In July 1862—in the midst of her most productive year as a poet—Emily Dickinson writes
a letter to her “mentor” Thomas Wentworth Higginson in which she says, “My Business is
Circumference.” A short time later, perhaps in the very same month, dated only with
“Friday,” she writes in a letter to Dr. and Mrs. J. G. Holland:
My Business is to love. I found a bird, this morning, down—down—on a little bush at
the foot of the garden, and wherefore sing, I said, since nobody hears?
One sob in the throat, one flutter of bosom—“My Business is to sing”—and away
My Business is Circumference.
My Business is to love.
My Business is to sing.
I remember the first time I wrote these sentences on a chalkboard in front of a class, the
white dust falling down from the letters, numbering them: 1, 2, 3. I remember I drew a
circle on the board and we all stared at it. It stared right back.
A poem begins by making a shape. It draws a circumference. All that is in it is the poem.
What is outside of it is not. There is a silence on the inside and a silence on the outside but
they are different silences. It’s hard to hear the difference. Like drawing with a stick a circle
in the snow while the blizzard keeps storming and stepping out the next morning to see
where the shape is now that it’s buried or gone. Like that, but harder. I like to think of the
poet as a bird on the edge of the nest she’s built with nothing yet inside it. I call it the empty
space of love. That poet wanders the perimeter, this self-built line between nothingness and
emptiness, between all that silently extends beyond love’s care, and what exists within it, or
will, once what will exist, exists. Like an egg or a name. Then in that business of love comes
the indweller with all its own life, reader or bird, figment of a child or fragment of a mind,
and there it learns from love its own business, and sings its song, which—like the baby
whose babble disappears just before she learns to speak the words—ends just before the
fledgling takes flight.
I remember at the end of class erasing the board. The eraser had a name. “Ghost Duster.”
I remember speaking in class from memory, “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that
around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is
a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon; and under every deep a
lower deep opens.” But I spoke it differently, not remembering the exact sentence.
I guess around every memory some lethargy gathers, putting syntax to sleep, lulling the facts,
and what comes out the mouth is most like reciting a dream.
I remember in class saying, “The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment; I am a god
in nature; I am a weed by a wall.” That’s mostly right, but the clauses are each their own
sentence, separated by many others in between. How much I forgot by remembering them.
All the wild disarray I’ve poured into others minds by sowing error in their ears, as “oblivion
blindely scattereth her poppy.” But I’m in the same disarray.
Maybe we could describe a poem as that form of life which seeks its own limit, and finding
it, wants to know how best to break itself apart. That sounds like other definitions of life I
might be acquainted with, like maybe my own; that life that wants to learn how to forget
itself. Then the broken poem must be left behind, abandoned, left to its own hurt devices,
until the next poem is written, whose circle enfolds and cares for the other as does the bird
brooding in the nest, not upon an egg, but on the bones of its mother. Sometimes a word
dropped on a page causes a ripple to circle out through the blankness it broke as does a
stone thrown in a pond. Sometimes there’s no other way to know how large the blankness is
but to the measure its circumference from within, and though they move as do neutrinos
spiraling through hardest matter as if it were no thicker than air, such circles in silence pass
through us in uncountable numbers minute by minute as the hours count down another day,
a whisper through the atoms.
Emerson writes, “The simplest words,—we do not what they mean, except when we love
I remember I’ve never written those words on a board, never spoken them in class.
I remember, I remember. I keep putting the pieces back together, and each time they fit, but
fit differently, this puzzle-life. He says, “the one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is
to forget ourselves.”
Okay, star. “Star” is a word. Now start.
In the news last week scientists confirmed that they know now when the universe will end.
It’s producing less and less energy from its 200,000 galaxies, and in just a few trillion years
will drift past its final circle into shapelessness, all the stars lit inside gone out, like those
lamps to which the Greeks dedicated so many love poems, that see the lover in all her
nakedness, lamps that are witness to erotic toils, but which have no tongues to tell. “O stars,
and moon, that lightest well Love’s friends on their way, and Night, and thou, my little
mandoline, companion of my serenades, shall I see her, the wanton one, yet lying awake and
crying much to her lamp?”
A larger lamp is the sun.
Sometimes my friend’s young daughter fears the world exploding so much she won’t leave
her room. When this happened at a party I went and knocked at her door. “May I come in?”
I asked. Okay. I told her stars don’t explode, but implode, and then the shockwaves from the
collapse ripple out through space and widen the star by making it singular. That one day, the
earth itself will be inside the star that gives us life, though then life will be long over. I told
her if she started counting as fast as she could the second she was born and counted all her
life to the last breath she breathed she wouldn’t come close to the number of years left the
earth has to live. And I told her that when a star collapses, if it’s large enough—if it has
loved and aspired honestly—it creates in its collapse a spark that reignites it, and is reborn. I
mentioned that some explosions bring life, and that before all memory, in absolute
nothingness hung a point so small no eye could see it, but asleep within the singularity—like
the little figures of the gods within a clay Silenus—waited all that would become the
universe, and when the dot exploded, the world began. “Do you feel better?” I asked. Yes.
I’m not sure it was true, that she did feel better; but she walked with me out of her room.
Our beginning in fire, and so our end, says Heraclitus, reducing us back into the elements
from which we sprung.
Sir Thomas Browne reminds us that, but a few feet under the ground, across the whole of
the earth, one can dig down not deep and pull up the bones or ashes of our ancestors.
Recently, in a field in England they found 50 urns filled with the ashes of Romans—but
recently was 400 years ago. His treatise on Urne-Buriall, not only sifts through the ashes of
those urns, but ponders the recorded history of burial rites, from inhumation to cremation,
and though he keeps a sober, medical eye, and never speaks his preference, some readers
might suspect he favors the fire that returns one to ash and bone, freeing us finally from the
corruptions of the body, and denying those final indignities the body harbors, as of worms in
graves, or snakes that house in the spinal marrow; or worse, some enemy that finding our
grave digs us up, and makes of our skull his drinking cup. Beyond such imaginings is
what is unimaginable. Though a pyre can be built as a monument to the magnificence of one’s life,
and so Hercules lay atop a forest, and Patroclus’s bier ran 100 feet along Troy’s wall, and a
Persian king might burn a city to consume his ashes; that our pride “should sink into so few
pounds of bones and ashes” should come as no surprise. Such little fuel suffices: “a peece of
an old boat burnt Pompey; And if the burthen of Isaac were sufficient for an Holocaust, a man
may carry his owne pyre.”
But so little escapes time, even when life is over, and time should end with it. As a mountain
of fire will eventually burn out, so too the monuments that mark the graves of the illustrious,
and the tombs and sepultures, the stones and cenotaphs, and the circle of the urn itself, time
will prove as mortal as the bodies they contain; time considered properly, “maketh Pyramids
pillars of snow.” Mostly we bury those we loved in ourselves. “Our Fathers find their graves
in our short memories, and sadly tell us how we may be buried in our Survivors.” Or we give
our child the name of a grandparent, and each time she’s addressed—from a teacher calling
attendance at school to saying at night goodnight—rehearses the funeral to come by
repeating the one that’s passed. Not even such living memorials will keep oblivion at bay.
“Oblivion is not to be hired: The greater part must be content to be as though they had not
been.” Most all of us find ourselves there, nowhere. “Large are the treasures of oblivion, and
heapes of things in a state next to nothing almost numberlesse; much more is buried in
silence than is recorded, and the largest volumes are butt epitomes of what hath been. The
account of time beganne with night, and darknesse still attendeth it. Some things never come
to light; many have been delivered; butt more hath been swallowed in obscurity & the
caverns of oblivion.”
Maybe none of this comforts the child, these circling thoughts, this flame that leads to flame,
and compared to those men and women of greatest antiquity, those people who long before
the flood lived 7 or 8 centuries, who is not a child; and who hasn’t realized, when walking
out the room with your friend’s half-comforted daughter, speaking as if anything was known
at all about beginnings and ends, about stars on the very edge of the universe that keeps
tangling itself in the infinite shroud no one and nothing was woven around it, that all along,
you have been talking to yourself.
Mostly one wants to say, as Sir Thomas Browne writes, “Life is a pure flame, and we live by
an invisible Sun within us.”
So we learn that even as one can carry one’s pyre on one’s own back, that it is already lit,
burning on inside us.
It is a realization that makes of calm breath a panting, leaves a heart sorrowful and cloy’d,
and of our high human passions, breaks our peace into a burning forehead, and a parching
Keats discovered it, holding the Grecian urn. Talking to it so it would talk to him. Turning it
in a circle, stanza by stanza, until the circle grew larger by growing complete, turning back to
the first stanza on the brede, where the gods frolic among the terrified maidens, and behind
the ornament, within the urn itself, oblivion waits to gather its seeds and treasure.
Keats knows he’s holding the vessel that will hold him.
Circumference loves to sing.
The ashes hold the urn until the urn holds the ashes.
∞∞ Dan’s related essay, Heraclitean Thirst, also appears in this issue and can be read here. ∞∞