Dickinson & The Left Hand of
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens
Shadows – hold their breath
When it goes, ‘tis like the
On the look of Death –
Who is the speaker in this
Emily Dickinson poem? Sometimes I
imagine her as a bored churchgoer. She looks up from her prayer book
this depressing winter light slanting through the stained-glass
Other times I envision her
as a solitary spinster. Bundled
on the back porch, she takes comfort in a familiar vista. But then the
sunlight changes just so – bringing with it a devastating dose of
(but edifying) melancholy.
Regardless of her setting,
it is reasonable to conclude she
is still. When one is in motion, the winter light – its angle,
its brightness, its
“heft” – fluctuates with the observer’s
shifting perspective. The actual slant
of the light keeps changing. There’s nothing
“certain” about it.
I thought of this recently
while reading passages – and
poetry – from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The
Left Hand of Darkness:
Light is the left hand of
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.
The congruency between
“hand of light” and “slant of light”
invites a comparison. As does Genly Ai’s midwinter musing on the
meaning of an
“internal difference” in Chapter 18:
“I am not trying to
say that I was happy, during those weeks
of hauling a sledge across an ice-sheet in the dead of winter. I was
overstrained, and often anxious, and it all got worse the longer it
went on. I
certainly wasn’t happy. Happiness has to do with reason, and only
it. What I was given was the thing you can’t earn, and
can’t keep, and often
don’t even recognize at the time; I mean joy” (242).
Despite fifty days of
traveling in subzero conditions, not
once does Ai or his traveling companion Estraven confess to
despair. In fact, to judge by the above passage, the opposite takes
Is it farfetched – and too extra-textual – to attribute
their joy to exertion
while linking the “heavenly hurt” of Dickinson’s
observer to her stasis? Maybe – but that’s my theory. In
Ai’s view, the winter
light is not something “that oppresses.” Instead,
“the long light of early day
lay wonderfully gold and blue across the miles of ice” (243).
Of course, this is the
light of early day, not afternoon.
But when afternoon arrives, Ai and Estraven are too busy surviving the
study the light – let alone record how it makes them feel:
“Around midday we
would halt, and cut and set up a few blocks of ice for a protective
wall if the
wind was strong. We heated water to soak a cube of gichy-michy in, and
the water hot, sometimes with a bit of sugar melted in it; harnessed up
and went on” (244).
This brings me to a final fact
about Dickinson's observer. Not once does she lament the elements.
Cold, snow, wind, and ice are conspicuously absent from her poem. It
makes you wonder if her "heavenly hurt" would have appeared if -
instead of sitting still - she'd been in scarf, gloves, and boots,
sledding or slipping, skiing or shoveling.
Ilan Mochari's fiction has been published in Keyhole and honored by Glimmer Train.
In 2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship grant from the
Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts
Cultural Council. He is a former staff writer for Inc, and he has also
written for Fortune Small Business and CFO. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.