It would seem odd to us, but when Emily Dickinson died, her most noted accomplishment was not her poems, but her plants. She was a serious gardener, known to her family, neighbors, and town for cultivating her plants even at night (which was also her customary writing time).
There’s a lot of comparisons to be made there, that her poems are like flowers, pretty at first sight, but with their own alien structures, but I’ll leave that for now so that I can move on to today’s episode “I Know a Place Where Summer Strives.”
This is a poem that fits well with the Parlando Project’s tactics of combining poems with music, because it’s a poem that uses puzzles to tell its story. When you combine a puzzling lyric with music you can let those words ride along without requiring them to be immediately meaningful, as otherwise poems that go out of their way to be puzzling can frustrate readers not in the mood for non-straightforward speech.
I enjoyed “I Know a Place Where Summer Strives” before I had solved its puzzles. As usual, Dickinson doesn’t belabor her subject, just three stanzas and 12 lines, a nice dosage for puzzlement. The poems internal music flows nicely, and Dickinson’s use of unusual word choices in the final stanza adds decoration to the mysteries. After reading it a few times, writing the music for it, performing it with the LYL Band, and then mixing the recording available here, I have finally gotten around to trying to solve the riddles.
The first verse/riddle is a particularly cold spring, with “practiced frost” taking casualties among early blooming flowers. The second verse/riddle is a description of a building storm, which turns out not to be destructive, it brings “soft (ref)rains.” The third verse/riddle is more obscure yet, but the rain falls onto the hardened, adamant, ground. The last two lines of this verse are lovely to read and hear, but I couldn’t make any sense from them. At first thought I, like blogger Susan Kornfeld, wondered if this was a late-fall time image, and the quartz was ice forming on amber leaves—but then I noticed that the third verse clearly appears to be carrying forward the sentence and thought from the second verse, so it can’t be winter’s arrival: south wind, rain—that doesn’t sound like winter arriving.
Blogger Linda Sue Grimes suggests a solution, that the amber is mud on the shoe. This makes sense, and it could logically follow the rain on adamant hard ground, which could even be light yellowish, amber-colored, clay and not good dark garden soil, but I still am puzzled by the quartz. The line here is especially lovely: “That stiffens quietly to quartz” resonating with the “qu” “zee” and at “t” sounds, but I don’t think Dickinson cheated just to get the sound. Quartz can be brown like mud, though that’s not how I think of it, but its name and the modifier “stiffens” indicates this is something crystalline; not gooey, caked mud.
In performance I decided, intuitively, to repeat the first verse, and in so doing, I bring back the cyclical end of summer to close things.
When I read that Dickinson’s gardening extended even to nighttime work, I recalled the song from REM’s first EP, “Gardening at Night.” Michael Stipe’s early lyrics, are far more abstract than riddles, reading to me like abbreviated captions to blurry photos. A set of lines like:
We ankled up the garbage sound,
but they were busy in the rows.
We fell up not to see the sun,
gardening at night just didn't grow.
Are as obscure as any poem, but I could, and still can, enjoy REM songs like that one. Stipe sincerely sang his own meanings, and he had a great band around him that supplied the music that lets the meaning ride.