“There is a Syllableless Sea:” Notes on Silence

By Spencer Everett

This Dust, and it’s Feature –

Accredited – Today –

Will in a second Future –

Cease to identify –

 

This Mind, and it’s measure –

A too minute Area

For it’s enlarged inspection’s

Comparison – appear –

 

This World, and it’s species

A too concluded show

For it’s absorbed Attention’s

Remotest scrutiny –

(P 866)

“Minuteness,” “Dust,” “Particles:” Emily Dickinson’s work in 1864, a pivotal year in her development, finds her language ossified into a nearer and more intimate extension of the brain’s smallest elements. Abstract almost beyond comprehension, and of nearly opaque logic, the reader experiences a “cleaving in [the] mind” through sensory deprivation and the silence of essential consciousness. Indeed, this poem is the abstract equivalent of the more representational “I felt a cleaving in my mind,” written around the same time. But what’s particularly fascinating about “This Dust, and it’s Feature” is that it captures an image—sans imagery—of what Maurice Merleau-Ponty described as a “pre-constituted world” (“On the Phenomenology of Language,” 95). If a poem is the world constituted—that is, a representation made object—then Dickinson has signaled her desire for something more primordial.

 

But what is the aegis for such a desire? We have an offering here. “This Dust” tells us that no poem can express thought in its initial occurrence, because indeed the poem can only be its recurrence, and because the tools required for such recurrence must inevitably inflate the field of logic that the momentary impulse had functioned within in order to construct a discourse and convey meaning. Diachronicity acts upon writing as it never acted upon the brain’s impulses. And so, return is all the writing can do, and to return is to have lost the moment. The poem, “enlarged” beyond any resemblance to an act of the brain, is “too concluded” because it’s too material: incommensurate with the synchronicity of a thought in time. The “remotest scrutinies” most privileged by Dickinson cannot live as retrospection, within the context of a world that concludes.

 

And a world that concludes—collecting dust—is enabled by time, and time multiplies the problem. The mind is accredited on paper, according to this poem, but in a future time the same mind will appear too small to contain what it sees in the present within a container that comes from the past. And so, in addition, to return through the poem is to face not what had been contained, but what more importantly is no longer retained. Two cleavings coexist: one of thought determined in the space of the poem, the other of that same space transmogrified through time.

 

But a world that concludes is the one we’re left with. “Like the weaver,” Merleau-Ponty writes elsewhere, “the writer works on the wrong side of his material.” (“Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence,” 45). And so we’re presented with the face of Dickinson’s poetry on our side of time, as our role is reception. Process has never reached its end in Dickinson: process has none, as seen from the side of the maker. Rather, ending is placed upon process as a mode of assessment, and thus assigns it its frame.

 

Dickinson understood that a poem, never finished by the poet, can no more be finished past the mind’s death by someone else. There’s no transferring the private phenomenon, and so the Dickinson we get is never the Dickinson of the original mind, in its intention to never field intent by terminating the poem. This is a universal conundrum for representation, true of all poets in their poems and perhaps even of all artists in their art, but Dickinson understood this condition so acutely and figured it so relentlessly that it became one of her dominant themes. The finished poem, resituated and decided upon, is only a shard in the broken mirror Dickinson herself looked into and recognized a body. The poem too is a body, sometimes best understood autonomously, and other times as a counterpart to the body that created it.

 

Today, the Hoover Dam lies, according to Google Maps, exactly 2,678 miles west, by car, of what was Emily Dickinson’s western frontier. One-hundred years after Dickinson wrote “This Dust, and Its Feature,” Joan Didion wrote of her tour through the depths of concrete and stone to touch the rushing waters of the Colorado River, the dam’s living pulse and need for being. Didion stood with her hands on one of the massive turbines for a long time: “it was a peculiar moment, but so explicit as to suggest nothing beyond itself” (“At the Dam,” 200). This “nothing beyond itself” is less akin to the imaginary and its associations than to the primal conditioning of nerves in contact with the coextensive world. And so she’s found Dickinson under the Nevada desert, where she remains indefinitely because no markers of her design exist there to degrade.

 

* * *

 

I’ve known a Heaven, like a Tent –

To wrap it’s shining Yards –

Pluck up it’s stakes, and disappear –

Without the sound of Boards

Or Rip of Nail – Or Carpenter –

But just the miles of Stare –

That signalize a Show’s Retreat –

In North America –

(P 257)

 

By the 19th century, poems as print artifacts and poetry in book form foregrounded the lyric poem’s singularity. We might say that the lyric poem—its conditions forged in the emerging modern era—underwent its own version of what Lucy Lippard would call “the frame-and-pedestal syndrome.” (Six Years, viii.). In print, poetry collapses the boundaries of object and performance, and the reader is along for the show.

 

But Dickinson’s imaginary in “I’ve known a Heaven, like a Tent” finds the show in retreat: I’m imagining circus performers dragging their feet through the desert, spent and exhausted, their bombastic costumes newly out of place and limp in their fetid sweat. Their jangles no longer compliment their attire. And as the instruments retreat through North America, the brass section no longer supports the show, but seems to whimper far behind, its music underscoring the slow heave of a dragging foot. The prophetic seer, once honey-tongued and impeccable, is gone from the stage; indeed the stage is gone from the stage, leaving only the sinuous horizon.

 

That image, however, is only my mind running into literalism: Dickinson’s “miles of stare” are disarmingly vacant. Her objects—whether show or carpenter or the carpenter’s nail—fall away, and the poem in general a falling away from any platform. The only sounds are the sounds that lead to none.

 

Generally speaking, what makes us modern is our willful escape from performance by degrees, matched in part by a development of what “performance” means. That is, inasmuch as a writer’s self-conscious relationship to performance determines the work’s relationship to posturing, to mere posturing, in the act of reading. In a similar vein, John Stuart Mill distinguishes between “poetry” as the expression of the self to the self and “eloquence,” which is the expression of the self to another. But we might also say that performance is defined negatively, in opposition to discursive conventions. Wordsworth, for instance, exposed the superficiality of the drawing room—the “inorganic” forms received from Pope—and modern aesthetic development thereafter showed the prior to be false, and Wordsworth’s “egotistical sublime” to be false in turn, only show.

 

* * *

 

That is best which is not—achieve it—

you efface the Sheen

(P 1376)

 

This is excerpted from a poem already small. Notice how we can extract Dickinson’s writing from its context and not feel at a loss for the larger content of the poem as a unit. Our close-reading habits are bucked: A single stanza or another, one line here and another there: her units as they’re composed across time are increasingly adaptable and often, in her own editorial history, treated exactly as such. Or as Alexandra Socarides states in Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics, Dickinson’s poems are “always on the brink of re-becoming the fragments they were” (118). Dickinson, in her late work especially, moves from thematizing her values within a contested frame or stage to enacting them through forms more readily expansive and dynamic. But can she express herself without “effac[ing] the Sheen” of what was there before having “achieved” it? Perhaps this is what nature has been doing all along. Take the spider, a dominant symbol in her later work:

 

The Spider as an Artist

Has never been employed –

Though his surpassing Merit

Is freely certified

 

By every Broom and Bridget

Throughout a Christian Land –

Neglected Son of Genius

I take thee by the Hand –

(P 1373)

 

The spider does not perform. Of what it makes, its beauty is not only incidental but lies beyond such benchmarks and assessments as human culture may level upon it. “Achievement” is beyond its realm of consideration: thus the spider’s genius closely resembles an ethics. 

 

Some have noted Dickinson’s solitude as akin to a spider’s. This is not untrue. But more importantly, the spider does not weave its ephemeral web for any because. We may see, from the outside, what task the web fulfills, but the spider’s make is nothing more and nothing less than an extension of its being. The web’s being is contingent upon the spider—this is obvious—but the spider’s being is equally contingent upon the web. The web is not only the silk, but is in part the corners of the barn or the kitchen that bind it to space and time, and even the broom that routinely destroys it. And the web, thus situated, exists because the spider’s prey exists in some proximity. Likewise, Dickinson’s writings gradually break down the unit of the poem and the poem’s frame until the atom’s that are left—the atoms she prefers—occupy more totally the contours of life itself as it is lived. “Crowns of Life,” after all, “are servile Prizes” (P 1386). The writing is not the poem is not the book is not the frame nor genre: it is ultimately the life itself, and life is life because it evades full representation, however subject to the ultimate framework of mortality itself. Because the spider refuses crowns.

 

Dickinson also returns to human constructions for figuring the provisionality of her craft—a craft whose means defer its ends indefinitely—though the maker in these instances is less present than the spider: 

 

The Props assist the House

Until the House is built

And then the Props withdraw

And adequate, erect,

The House support itself

And cease to recollect

The Augur and the Carpenter –

Just such a retrospect

Hath the perfected Life –

A Past of Plank and Nail

And slowness – then the scaffolds drop

Affirming it is Soul –

(P 729)

 

Again the nail has fallen away from its task of making finished wholes from parts. Dickinson’s work—taken literally as those things that she inscribed—denies us a conclusion, an end to construction for which the house is symbol. That is, unless the final work is understood not as ending with the poems, but with the very life that they extend: Emily Dickinson’s. The house that supports itself is her own, never ours: only the possessor can affirm her soul. Instead of ceasing to do so, we have indeed “recollect[ed] / the Augur and the Carpenter” and mistaken them and the scaffolding for the finished object. Dickinson’s most urgent message is that she has no house to share, short of her very own fugitive life. The path she treads, apace with Emerson, leads her to “find the journey’s end at every step of the road” (“Experience,” 350). A forever-becoming succession of ends finds no foothold in the traditional art object. Nor, therefore, any resolute beginnings. What’s left are the indeterminate relationships between middles, all unmoored, all standing outside time’s strict determinacy and The Poem’s concretization of the figures therein.

 

Sound figures such composure, and as Dickinson closes the gap between experience and representation, her work often fantasizes about sound’s suppression. By now, we commonly understand her dashes as incessant interruptions, fractures shot through the larger units that themselves are more akin to glass shards than finished monuments. And we commonly understand her radical and non-systematic enjambment as pulling the rug out from under prosodic convention at its every turn. But Dickinson’s sensibility takes her even further: she’s not just interested in altering our manners of reflection, but by foregrounding the very qualities that evade manner, evade matter. Among these qualities, silence stands premier:

 

Wherever runs the breathless sun –

Wherever roams the day,

There is it’s noiseless onset –

There is it’s victory!

Behold the keenest marksman!

The most accomplished shot!

Time’s sublimest target

Is a soul “forgot”!

(P 42)

 

If I can merit a reduction: The keenest marksman is noiseless and so his domain is all-encompassing. The forgotten occupies another universe, another beyond orchestration; beyond opinion, conjecture, narrative, ideology; beyond suppositions and assertions; without warning, without prohibition; beyond lessons, equations, beyond anticipation and retrospection and what can be declared; and without the luggage we declare and the mannerisms through which we must declare it. “Speech,” she tells us elsewhere, “is a prank of parliament” (193). She’s more elated by what she cannot say:

 

There’s something quieter than sleep

within this inner room!

it wears a sprig opon it’s breast –

and will not tell it’s name.

(P 62)

 

Let’s take silence, for a moment, outside the realm of the ideal or the abstract: Is the object she speaks of simply a fellow dweller fallen asleep, accounted for not only within the “inner room” of silence but a shared inner room of 280 Main Street? I’m reminded here that Dickinson was quite given to writing her letters in the dark, while watching her sister Vinny sleep. And that interest is in keeping with her sensibility: to watch another person sleep is as close as we may come to experiencing time after death.

 

In this case, we might think of the sleeper as passing through “quiet,” which is a rehearsal of speech in negative, into silence, as a more fully lived condition. In this sense, sleep is a momentary death, and silence attunes us to the present through its crisis. Not because death is silent, exactly, but because death ends the exchange between persons. When we confront the death of another—in another’s “sleep,” or more permanently—what we confront is not death itself (death is nothing at all) but the end of our ability to communicate, to commune. We become painfully acquainted with two people, and the incongruity between the person we once knew and the person that no longer is—the vessel of all content and the vessel of none—astounds us. In this instance, silence is everything we can no longer experience, and will not ever experience again: what we experience, then, is the grief of the present, the presence of now. 

 

* * *

 

There is no Silence in the Earth – so silent

As that endured

Which uttered, would discourage Nature

And haunt the World –

(P 1004)

 

For Dickinson, hauntedness is one of the chief values that marks an ultimate estrangement—through silence—from the cacophony of the world. We could say that silence is the condition through which hauntedness as a value is born. As a condition, silence seems to figure a structure outside of structure, where the world's expanse stands in precise and total focus beyond representation and the world’s network of determinacies; where a path unfolding may somehow accommodate all others in its wake.

 

Sound, in contrast, stands inextricably linked to our process of assessing it. Music—sound that is processed as made—distinguishes itself by anticipating our assessment. Leonard Bernstein, for instance, speaks in one of his Harvard Lectures of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun as offering the listener a "promise of E major." While Debussy’s music is tantalizing for deferring its promise, Bernstein suggests, its structure is eventually accomplished by fulfilling it. 

 

And yet the production of music is not so different from the production of sound or even noise, because the hearer gives formal contour to all that she experiences. Whether listening to Mozart or a meadowlark, or the construction outside my window, sound is relegated to the momentary by our imposition of past and future. Sound, as Walter Ong reminds us in his classic Orality and Literacy, must begin and end. We often think of sound as imposing form onto the passage of time, that abstract time provides a frame for music's figuration. Sure, but this process is an illustration after the fact, not to be mistaken for presentness. Its necessary bounds are such that we experience them for having been made: a phrase, whether as note or an entire symphony, does not exist within the framework of experience until it is made complete by our processing, and the moment of its happening—

 

where our presence is thought to lie—

 

is little more than our anticipation of an end that will give the moment form, and meaning, as past. In sound, our presentness is the excluded middle, a ghost made actual only in its reference to what has been and what will be. We hear in the present

 

may hear the present—as a physical act—but we make thought and even feeling of our encounter after that encounter has passed. And so we don’t know which to prefer,

 

The beauty of inflections   

Or the beauty of innuendoes,   

The blackbird whistling   

Or just after.   

 

We might elaborate on Stevens’ famous passage and say that the beauty of inflection that is the blackbird’s singing is not understood as an inflection until just after the song, when the sound has reached innuendo. Art continues because present-ness evades representation every single time: In representation, the only blackbird whistling is the blackbird just after the song.

 

So is it sound or silence that marks this impossible sublimity? Isamu Noguchi said that “it is weight that gives meaning to weightlessness.” We understand the relation between sound and silence similarly. And so to compare sound with weight may give it a body, and likewise give weight the bodiless form that sound is to us. Sound excludes all other paths but its every own in order to be actual. No sound is a potential sound.

 

* * *

Everything I’ve said is impossible, of course, as all poems fall short of poetry’s greatest wishes for itself. Even Dickinson leaves us a commotion of sounds, beautiful sounds at that, and the printed word especially, and perhaps any inscription and even the mark itself stands already in performance. She knows this so often:

 

To tell the Beauty would decrease

To state the spell demean

There is a syllableless Sea

Of which it is the sign

My will endeavors for it’s word

And fails, but entertains

A Rapture as of Legacies –

Of introspective mines –

(P 1689)

 

These are mines untold, consistent with death. No being avoids their death and no being avoids the syllables of their body in life. The lyric poem deals so often with death not only because mortality provides culture’s most essential discourse, but because the short poem itself is accessed as a figuration of the body. Consider, turning to visual art, the difference between Mark Rothko’s verticality—in mid-period works like Yellow, Blue on Orange (1955) and so many others—and Barnett Newman’s horizontality in Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51), denoting landscape. The poem, whose vertical predominance is often palpable, stands as a surrogate body. It’s material is born of physical limits that when immediately confronted are immediately apprehended. And so, the threat upon a poem’s life is immanent.

 

Consider a rabbit’s vulnerability: The rabbit becomes a poem when it is placed in a field with the fox. Handwriting bears witness to the growth of the rabbit. The public sphere provides the field, while human history conditions the predator that no rabbit can deter. In short: The lyric is not lyric until it meets our fatalism. And as no person stands apart from their life, no person stands apart from their death. No poem overcomes the conditions of a body, as our sea is born of syllables. 

 

Despite these difficulties, Dickinson’s many resistances to posture-cum-performance—and more specifically to the inherited conventions that determine a poem as occasioned sound in time—remain intact. In contriving a portrait of her through her work, she is always only incomplete, as she herself insisted. Dickinson’s envelope poems, Marta Werner muses, “remind us that a writer’s archive is not a storehouse of easily inventoried contents—i.e., ‘poems,’ ‘letters,’ etc.—but also a reservoir of ephemeral remains, bibliographical escapes” (207). Indeed, to comprehend Dickinson’s work is to launch an excursion into the remote, her introspective mine. That is, a life that provides neither articulable boundaries nor bedrock, no less so for her than for her readers, who can only find the past at the impossibly strange crossroads between presence and absence, between both the dead and undead persons and their dead and undead objects and ideas.

 

Perhaps, in this sense, what we’ve inherited resembles what she made. Consider a fictive project of Borgesian proportions in which the poem becomes the writing becomes the paper becomes the bedside chest in which it’s found, thus becoming integral to the house as with its outlying garden, and the garden as with the breadth of nature it contains within a world within a void, transposed across the scope of time. And so we’ve made nothing more and nothing less than a prototype of a brain, “larger than the sky,” which does and does not fit inside the mere object we started with. 

 

* * *

 

“Nature is a haunted house—but art—a house that tries to be haunted” (L 459a).

 

In Dickinson’s Gothic, Daneen Wardrop states that Dickinson “mandates that art be a house that attempts hauntedness” (19). But perhaps her sentiment isn’t a “mandate” so much as a critical observation on what it means to represent: nature is haunted in the first degree, capable of self-embodiment even in silence, whereas art can only signify. And yet, in no part of her career does Dickinson seem to suggest, nor does her work seem satisfied with, anything like attempt, or at least attempt alone. The house of art merely tries for that hauntedness which nature achieves.

 

It is often typical of critics to frame Dickinson as a champion of her media—perhaps because such positions serve also to endorse the English critic’s own field of study—when in fact she is a champion for her pointed disavowal of it. And yet Dickinson’s sentiment here, as a general model, is also typical of writers of her period: that art cannot do “x” so well as nature can. Except that “hauntedness” is a strange aspiration. Indeed, many of the qualities she privileges most—silence, despair, and other abject emotive and phenomenal conditions perhaps brought on by confrontation with the haunted—are sharpest when least mediated, most at hand when least expected and seemingly divorced from any will of the subject. Dickinson is interested in emotions that happen when the self is unavailable to service them.

 

“Fear,” Heidegger states in Being and Time, “is a mode of attunement” (137). And despair is something like fear’s correlative: a predator in the midst within that shatters selfhood, rather than the predator confronted from without that delineates the self through its reaction to the outside. Since a fear from within—despair—cannot be evaded, its presence lies immediately at hand, as something akin to raw sensation:

 

I saw no Way – The Heavens were stitched –

I felt the Columns close –

The Earth reversed her Hemispheres –

I touched the Universe –

 

And back it slid – and I alone –

A speck opon a Ball –

Went out opon Circumference –

Beyond the Dip of Bell –

(P 633)

 

It’s easy to understand how Dickinson’s poems extend experience past the speaker’s life. It’s harder to understand how the speaker isn’t there, and harder still to understand that neither is the listener, for the listening at best is naught. Our selfhood is radically negated at the behest of a more primary phenomenon, and we may feel liberated, stolen away from our self-conscious role as spectator. In this poem, the doors of perception are more than cleansed, per William Blake’s admonition: rather, it’s more apt to say the doors no longer seem installed. Dickinson’s accomplishment, in part, is that she gives us the feeling that she’s represented a moment outside or ahead of reflection, or we could say, outside of fiction: a moment before the moment when expression has been sanctioned and becomes, thereafter, calcified as actual.

 

We speak of “art as process.” But beyond that critical apparatus, itself ironically static, art in process remains the reason for its being made, and further made.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Leonard. The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity. Harvard Lectures, 1973, www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOlzpfE8bUk.

Dickinson, Emily, and Thomas Herbert Johnson. Emily Dickinson Selected Letters. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard U Press, 1998. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Ralph William Franklin. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings. Ed. Marta L. Werner, Jen Bervin, and Susan Howe. New York: Christine Burgin/ New Directions, 2013. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Ed. Dennis J. Schmidt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010. Print.

Lippard, Lucy R. Six Years: the dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972: a cross-Reference book of information on some esthetic boundaries… Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. "Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence." Signs. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1977. 39-83. Print. Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. "On the Phenomenology of Language." Signs. Evanston: Northwestern U Press, 1977. 84-97. Print. Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge , 2002.

Socarides, Alexandra. Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Wardrop, Daneen. Emily Dickinson’s Gothic: Goblin With a Gauge. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996. Print.

Spencer Everett is a poet and essayist. He teaches at City University of New York.