There’s a certain Slant of Light (258)
By Emily Dickinson
There’s a certain Slant of light,
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 Distance
On the look of Death–
Hold that thought for a few moments.
Today I encountered, across the broad greensward of a 19th century graveyard in Bradford, NH, fall’s golden slant of light that set the long row of yellow maples aflame and provided shadows in the recesses of the low gray stone wall. The air was newly crisp, after a week of what seemed as if New Hampshire had switched coasts with the rainy aspects of Washington state, and the intensity of the color, and the languorous, but steady, descent of leaves were nothing short of breathtaking.
But first, some back-story. Must always have back-story.
In 1993 I graduated from Goddard College with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, after spending three semesters working toward an M.A. in Feminist Art History. I’d got bitten by the writing bug, and when I told people what degree I was working on, I got only blank stares or “What are you going to do with that?” I thought about that question, so I switched disciplines. Four years earlier, in 1989, I earned my B.A. in Liberal Arts at Goddard (Concentration in Visual Art), a seventeen-year process wending backwards from SLU before Goddard, to Tulane, and Rockland Community College in Suffern, NY, where I completed an A.A. in 1974, Liberal Arts (concentration in English). It was while at RCC (the Summerhill-like–read hippie–off-campus College A, as it was called) that I was bitten by the shutter-bug. I carried a camera everywhere, and after several years of practice, developed my signature style of shooting with black and white infrared film, printing on Afga matte paper, sepia-toning and selectively hand-coloring the prints. Infrared film enhanced my love affair with light because of the hazing effects around highlights and living tissue, and my images were serene examples of the intersection of time and light.
All this is by way of explaining that when I encounter the waning, golden light that ramps up color intensity, I stop in my tracks, overwhelmed by visual and literary entreaties to document it that aren’t easily quieted. In fact, my creative juices try to outshout one another: capture it on film, write about it, until I’m ready to shout myself. I don’t carry a camera anymore–in fact, after earning a living as a photographer for twenty years, I no longer enjoy making art photographs–and I’m slack-jawed, struck dumb by what I see. Words–other than that particular phrase about light’s golden slant–don’t come.
When I was a novice writer, I recall showing something to a friend who had a doctorate in English (I’m pretty sure it was she and not one of my advisors at Goddard), in which I referred to fall’s “golden slant of light,” and asked for feedback. “You can’t use that phrase,” she proclaimed, and I, who worshipped at the feet of those with doctorates, was defensive.
“Why?” I asked. “How else can you say what clearly is a slant of golden light?”
“You just can’t. It belongs to Emily Dickinson.” It belongs to Emily Dickinson? No one else can describe light that way? I was too embarrassed to admit my ignorance of the poem or the fact that the maiden from Amherst, MA had a copyright on those four words. As I said, this was when I thought persons who had doctorates lived on tall pedestals, high above us mortals, particularly this mortal who’d not graduated from college until she was 46. And didn’t even know of Emily Dickinson’s poem, for Pete’s sake!
Nevertheless, I took the commandment to heart and never used anything close to “golden slant of light” again.
But this afternoon, when I gaped at such a sight, I finally came to my senses. “Fuck that!” If Ms. Dickinson wants to come back from the grave and admonish me, well, I’ll deal with it when it happens. Meanwhile, Goldenslantoflight, goldenslantoflight, goldenslantoflight . . .
Turns out, did you notice that she’s writing about winter’s slant of light, and how ominous it is with it’s clarion call of Death? Far different from my riotous autumnal rays, still lively and gay.
So, there I am in the graveyard, connecting this fall with those past, particularly the sight along the narrow road to College A, flanked with yellow maples, or the breathtaking colors of an autumn residency at Goddard in central Vermont. I approach the headstones, shuffling through a thick, crispy layer of dry leaves atop a springy carpet of emerald green plants no more than one-inch tall with tiny needle-like leaves; I read names (wife of . . . daughter of . . . son of . . . ), their age at the time of death, and the year. The carvings on some headstones are illegible, worn with age; many are askew, a few broken off, others still tall. The earliest burial I find is from 1802. There’s hardly a car that passes on this lonely stretch of road marked by a bronze plaque, Bradford Center. I’m alone, and playing hooky from my incessant need to keep up with household chores, errands, garden demands, and writing and making art. In fact, I have to give myself permission to be there, and even then, the demanding voice of “You have work to do!” invades my peace.
I’m torn. I want to obey the voice–there is so much I need to be doing–but the small, quiet voice within wants me to linger, to step outside kronos into kiaros. It wants me to play (like the kind of playing we all used to do back in the day, much of it stoned). In fact, it really wants me to find a place to lie upon those leaves, away from view so as not to alarm anyone seeing a body lying in the graveyard. (After becoming alarmed, would they deem my lying there disrespectful?) I scout the area, dousing, as it were for the perfect spot. It has to be fairly dry, not directly in the sun, not upon hidden twigs or stones.
I find that spot behind several tall, close-together headstones near the entrance, and I lie down. Oh, God, it feels so good; my body craves contact with a surface. I look up into the tree above me, about half-bare of leaves; I watch the dance of those falling, take in their signature scent, feel the earth supporting me. I listen for voices of those under me, imagining their lives in what was a very difficult climate and time, honoring their own supine positions; the best I come up with is to understand their suffering, and grasp the strength it took to live in rural New Hampshire in the 18th and 19th centuries.
I look over my feet toward the wide swath of decked-out yellow maples, see the brilliantly blue sky, marvel at all the beauty. And I want to nap. In fact, nothing would please me more than to savor the bliss of waking to an even more golden light, a little chilled, but rested, grateful for the enormous gift of falling asleep of a fall afternoon in a peaceful churchyard, where those long-ago fallen lie.
Alas, I cannot allow myself to do that. After about ten minutes, if that long, I rise and walk toward my car. On the highway home, I promise myself to seal forever the sensory memory, there to dip in whenever I need it. Writing about it makes that possible.