I am alive — I guess —
The Branches on my Hand
Are full of Morning Glory —
And at my finger’s end —
The Carmine — tingles warm —
And if I hold a Glass
Across my Mouth — it blurs it —
Physician’s — proof of Breath —
I am alive — because
I am not in a Room —
The Parlor — Commonly — it is —
So Visitors may come —
And lean — and view it sidewise —
And add “How cold — it grew” —
And “Was it conscious — when it stepped
I am alive — because
I do not own a House —
Entitled to myself — precise —
And fitting no one else —
And marked my Girlhood’s name —
So Visitors may know
Which Door is mine — and not
This poem is interesting and to be honest I’m not entirely sure I understand it properly. Which frustrates me. In many of Dickinson’s poems you get the sense of a blurring of the distinctions between death and life – but whereas usually we’re presented with a speaker who’s already dead, describing her own death and hinting at the possibility that she is still in a sense ‘living’ somewhere else, here we have a figure who knows, from an intellectual point of view, that she is still alive – knows it because of the simple facts of the sense of touch, and the presence of breath on a glass, but more fundamentally still, knows she must be alive simply because she has not yet been through the experience of death.
A lot of people seem to think Dickinson was morbidly in love with death or something, but I’m not so sure. I think she was certainly fascinated by it, but simply because it was the one significant human experience which no one can really explain or understand, because they’d have to die in order to. She famously said ‘my business is circumference’ – if you imagine her at the centre of a circle, with all significant human experience spanning out around her, then death represents the line hemming it all in, which Dickinson never manages to break through no matter how hard she tries.
Anyway, back to this poem – 4th stanza she visualises the idea of being dead and people whispering by her cold body. Interestingly she refers to herself, the corpse, as it – suggesting complete and total inanimacy. Anyone who’s seen a dead body will know just how utterly lifeless it really does look – I know that’s a pretty obvious thing to say but it really is extraordinary how seeing a loved one in this changed state brings home the reality of death unlike anything else can. There is nothing of vitality or character left – it’s just an inanimate object, not a person any more.
Which brings me on to the 5th stanza – Dickinson frequently speaks of the grave as being a ‘house’, suggesting that even if she can’t envisage her speakers actually stepping in to heaven (she was a deeply disenchanted person) she still sees them as existing in some sense, in or beyond the grave. However, since the 4th stanza has just made it clear that a body is merely an object, and it is that same body which now lies inside the grave, the whole concept is reduced to the level of satire. In the nineteenth century it was commonplace to see the grave as a domestic setting – the existence of rural cemeteries which allowed families to fence in specific areas for their loved ones rendered particular areas almost ‘homely’, and this was a comfort to the bereaved, who could then imagine that they would rejoin their loved ones in a domestic setting after death. But I think the whole concept of faulse comfort made Dickinson deeply uneasy…
I’m running out of things to say…what I don’t fully understand is the 1st stanza, and the lines “The Branches on my Hand / Are full of Morning Glory”. If anyone reads this and can tell me what they think that means, it would be appreciated.
Phew. Long comment.
This poem was really deep and emotional an it reads
about how us blacks struggled if you look at it that
This poem describes most peoples lifes and how they are i love it