Painting Emily Dickinson
The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—
The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—
A dramatic shift in pace and in age — I’ve been painting an Emily Dickinson poem these days. On the one hand, it is a part of this grander quest for a space of unity between poetry and painting. On the other, I am following ModPo 2016 at Coursera.org, and this week’s assignment was close reading of a poem by Emily Dickinson. The painting is — possibly — still in-progress, and below are my close-reading notes informed by this attempt at painting translation.
Dickinson uses this word in such a way as to override the mind-matter duality: brain “stands for” both the material tissue inside one’s head and the mind. In my dictionary, these are two different meanings for brain (1. Tissue; 2. Mind). In lexicography, this structure implies that these meanings cannot be present simultaneously: in each individual usage, the word means either one or the other (otherwise, they would be listed under the same number, in a comma-separated list). I believe my dictionary is correct as far as everyday usage of this word is concerned.
But in this case (as probably in many others), the English language is smarter than its users and lexicographers. Ask a scientist, and the mind and the brain turn out to be the same thing — or rather, two alternative ways to describe the same thing. But the language knew that already, and that’s what Dickinson sees and brings out here. She “wipes away” the duality and falsifies the artificial boundary between the two meanings. In the poem, brain has both meanings simultaneously: the “matter” meaning is evoked by talking about dimensions and weight, the “mind” meaning — by its ability to contain the sky (and the sea, and God). Had she used the word mind here, the poem would have become both trivial (we all know that one’s mind contains the sky, and the sea, and God, too) and false (mind has neither spatial dimensions nor weight).
2. Contain // With ease — and You — beside
An interesting — pseudo-rational — argument of why the brain is wider than the sea. It’s simply because once we put the sea in it, there is still place for You. It can be my (the speaker’s) brain containing the person I talk to (you), or it can be your (the listener’s) brain containing yourself (apart from the sea). Here, too, I believe both interpretations are invoked at the same time.
3. Blue to Blue
This quatrain begins as though it is going to be structurally and semantically parallel to the first one: wider than the sky, deeper than the sea. This expectation is interrupted by the puzzlingly surprising idea that Brain is Blue. Why is it?
On the one hand, it invokes the meaning of blue as “sad, melancholic, depressed”. On the other, I am reminded of Kandinsky’s insight into what he calls “spiritual meanings” of colours. For him, Blue stands for spiritual (as opposed to material), divine, heavenly. This is related to the fact that blue recedes: if something is bluer, it’s generally perceived as being more distant, or even moving away (this effect is often called “atmospheric perspective”). I am not sure, of course, whether it was Dickinson’s intention to invoke this quality.
4. Absorb As Sponges—Buckets—do—.
Because of the non-conventional punctuation, and because the first meaning of bucket is “container”, I first interpreted Buckets as an alternative to Sponges (a kind of “correction”, where the brain is compared to a bucket, rather than a sponge). But then, buckets don’t really absorb, do they?
So the intended meaning is probably buckets as in “large quantities of liquid”. But I think it’s important that the language’s pervasive tendency to conflate “containers” and their contents as meanings of one single word is invoked here, in the reader’s momentary confusion over which meaning to choose. I think it’s important, because its reminiscent of the core motive of the poem: the brain as both a container and its “contents”.
5. just the weight of God.
The poem suddenly moves from truisms (“the sky is wide, the sea is deep”) to an (almost) blasphemy: God is heavy? You can heft him (or her, or it, or them) Pound for Pound? The idea of God being heavy is smuggled in almost imperceptibly at first, through the lullaby quality of the sky-is-wide-sea-is-deep comforting parallelism.
It’s really this Pound for Pound that brings it home, strikingly, especially after the much more lyrical Blue to Blue of the second quatrain. It invokes a rather disturbing, Dali-worthy, picture of a person carefully hefting a pound of God in one hand and a pound of (their own?) brain in the other. In its turn, this picture brings with it the Merchant of Venice, and his pound of flesh just about to be cut off.
How did it happen, that God becomes as heavy as the sky is wide and the sea is deep? One image that comes to mind is an ocean shore, where all one sees is the sky, and the sea, and the rocks breaking the waves. Now here is something as prototypically heavy as the sea is deep. It is as though God replaces rocks in a familiar seascape.
Interestingly, there is another expectation broken by this quatrain. The width in the first quatrain, and the depth in the second, prime the reader for the third spacial dimension, height. And indeed, God is high would be much “easier” than God is heavy.
6. As Syllable from Sound
Which is of these is compared to God, and which to Brain? Dickinson leaves the question open. But even if she didn’t, it won’t help us decide which might turn out to be a little heavier, because how do we compare Sound to Syllable?
On the one hand, Syllable is a kind of Sound. It is a linguistic sound, a component of speech, and there are certain structural constraints (there ought to be one vowel, and — possibly — one or more consonants on either side of it). So Syllable is something much more defined than Sound, and much more human: it is a part of human language, whereas sounds can be non-human. It is also the stuff of poetry: syllabic structure is much more salient in a poem than in the language in general.
With the most general sense of sound in mind, one can say that Syllable is something much smaller (lighter?) than Sound. But Sound can also refer to a single phoneme (or phone) of language (as in “the sounds of the English language”): if we focus on this meaning, then a syllable consists of one or more sounds — so it is potentially larger than a sound, but not necessarily (/a/ is both a sound (in this sense) and a syllable).
So, in the end, which is which? Which of this strange pair is Brain, and which is God in Dickinson’s comparison?
I am inclined to think God might be to Brain what Sound is to Syllable (that is, that this is the insight of this poem), because Syllable is more human, and more structurally constrained, and more unambiguous than Sound. But the puzzling quality of the comparison might be even more important than any answer after all.
Still, I cannot help thinking that Colour is to Painting what Sound is to Syllable.