into the night, over hills, and around corners a line of nine semis broke the night and the law. Nine large trucks moved as one from lane to lane, passing this slower car and that; nine semis, and one little Ford Focus.

It was a ballet of wheels and motion as the leader would pull out into the passing lane and then the truck behind him, and the next, and the next. The truck ahead of me was metallic with orange lights at the top, and ahead of him, a large moving van, and ahead of him, dark green with black writing, I think. Behind me rode a plain white truck, no markings to see, and behind it was darkness, it was the end of the line.

We drove to the west as the sun began to set, a bright orange ball that burned the prairie around us. Past fields fill of cicada whose sound echoed behind; past other cars who quickly pulled to the left, intimidated by nine determined semis, traveling all in a line. Nine semis, and one Ford Focus.

Through the rozy glow a line of lights spaced just so. I wondered if the semis resented my intrusion, this little golden bug among great gods of steel. But they gave me my space, and waited my move in the chorus we played, as we weaved and we waved, and I think they must have thought me cute — a mascot, perhaps.

Finally the ride tired and I wanted the peace of the night and I pulled over one more time to the left. The white truck behind me hesitated, as if in encouragement, but then with a shift of gears, waiting no man or woman, it leaped into the space and pulled ahead. I watched then as nine sets of red lights, all in a row, wound itself into the night and vanished from view.

I am going to make a poem out of this, you wait and see: the ride into the night of nine big trucks; nine semis and one little Ford Focus.

Writings:

Me and Emily: Sweet Whispers of the Betrayer

Did Emily Dickinson mind that only eleven of her works were published during her lifetime? From her letters one would assume that she didn't because she talked of family and friends and seemed content. For all the talk about her being reclusive, she did have the close proximity of her beloved brother and sister all her life, in addition to her long correspondence and relationship with friends and other family.

Yet what of Emily's letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in response to his Letter to a Young Contributor? To his challenge to young poets, she wrote:

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?

The mind is so near itself it cannot see distinctly, and I have none to ask.

Should you think it breathed, and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude.

If I make the mistake, that you dared to tell me would give me sincerer honor toward you.

I inclose my name, asking you, if you please, sir, to tell me what is true?

That you will not betray me it is needless to ask, since honor is its own pawn.

With this letter she also enclosed four poems: I'll tell you how the Sun rose, Safe in their Alabaster Chambers, The Nearest Dream recedes unrealized, and We play at paste:

We play at paste,
Till qualified for pearl,
Then drop the paste,
And deem ourself a fool.
The shapes, though, were similar,
And our new hands
Learned gem-tactics
Practising sands.

It's difficult not to think that someone who writes, Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive? is indifferent to what others would perceive of her work. However, one extremely thoughtful paper that I found at Kangnam University in South Korea, states that Dickinson never wanted to be published. What she wanted from Higginson was permission not to publish, to quiet the voices of those who hounded her to send in her work. This is somewhat supported by the fact that, with one exception, the poems she did publish were sent to the publishers without her permission.

Higginson, began a many year correspondence with Emily after that unusual opening, becoming one of her most cherished friends. Yet read what he writes about his initial reaction to Emily's letter:

The letter was postmarked "Amherst," and it was in a handwriting so peculiar that it seemed as if the writer might have taken her first lessons by studying the famous fossil bird-tracks in the museum of that college town. Yet it was not in the slightest degree illiterate, but cultivated, quaint, and wholly unique. Of punctuation there was little; she used chiefly dashes, and it has been thought better, in printing these letters, as with her poems, to give them the benefit in this respect of the ordinary usages; and so with her habit as to capitalization, as the printers call it, in which she followed the Old English and present German method of thus distinguishing every noun substantive. But the most curious thing about the letter was the total absence of a signature. It proved, however, that she had written her name on a card, and put it under the shelter of a smaller envelope inclosed in the larger; and even this name was written–as if the shy writer wished to recede as far as possible from view–in pencil, not in ink. The name was Emily Dickinson.

And it was from this reaction that Higginson recommended to Emily that she consider changing the form of her poems to fit the accepted patterns of the day; to 'regularize' them, as it has been termed.

Emily's response back was a letter that contained the fateful sentence, Thank you for the surgery- it was not so painful as I supposed. Taken in the context of the entire letter, it seems more optimistic than not, but looked at in its singularity and we can see a finality to Emily's dreams of publication — instead of embracing her form and publishing her work, Higginson had recommended that she remove those distinctive aspects of her writing.

Thank you for the surgery- it was not so painful as I supposed.

This sentence takes on a new dimension when one looks at her earlier publishing experience. Her first published work was a mock valentine called "Magnum bonum", sent without her permission to the Amherst College Indicator by her close friend (and one of the many supposed loves of her life) Ben Newton. The gratification of publication was somewhat lessened when Emily saw that they had corrected her punctuation.

Her second publication, again a mock valentine, but this time a poem, "Sic Transit", was sent without her knowledge to the newspaper, the "Springfield Republican". Again the work was published anonymously, and the introduction was flattering. Again, though, the paper 'regularized' Emily's work.

This was to continue with all of Emily's works up until she wrote her first letter to Higginson, and on receiving his recommendation to alter her writing style, she responds with, "Thank you for the surgery- it was not so painful as I supposed."

I worked for chaff and earning Wheat
Was haughty and betrayed.
What right had Fields to arbitrate
In matters ratified?

I tasted Wheat and hated Chaff
And thanked the ample friend –
Wisdom is more becoming viewed
At distance than at hand.

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If Emily but put her mind to observing proper form, she could have been famous within her lifetime. Her choosing not to do so was a source of frustration to many of those around her, including Higginson, who would write of another poem sent to him:

Here was already manifest that defiance of form, never through carelessness, and never precisely from whim, which so marked her. The slightest change in the order of word–thus, "While yet at school, a girl"–would have given her a rhyme for this last line; but no; she was intent upon her thought, and it would not have satisfied her to make the change.

When viewing Emily Dickinson in modern context, I can't help thinking that she would look upon the Creative Commons Licenses with horror. After working so hard to maintain the nature of her work, to then freely allow someone else to alter her work based on their own artistic interpretation? Impossible? Unthinkable!

Even slight changes in punctuation would leave her feeling both angered, and betrayed. She would never understand. As she wrote back to Higginson in her third letter:

If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her; if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase, and the approbation of my dog would forsake me then. My barefoot rank is better.

You think my gait "spasmodic." I am in danger, sir. You think me "uncontrolled." I have no tribunal.

Would you have time to be the "friend" you should think I need? I have a little shape: it would not crowd your desk, nor make much racket as the mouse that dents your galleries.

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Some — Work for Immortality –
The Chiefer part, for Time –
He — Compensates — immediately –
The former — Checks — on Fame –

Slow Gold — but Everlasting –
The Bullion of Today –
Contrasted with the Currency
Of Immortality –

A Beggar — Here and There –
Is gifted to discern
Beyond the Broker's insight –
One's — Money — One's — the Mine -

In many ways, Emily's refusal to conform in writing style was of a piece with her defiance against the Church; her refusal to be 'born again' as it were, manifested in some of her most satirical, and brilliant, work.

Now I lay thee down to Sleep-
I pray the Lord they Dust to keep-
And if thou live before thou wake-
I pray the Lord thy Soul to make-

While away at school, she was the only student who would not conform to the accepted religious beliefs of the time, and was marked so. Later at home, all around her those she loved and admired succumbed to the same church she could not accept, until even the most mild reference of it would invoke her wrath. She and her brother and sister received a letter from a cousin that spoke glowingly of the Church, and her brother had to reply that it was probably best that any correspondence of this nature be addressed only to him and Vinnie, because the topic would drive Emily into a rage.

Thus the brother who was always Emily's most trusted confident, became the first of many who would act in Emily's interests, though the act would itself seal and set Emily's status of Outsider.

God gave a Loaf to every Bird –
But just a Crumb — to Me –
I dare not eat it — tho' I starve –
My poignant luxury –

To own it — touch it –
Prove the feat — that made the Pellet mine –
Too happy — for my Sparrow's chance –
For Ampler Coveting –

It might be Famine — all around –
I could not miss an Ear –
Such Plenty smiles upon my Board –
My Garner shows so fair –

I wonder how the Rich — may feel –
An Indiaman — An Earl –
I deem that I — with but a Crumb –
Am Sovereign of them all –

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Emily Dickinson was an explorer in her youth, vivacious and outgoing. She once joked in a letter about her 'devastating beauty', and later at school would compose letters that were signed by all her friends. But her writing, as with her views on religion, would set her apart, and over time, the adventurer would withdraw ever inward.

Susie–

You will forgive me, for I never visit. I am from the fields, you know, and while quite at home with the Dandelion, make but a sorry figure in a Drawing–room–Did you ask me out with a bunch of Daisies, I should thank you, and accept–but with Roses-"Lilies"-"Solomon" himself-suffers much embarrassment! Do not mind me Susie - If I do not come with my feet, in my heart I come-talk the most, and laugh the loudest-stay when all the rest have gone-kiss your cheek, perhaps, while those honest people quite forget you in their Sleep!

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However, the world of words was still Emily's and she continued to write her poems (sewed into little booklets known as fasciscles and stored away, secret from prying eyes), and her letters to friends. She put much of herself in her writing, trusting the confidence of the recipient, because, as she noted in her letter to Higginson "…honor is its own pawn."

But Emily's reliance on Higginson's confidence was misplaced. He would share around her letters with his friends, going so far once as to take her work and her letters to a meeting of women scholars, trusting that to keep the writing anonymous would not be a breach of honor. More, he called her his "partially cracked poetess at Amherst", and an act of fun among his intimate aquaintenances was to emulate Emily's writing style in writing letters to each other.

Look back on Time, with kindly eyes -
He doubtless did his best -
How softly sinks that trembling sun
In Human Nature's West -

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We talk from time to time about the animosity with which we write about each other, in postings in our weblogs and in comments or elsewhere. We cluck our tongues and go, 'Tsk, tsk' at the act and condemn those who would speak so bluntly. But consider the alternative–that the words of fun or condescension, delight or despair are hidden; whispered words just beyond our hearing. No harm you might think if you don't hear the words and are not impacted by them. However, no matter how skilled we are at writing, we are not so skilled at disseminating, and the words will eventually bleed through–a half understood inside joke, or a knowing wink in writing.

I can think of few things more painful, or more betraying, and I don't have half the sensitivity that Emily had. Or her perception with words. Emily must have known.

They might not need me yet they might
I'll let my Heart be just in sight
A smile so small as mine might be
Precisely their necessity

A few years before her death, her oldest nephew died, and two month's later Emily's brother Austin, began an affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, an act that Emily felt painfully and deeply because of her love for her sister-in-law, Susan, and her esteem for her brother.

Mine Enemy is growing old -
I have at last Revenge -
The Palate of the Hate departs -
If any would avenge

Let him be quick - the Viand flits -
It is a faded Meat -
Anger as soon as fed is dead -
'Tis starving makes it fat -

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Emily Dickinson sickened one last time and died peacefully at home, cared for by her sister, surrounded by those she loved. At her quiet memorial–she refused church services–Susan said:

To her life was rich, and all aglow with God and immortality. With no creed, no formalized faith, hardly knowing the names of dogmas, she walked this life with the gentleness and reverence of old saints, with the firm steps of martyrs who sing while they suffer. How better note the flight of this "soul of fire in a shell of pearl" than by her own words—

Emily Dickinson had left instructions with her sister to destroy all the letters she kept and all her writings, but when Lavinia found the trunk with all of Emily's poems, she couldn't bring herself to destroy them.

She asked Susan to edit them for publication, but Susan never followed through, and finally Lavinia turned to Higginson and Mabel Todd Loomis–yes that Higginson and that Mabel Todd Loomis–to edit the poems for publication.

Mabel did so, but only after altering them to fit the standards of the day, and after the publishers broke apart Emily's careful little booklets, and arranged them in categories popular at the time. It was not until the 1950's that Thomas Johnson began the work to publish the poems in the original form.

After reading so much about Emily Dickinson, I wonder about the act that saved her work. Did Lavinia betray her sister in saving the poems for publication? Or was the act redeemed when the poems were returned to their original form?

As for our own culpability, do we betray Emily when we read her poetry these many years later, when each poem should have been it's own bit of flame and ash? Or would it be a greater betrayal not to read them, and cherish their uniqueness?

"People say a word dies when it is written by the pen,
but for me that word's Life is just about to begin."
- Emily Dickinson

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Writings:

Reflections:

Me and Emily: Getting to Know You

Today I packed my trunks with borrowed books and made my way through the grey and thoughtful day to fulfill my duty returning my overdue books to the library.

The library is my main charity because I am almost always late returning books and consequently pay nice, fat fines. We have a very good deal worked out between us: I check out books whose yellowed pages crack with unused age; and in exchange give them money they can use to buy bright, eye catching masterpieces of the moment, such as Who Moved my Cheese.

Still, my room has taken on a slightly acidic smell from failing books and my cat can't lie in the sun on my desk, and it's time to return my library and begin anew.

Among the books I returned today were Emily Dickinson books: the spine stretched Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson; Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet, the book that roared; Portrait of Emily Dickinson by Higgens with is mention of Emily like bits of candied pineapple among the cake of others faces.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

There was the enigmatic Open me Carefully with letters from Emily to her sister-in-law with little interpretation, which was remarkably refreshing. Fisher's We Dickinsons was an easy read, a fanciful tale of Emily told from the perspective of her brother, and geared for young high school eyes and ears — all goodness and humor with nary a dark spot to spoil the white pages. It's badly out of print, having scrubbed all the parts suited to the macabre nature of youth.

There was Habegger's My Wars are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickson, with a minimum of all that sentimental rubbish about the poet. There was another book, and now I can't even remember the name but it had a green cover, an author whose name began with 'H' and repeated bits and pieces from most of what the other books said, which is probably why I can't remember it and didn't bother to write down the title. I am not a biographer or responsible historian. I am only a curious person.

If you search for books on Emily Dickinson at Amazon or some other online books store you'll literally find thousands about her, covering every aspect of her life from sex to prayer:

Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief, by Roger Lundin

My Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe

The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson, by Genevieve Taggard

Emily Dickinson and her Culture: The Soul's Society, by Barton Levi St. Armand

Emily Dickinson's Gothic: Goblin with a Gauge, by Daneen Wardrop

Feminists Critics read Emily Dickinson, by Suzanne Juhasz (ed)

Visiting Emily, The Diary of Emily Dickinson, Taking off Emily Dickinson's Clothes, A Vice for Voices, Emily Dickinson the Metaphysical Tradition…

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After a while, though, the books begin to blur together, differing only in their amazing variation of interpretation of a single word or simple act.

There are online sources devoted to Emily, too. One only has to search on Emily Dickinson to return hundreds of thousands of pages, including complete collections of her poems — in two different spots. Considering the number of poems in question, that's a lot of poetry. Emily Dickinson wrote close to 2000 poems, and over 1000 of her letters to friends and family have survived, though not always unedited.

And the conjecture about her life! There is much fascination with the fact that she only wore white later in life, but if she had just chosen to wear black, nothing would have been said about the sameness of her dress. Her letters and poems are pulled and used as proof of her erotic love for both man and woman, so much so that it began to irritate me greatly, the historians can become so self-sure about their interpretations. I have to think that if she had truly loved as many people as has been claimed, there would have been no room left for writing — all her time would have been spent in a tizzy of frustrated longing with swirls of faces floating about.

Then there's the bees. She wrote passionately several times about the bees. I am sure there was something kinky about that.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

We hear stories about her reclusiveness, but facts surface and we find out that she actually attended church from time to time, or would visit a friend, and see people who visited. In truth, if she weren't Emily Dickinson we would look at her life and not see anything more than an affluent, educated woman with a small circle of friends and family who liked to write a lot, was generous with those in need, but reserved and even shy around strangers and larger crowds, liked to cook and garden, didn't like to travel, and didn't go out very much.

There are facts we know: Emily Dickinson was the middle child of three children, born to affluent parents in a town, Amherst, Massachusetts, steeped in family history. Older brother named William Austen, younger sister named Lavinia. Mother ill much of her life, father domineering, but not punitive, and brother leading an interesting but not outstanding life. She and her sister were educated, and were encouraged in their education but not to the point of independence; neither married, both lived at home, took care of their mother, and then their father and then each other.

They had a considerable number of friends who held them in respect and affection, and both were regular correspondents, even with those who lived in town. Both did travel some, but not much and primarily to visit family, or in Emily's case, to get care for her eyes, which troubled her most of her life.

Emily was interested in books and magazines and journals and was very well read; she loved her dictionary and liked to spend time just reading its pages, discovering new words. To some extent she was interested in the politics of the time, being for the freeing of slaves, but resisting the popular call to join the Christian revolution sweeping New England when she was younger. In fact, if she stood out for any one thing more than another, it was her ambivalent feelings about religion.

"Heavenly Father" — take to thee
The supreme iniquity
Fashioned by thy candid Hand
In a moment contraband –
Though to trust us — seems to us
More respectful — "We are Dust" –
We apologize to thee
For thine own Duplicity –

Emily was a good cook and had a passion for gardening but was indifferent to most other housework. She would make care baskets for those ill, worry about those in trouble, mourn, greatly, friends and family who died, and liked to tease those she cherished. She was friendly with neighborhood children, but didn't attend many functions, nor did she see many people. One can sense in her letters and in letters about her, that she lived the life she wanted, not one forced on her, by either family or circumstances. In my favorite letter to her sister-in-law Sue, Emily wrote:

We go out very little - once in a month or two, we both set sail in silks - touch at the principal points, and then put into port again - Vinnie cruises about some to transact the commerce, but coming to anchor is most that I can do. Mr. and Mrs. Dwight are a sunlight to me, which no night can shade, and I shall perform weekly journeys there, much to Austin's dudgeon and my sister's rage.

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I could go on and doing so repeat other facts easily found online (thus forcing that student coming here to seek answers for their paper, "Who is Emily Dickinson" to give up in frustration at this point and move on…). I think the important thing to remember, though, is that Emily Dickinson wasn't that different from many unmarried, affluent, strong minded, white women of the time except for two important things: she loved to write, and she could write. Whether you like her writing or not, it was and is powerful and complex, and I think that's why so much conjecture happens — how could someone who writes like this lead such a simple life?

The answer is in her work. Emily saw the richness, the nuances in every day life — of simple likes and dislikes, bees in the spring, autumn leaves, books, family and friends, dictionaries and words, questions of God, slavery, and dying.

How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn't care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears –
Whose Coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity –

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I started this quest trying to better understand Emily Dickinson but after reading page after page about her life, I find myself no closer to understanding what she was like, fully, as a person. All we know about her is through her writing: her poetry and her letters. Unfortunately, writing allows the writer to hide in plain view.

The funny thing about this research is that I am not, or was not, a fan of Dickinson poetry. Oh there were some poems that I liked, but for the most part, I found her work to be cryptic: too verbally rich with too many impressions compressed into too few words. I could not find the key that would open her poetry to me and allow to read poem after poem without feeling an ache in my neck, product of restlessness that lets me know that no matter how much I try to discipline my mind, what I am reading is not connecting with me.

It was a chance remark that sent me on this quest: about Emily Dickinson being unpublished except for a few friends and family while she was alive. I had not studied about Emily Dickinson in school and didn't know about her obscurity in her lifetime. It amazed me that she wrote thousands and thousands of words that went unpublished during a time when all intellectuals — male and female — aspired to appear in print in one way or another.

I wondered, did she mind?

He scanned it-staggered-
Dropped the Loop
To Past or Period-
Caught helpless at a sense as if
His Mind were going blind-

Groped up, to see if God was there-
Groped backward at Himself
Caressed a Trigger absently
And wandered out of Life.

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Did she mind that she was unknown? Did she mind that her works weren't being read by many others? We talk about the writer who loves to write regardless of the audience, but scratch this insouciance ever so slightly, and you'll find that there is a drive within most of us to be read. I am not so 'pure' as writer as to be indifferent whether my writing is read or not.

Was Emily indifferent? This sent me to the library and the Internet, and eventually, to a deeper look at her work. In them, over time, I found a connection to Emily Dickinson and her work, and I wonder if that is the strength of her longevity and the root of her popularity — she articulates our formless thoughts and that's why her writing is so unique, and sometimes so difficult.

Before my readings,I found Emily's poems difficult to read, and could count on two hands ones that I liked; now, I find I can read all of her work and it means something to me and I can't bear to choose between the writings to find favorites.

I found the key to Emily Dickinson's poems — it was within me all along. But it was in her letters and in the words of those who discussed her after death that I found the answer to the question, "Did she mind?"

You cannot make Remembrance grow
When it has lost its Root –
The tightening the Soil around
And setting it upright
Deceives perhaps the Universe
But not retrieves the Plant –
Real Memory, like Cedar Feet
Is shod with Adamant –
Nor can you cut Remembrance down
When it shall once have grown –
Its Iron Buds will sprout anew
However overthrown –

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Writings:

Reflections:

Butterfly and Bee

Butterfly sat on a yellow flower, she did. A beautiful yellow flower, it was. Against the bright blue sky it shown, with nector sweet as cane. Bee came up behind her, he did. And buzzed around her head, he flew. Tiny voice cried out, she heard. "Oh, please spare a drop for me."

Butterfly flapped her bright wings, she did. And fluffed her feelers clean, they were. She stared at the bee by her head, he was. (Considering his desperate plea, he hoped.) Soft voice tickled the air, so cruel. "Why spare I", she said. "This last autumn's delight?"

Bee buzzed louder and louder, he did. In agitation at having to think, it hurt. Shutting eyes tight to focus, it thought. In thinking it forgot to fly, it fell. Below the yellow flower, it hit. Tiny brain exhausted from thought, it died. Returned to the earth of its birth.

Butterfly leaned over the flower, she did. At the bee on the ground below her, it lay. She thought of shedding a tear, in sorrow. But her time comes tomorrow, she knows. Back to the yellow flower, she turned. Lowering her head to the nector, she supped. Warmth of sun on her wings, she felt, one last moment of peace.

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Writings:

Mirror

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful –
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

Sylvia Plath, "Mirror"

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Writings:

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