T Is So Much Joy Poem Analysis Essays

This poem opens with the speaker’s declaration that she “can wade Grief –,“ that is, she is used to pain (“I’m used to that –“) and so has no problem getting through it, and surviving it, even large amounts of it (“Whole Pools of it –“). But surprisingly, even only a small amount of happiness (“But the least push of Joy”) makes her metaphorically stumble (“Breaks up my feet –“) and fall (“And I tip – drunken –“).

She tells the pebbles—that is, the witnesses to this fall—not to mock her (“Let no Pebble – smile –“), for it is just that she has no tolerance for the alcohol of happiness, not having had any experience with it (“’Twas the New Liquor – That was all!”). She then explains that power can come only from pain (“Power is only Pain –“) that is intentionally isolated (“Stranded, thro’ Discipline”) and used, like weights in physical training, as resistance (“Till Weights – will hang –“).

She claims that if you give medicine or anything soothing or helpful to giants (“Give Balm – to Giants”), they will become as weak as normal humans (“And they’ll wilt, like Men –“), but if you give them a mountain (“Give Himmaleh –“), that is, a challenge, they will rise to it and show their greatest strength (“They’ll Carry – Him!”). This metaphor says that happiness only makes people weak, while pain and hardship allow their greatest strength to shine through.

Analysis

“I can wade Grief –“ enacts a common Dickinson maneuver, that of taking something largely viewed as negative, here pain, but often failure, and showing that it is not purely negative. She has a great regard for strength, and in this poem, as in “Dare you see a soul at the White Heat?” her speaker declares that such strength, and the power that it brings, can come only from hardship. This poem does not just transform a negative into a positive, but shows how what is usually considered positive—joy—is also negative.

The metaphors she uses to describe this all deal with physical strength, but it is clear that what she is actually talking about, what these metaphors stand for, is emotional. She describes happiness as not just weakening—bringing giants down to the level of mere humans—but also as intoxicating. Even the smallest amount of joy makes her act so drunk as to not be able to walk without stumbling, for like liquor, joy is more powerful when one has no tolerance for it.

The parallel structure of the metaphor in the final four lines emphasizes the either-or stance of this poem—one either faces hardship, and becomes stronger, or has joy, and is weakened. There is no happy medium, it seems, so that hardship becomes the only good choice. The strength gained through pain or hardship in this poem, as opposed to the weakness caused by happiness or ease, at first seems useful, however, only in facing those very hardships as they come. The giants, for example, use the “Himmaleh”—the challenge they are given—only to gain the strength to overcome that very same challenge, in the act of lifting it.

Yet, if we take this poem to be not just about living, but about writing poetry, we can see that happiness certainly, in Dickinson’s view, does not lead to impressive or important poetry, because the person drunk on it certainly will not see the world with the clarity required for art. Instead, pain provides that clarity, sharpening the poet’s perceptions and ability to reproduce life truthfully. This is reflected in the two stanzas rhymes schemes, or lack of them. The first stanza has very little rhyming, while the poet is drunk with joy, and stumbling, whereas the final stanza, though not a clear rhyme scheme, has many off-rhymes, and so seems to hang together more tightly, thanks to the clarity of pain.

Thus the strength gained from pain becomes not just helpful in facing that same pain, but in being able to produce something meaningful or powerful, and it is thus not just a tool for survival, but a tool for living better, for creating something more powerful than oneself—if one has the “Discipline” to use it well, and not just wallow in it. Going through pain, then, becomes not just a way to better and strengthen oneself, but a selfless act to better the world.

"...a joy so unaccountable..."

On Joy

Last night's rain has filled the fields
with cornflowers, blue-bright as moons
in children's books, all milky light.
They seem, my father says, the kind of color
that could show up in the night.


Cornflowers wilt in heat.
By noon the sun will burn the fields
green, as if no bloom had known them.
I picked one to keep, and now
it's the color of paper. My mother's sick.
Today begins her twenty-second day of radiation.
As I write she is strapped to a table
under fourteen floors, face held to a net
of white while instants of light like lead move
through her. I don't know how to say it.

Past these fields are others no one sees,
and past them oak and poplar trees, the evergreen
that slopes up toward a mountain range the same
blue shade and lucid gleam as these quick blooms.
Last night, rain fell in flooded streams.
I tried to wait, but dinner starts at six and by the time
I'd reached the house my dress was slick.
I didn't rush. The drops were warm
and made me laugh out loud--the laughter's sound
my own, but strange, the way that when
we listen, breath is strange.
As if our loneliness were something I could speak,
when even crickets know we only speak to air.
I want to ask the air, then, how a love
so skilled at longing can become
enough. Why do prayers to no one comfort us?
I want so much. I want a faith I've not
Invented, something hard, uncontested as our yard's
wooden table, something that won't ever sound
like my name. Now the afternoon's late.
Light sharpens the skyline like glass in a lens,
making mountains look bluer against where they end.
This light must come from nowhere.

Last night, I walked to dinner on a gravel road
through rain into a joy so unaccountable
and plain, it did not need a witness. But walking back, 
the rain had lifted. And in its place, mist drifted low:
a thousand-fingered ghost that seemed to coax
each leaf and blade into a long, inhaled wait,
though what arrival they awaited had already left.
I stopped to watch, but wept.
We've moved for months through hospitals,
learned every name for star-shaped cells
doctors cut from my mother's brain and stained
onto slides before calling us into an office.
Maybe we don't bear the unbearable. Maybe
we die with it. And in our place some larger,
less impatient shape may then be granted space
but I don't want it. I want my mother.

Sometimes beside her in the bed while trying
to tell her I'm okay, I start to weep.
She watches me. Her eyes are distant now,
gone deep inside some gravely gentle place
where, with a stranger's curiosity, she seems to  ask
What can I do with your sadness? She has no use for it.
We will lose what we love, and our suffering
is useless, and by dusk all the crickets will thrum
their one absence of warning. That trace of light
against the hills will spread through trees, undo
the ends of evergreen, then fall to fields. It will not hold.
As if it means to urge us, look. Love's body must
be manifold. Black cricket shell, new summer air,
late light. The landscape's all ablaze
with gentle strangers. Look. We're standing in a field.

Silverman, Taije. "On Joy," Houses Are Fields (Louisiana State University Press, 2009).
By permission of the author.
***

Grief

Let it be seeds.
Let it be the slow tornado of seeds from the oak tree
by the gates to the playground in May wind.
Today is mother's day and someone said it is almost impossible
to remember something before you know the word for it
and the babies in their mothers' arms
stare at the seeds and they don't know
the word for falling.  Nor the word for sudden or whirling.
Let it be something that doesn't last, not the moon.
Let it not be the rooftops that are so quiet.
Let it come to the white doorstep like rain and slide 
onto the sidewalk not knowing.  What is gentle if not time
but it's not time that is gentle, what will happen in the future
does not matter.  Cicadas underground are called nymphs
and their wings look like tree seeds.  Trapped under skin
and as soft as the dirt that surrounds them.
Teneral is a word for the days between
when the cicada digs its way out of earth and begins to sing
and when its self and shell are still
a single, susceptible thing.  It is impossible
to remember.  Let it be the years
underground, molting nymph skin
and moving in the soil without sound. 
It's not time that is gentle but what unknown sign,
a method of counting each spring through the roots of a tree.
How they learn from the taste of a root's juice the moment
when in one rush they should push up to earth. 
Teneral, meaning not yet hardened, a sense before a memory
of the shell.  Let it be the sign in the cells
of the blind safe skin, the limbo of gold
walling here and there, where the baby waits
between a mother's body and the air's tears, he came
to my breast and rested, there was no before.
Let it be the gold room with its lack of door, that time
of day, cicadas will wait until sunset to break through the dirt.
Where did he go while I pushed?  Let it be.
We stood in the tunnel of seeds, windmills, a tree
had come to make promises.  Rain to stone, rain to street.
They seemed while they fell to be lifting and we waited, watching,
the baby without words for what we were seeing.
Seeds pushing roots, brick, and dirt don't say
what they know about time. Rise.  For days the whole town will sing.

Silverman, Taije. "Grief," Massachusetts Review, Summer, 2015. By permission of the author.
***

     I have a requirement for poets that might be considered, well, unconsidered, naïve or possibly delusional.  Yet, I swear there are such poets: poets as good as their words, so we aren't asked to choose--as Yeats thought we had to--between the perfection of the life or the work, but can see them as inseparable.  And if perfection is, perhaps, too strict a word, let's say instead that the careful making of the work need not be separate from the making of an awake and caring life.  That the poet should have what Brooks Haxton once described in a lecture as "candor," a virtue that draws its roots from the same shining as the word "candle," a quality in poetry that he described as fidelity to one's own mind--which takes one into a place where most of us tend to turn away.  He located such candor where he'd first encountered it, in the cadences of the ancient Greeks, in a kind of rich tonal music that enables it, as if, without that pitch perfect ear, no chance to reach that hard-to-come-by fidelity. 
     The poetry of Taije Silverman (Taije rhyming with page, and sage) has the virtue of lyric candor; she has that inner, musical ear, and writes directly from where she is: in the midst of change which, being our mortal condition, does not permit the mind to rest on what it already knew or counted on, or would like to believe.  Her finely tuned and sensitive web of feeling is matched by a searching intellect, one reaching always toward fuller knowledge--and poetic language is her instrument of approach, her way of knowing. 
     I've chosen two of her poems, from two very different moments in her life--one that lives in the presence of loss and a longing barely accessible to language.  The other poem, more recent, is concerned with her own marriage and motherhood, shaped by what, in the very nature of these choices, transcends longing, and asks of the language of candor new explorations and differently modulated intensities. Both poems are inseparable from what she is living.
     What fascinates about these poems is how they embody the contradiction in which we have our being: for the one called "On Joy" is lived in the setting of grief for the loss of a beloved mother, and the one called "Grief," written ten years later, is about giving birth, oppositions joined because it is Mother's Day; so it is a poem that knows grief, but its images are instinct with joy and promise--a storm of seeds, a baby who "came to my breast and rested, there was no before."  
     The first poem, "On Joy," is poised on the threshold of that unimaginable space, "never," as her mother, still quite young, is dying, slowly, of brain cancer--a loving mother who will grow not just weaker but stranger, an estrangement that the poem will track.  How does someone look this close--as this poem and others from her book Houses are Fields do--protectively but frankly, in all the complexity of emotion and perception, at what she cannot bear?  The sometimes harrowing and sometimes gentle beauty of these poems of dawning awareness of what time brings and grief entails is in their candor, their fidelity to what is witnessed and transmuted musically, catching the nuances of consciousness, as well as what confounds it. 
    The first stanza has an innocent music of simple images, resonant sounds: "cornflowers/ blue-bright as moons/ in children's books, milky white," connecting childhood, moonglow, and mother-milk, one sentence flowing through three lines, followed by the reassurance of the father's affirming voice.  In the next stanza, the tone will shift, with the abrupt, one-line sentence whose image and curt words announce cruel day, the truth of the ephemeral : "Cornflowers wilt in heat."   The poem intricately structures time and contemplation, moving back and forth between "Last night's rain" with its experience of "unaccountable" joy, and the extended torment of "now" in which the cornflower she picked to keep has become "the color of paper. My mother's sick./ Today begins her twenty-second day of radiation." At the poem's center, interrupting this meditation, written in the cadenced composure of possibility, comes the cri de coeur--wrenched into a simple, demanding declarative:
          Maybe we don't bear the unbearable. Maybe
          we die with it.  And in our place some larger
          less impatient shape may then be granted space,
          but I don't want it. I want my mother.
As it closes, the poem returns through suffered awareness to the feeling in the word joy, one that far exceeds the more self-satisfied sense of the word happiness.  "We will lose what we love, and our suffering is useless..."; it is dusk and the dying of the light--a trace of light that "will not hold"-- directs vision through and beyond the familiar:
          As if it means to urge us, look. Love's body must
          be manifold. Black cricket shell, new summer air,
          late light.  The landscape's all ablaze
          with gentle strangers. Look. We're standing in a field.
Authentic joy is carried in the rhythm itself of these lyrical lines, humming with m's and liquid with l's, as the company in the field that opens the ending, and opens time, calls us back to the epigraph from Sophocles' Antigone that also gave the book its title, where Desire is directed "to visit the far dwellers whose houses are fields." 
     The newer poem, "Grief," that is flooded with tender new life, opens with language that resembles prayer: "Let it be seeds./ Let it be the slow tornado of seeds from the oak tree..." This prayerful phrase recurs throughout the poem, driving it, till its last appearance frees it entirely from request or questioning: Let it be.  While the other poem is full of the wailing assonance of long a's, this one is dominated by those long ee's, and the soft vowels: the short e of self, cell and shell, gentle and teneral, and the short i of nymph, skin, windmills, cicadas, and sing. And a single, susceptible thing. 
     And the central metaphor is drawn through seeds and cicadas, especially that stage when the cicada, just below earth, is not yet hardened, with all that implies of a radical innocence--a sense before a memory/ of the shell.  The poem celebrates this tenderness in a form that is so embedded in earth and natural process that it escapes all the cloying conventional sentiments that accrue to infants and tenderness. So much in this poem seems as if seen for the first time.
     In its finely calibrated correspondences and nuanced intelligence, the poem investigates memory, language and knowledge, an inquiry that opens in line four with "Someone said it is almost impossible/to remember something before you know the word for it," and culminates near the poem's end and at the edge of language on the turn of a line: "...watching, / the baby without words for what we were seeing. /Seeds pushing roots, brick, and dirt don't say/what they know about time," suggesting an innate knowledge, proven in its inevitable unfolding--seed to oak, cicada to song.  When the poem ends on "For days the whole town will sing," the poem in its own intricate unfolding brought to mind an image of Richard Wilbur's: "the singing locust of the soul unshelled." It takes an extraordinarily subtle and sensitive imagination to accomplish such a thing, and it seems to me that these poems of Taije Silverman do exactly that.

Taije Silverman is the author of House Are Fields.

MacArthur Fellow Eleanor Wilner is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently, Tourist in Hell. 

     



 

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