Wednesday, November 7, 2012

In Memoriam 3

At the time of our field trip I was taking one of my last two classes for graduate school. The class was a study on Whitman and Dickinson, not two of my favorite people. But my perspective changed that semester and in large part thanks to Paul. Less than a month after our trip, I read through some of Dickinson's poems with newly opened eyes. #439, "I had been hungry, all the years" caught me and stuck. Connecting with what Paul had taught me about life in the past month, here is a portion of a paper I wrote in that class, starting with Dickinson's poem first.

I had been hungry, all the years -
My Noon had come - to dine -
I, trembling, drew the Table near -
And touched the Curious Wine -

'Twas this on Tables I had seen -
When turning, hungry, Home
I looked in Windows - for the Wealth
I could not hope - for Mine-

I did not know the ample Bread -
'Twas so unlike the Crumb
The Birds and I, had often shared
In Nature's - Dining Room -

The Plenty hurt me -'twas so new -
Myself felt ill - and odd -
As Berry - of a Mountain Bush -
Transplanted - to the Road -

Nor was I hungry - so I found
That Hunger - was a way
Of persons Outside Windows -
The entering - takes away -

Keeping in mind the literal definition of hunger, this poem is about a poor person who has not eaten well in years. In the second stanza we learn she has only glimpsed good food through the windows of more fortunate people and she had no hope of ever having that much, while the third stanza holds her marvel at the difference between a loaf of bread and a crumb. The last two stanzas reveal the speaker's awkwardness at being so well provided for; the food is in overwhelming abundance and, now that it is in front of her, she cannot bear to eat. This meaning is both rational and straightforward, as a person unaccustomed to eating well will become sick after eating a normal size portion of food.

On Dickinson's typically deeper level, this poem is about starvation of the soul. It is best explained with an analogous, yet true, story. Stanza by stanza, take a ninth grade student named Paul. Stanza one: At a young age he watched the cops tote his father and brother off to jail, his sister resides in a juvenile detention hall, and his mother's custody of him hangs by a thread because of her abusiveness. By now, Paul is emotionally and spiritually starved. Paul misbehaves because any decent "touch" of goodness is "Curious" and causes him to "tremble."

Stanza two: He attends school where at least ninety percent of the population is better off than he is or will ever be. He knows what success looks like, he sees it through the "Windows" of his teachers' careers and families, the clothes and cars of the other students, as well as the seniors applying for college. He doesn't even "hope" as he compares them to his GoodWill clothes full of stains and holes.

Stanzas three and four: Paul is excited about a field trip to a local college campus. But, once there, Paul realizes how "ample" the world really is, compared to what is "crumb" of life has been. The campus reeks of "Plenty" and he feels "ill" and "odd" while away from what he knows.

Stanza five: Knowing the cost and the improbability of ever claiming this "ample" world as his own, Paul resigns himself to life as he knows it. Fulfillment of your "Hunger" is easy to dream about when standing at the "Window" of possibility - but upon "entering" it is a whole new ball game.

(May 7, 2008)


  1. I am speechless. This so speaks to the disenfranchised of today by looking in the eyes of one boy. Amazing writer that you are, amazing insight.

    1. Thanks. I think this was a lesson I was to learn at that time and place. I would never willingly take a poetry class. I read poetry, but I don't care to do in depth studies on it. Especially Dickinson and Whitman! Crazy, but I like them now. But I took that class because the college only offered one evening class per semester and if I didn't, I'd have to wait about nine months to finish my I sucked it up.

      And then exactly as that semester had started all of these events with Paul starting taking place. I don't believe in coincidences. These two things happened to teach me this lesson about people...a lesson I needed because I've always lived a privalaged life. I'm not rich by any means and my parents didn't have it easy raising us, but I've always been loved, always had food, shelter, clothing. I knew nothing of the other side...not in my heart.

      And I wonder at Emily Dickinson, what we know of her, pretty much a recluse. I wonder if she was a recluse because she saw these things and felt helpless?

  2. Just catching up with all your writing for the month and now I am official crying...

    1. I know. It tears me up to remember it.