Death & Prayer : Dickinson & Doran

I never lost as much but twice,
And that was in the sod.
Twice have I stood a beggar
Before the door of God!

Angels — twice descending
Reimbursed my store –
Burglar! Banker — Father!
I am poor once more!

-Emily Dickinson

One of the reasons Dickinson is so imminently readable is her simple plaintive poems that call up the deep experiences of life. The poem above depicts a prayerful struggle with God over death of a third child.  Twice before the speaker of the poem has lost as much, each time angels descend to give reimbursement, recalling the annunciation, and now the speaker calls on God again, but in a mixture of anger and love, “Burglar! Banker” with piety triumphing in the end “Father!”.  Few poems of such economy do as much.

I was recently reminded of this poem after rereading “Hurry the Iowa Cornfields” by Geri Doran (from her excellent award winning debut Resin):

Hurry the Iowa Cornfields

Harder to live a life than cross a field.
–Russian Proverb

Twice now in the declining light
I’ve carried my prayer to the field,
the flashlight’s fluttering oval

like lamplight in a library not yet dark–
a shield of the wary
against inescapable consequences.

And though I make my bid
in a field of near-ripe corn
my floundering god refuses me,

leaves me the rattle of stalks,
the shapes of my desires
numerous and thin.

Here it is nothing to remember
the purblind shriek of the bird,
domestic and white,

sensing hawk–nothing
to remember its idiot call,
here I am, caged.

If caged, you dare not call.
Yet to a field of corn I cannot cross
I come at dusk to stand in the rows,

rummaging in inadequate light
for gold silk turned to brown,
for ripeness, answering.

“Twice now” is the first clue that harkens to Dickinson’s poem, but both are prayers and deal with death. Death imagery stems from the attention to darkness: “declining light”, “not yet dark”, “dusk” and “inadequate light”. Just as the seasons are a common metaphor for birth, maturation, and death, so too is a day a picture of life. The speaker carries a flashlight as “a shield…against inescapable consequences” something that isn’t true of darkness, darkness can be escaped from, but Death cannot be.

But more than this is the section toward the end of the bird startled from the field. To understand this image we must know that birds shriek in danger (“sensing hawk”) to draw attention to themselves thereby drawing danger away from their nest. For the bird to call out “here I am, caged” but to be caged would be foolish (“you dare not call”); the bird only calls to attract attention away from her young. The speaker in a poem comes to a field to struggle with god, her floundering god. Like Job the speaker is bold to lay charges against this power and demands an answer.

The answer given is oblique. The poem ends with the speaker rummaging for ripeness in a near-ripe cornfield. It is the end of summer, near harvest, the corn stalks are dying, the gold silk turning brown, and once brown the corn will be ready to harvest. This cornfield, near death, is answering the speaker’s “idiot call”, the “purblind shriek” that hopes to draw off the stumbling god who uses death so inescapably. The only answer for a question of such pain and sorrow (Why death? Burglar! floundering god!) could only be answered by an uncrossable field.

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