I’ve tried to read Emily Dickinson’s poems as much as I can this December. At first, I just wanted a reading challenge for the month that would fit into my need to be on the road inside Lagos during the week and out of it on most weekends. But reading Dickinson turned out to be more than a mere rote exercise. It was while reading Because I could not stop for Death in the first week of the month that I was remembered the events of last December.
Since I became aware of this, I’ve struggled with whether to write about it or now. I’ve documented the events around it a lot that I now feel weary just trying to dredge my memories. Remembrance can be a source of strength and grounding, but there are times when it’s simply a tiring activity. It’s bliss to be able to forget the past and look forward to the future; without this we’ll just be emotional wrecks always reliving our most painful memories (this is an obscure WestWorld reference; watch it if you haven’t).
I was in a party with friends and, as people laughed and danced, for a brief moment I saw the contrast between the moment and this time last year. Both were filled with joy, but one was borne out of pleasure and the other out of gratefulness for having journeyed for a moment with death and being free to alight.
The first two stanzas of the poem reads:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too
For His Civility –
The way death can catch up with you even when you do not give him a thought and have you enter his carriage is something I’m now more aware of. After the party, on the way home, two ladies who I hitched a ride with started to talk about a friend who they lost to that road recently. I looked outside and thought of what it would mean to end on this road, driving with mind on plans for how the weekend would be spent or what would happen on a Monday morning as business closes for the year.
Last week Friday, around 9pm on the same road, I passed a car that had sommersaulted on the service lane. The driver was laid on the sidewalk. Dead. A crowd gathered around it and a LASTMA official was taking pictures of the wreck. I wonder if these people were ever contemplating their immortality, if they are finally in a place where neither labour nor civility matters.
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
Emily’s poem goes on a brief recount of moments from her past: “the school, where Children strove” “the Fields of Grazing Grain –” “a House that seemed A swelling of the Ground –”. Like I said before, I’ve been trying to avoid memories, because they serve no visible purpose for me in days when I have to be productive from 9am to 5pm. But whether we contemplate our own house that will seem a swelling in the ground or not doesn’t matter. It exists somewhere for us. (At least it does if we go out conventionally and not in the middle of the ocean where we simply become fishmeal, or in brutal unrecognizable ways that render us nameless.)
I find I could not stop for Death remarkable because it reads like Dickinson is writing it from the afterlife. It was published, like many of her poems, post-humously, and it feel like she had a glimpse into how her life would be perceived decades after her death. I do not share the ability to have that glimpse with her, but trying to document each moment, each feeling is perhaps as close as I’ll ever get to it. She ends the poem with this:
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –
PS: I promised to write every week starting in November, and while it seems I didn’t not follow through on that decision, I really did, just had to do the writing for other platforms outside of mine. Will do a comprehensive post sharing the things I’ve written before the year ends.
Featured image via Flickr by Maggie Stephens