A Certain Slant of Light

At the end of my hall at work is a picture window and, beyond the window, a leafy tree (still leafy, even though it’s November).  Larkin Street is just below this window.  If you walk up Larkin, you’ll find porn theaters, guys selling watches and drugs, and good Vietnamese food.  The superior court is just across Larkin from the picture window and most days you see lawyers in wrinkled suits going in and out.  People hang around outside the court arguing with each other about child custody, child support, traffic tickets and their obligation to perform jury duty.  It’s a sad street most days, desperate and tawdry.  The light today doesn’t make it look anything other than what it is.

When I looked down the hall today, it struck me that the light is lower in the sky than it was just a week ago — it’s somehow become late in the year, and even this early in the afternoon (it’s 1:00 here), things seem to be ending .   

And that is when I found myself thinking about Emily Dickinson, a woman who knew all about that kind of light. 

 There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings, are.

None may teach it anything,
‘T is the seal, despair,
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ‘t is like the distance
On the look of death.

10 thoughts on “A Certain Slant of Light

  1. A perfect poem for a November afternoon. I realized an hour ago that the only slants of light I’ll see on my trip home will be the headlights of the oncoming cars. I miss not having daylight after I leave work. Once it’s dark, I just want to curl up at home & not do anything in the evening.

  2. Oh, I do love that poem. It’s always been one of my favorites of Emily Dickinson’s. Today, I was also noticing that even the early part of the day feels sooo late now. It makes everything feel so rushed, somehow. My best walking friend, Karen, has just taken a full-time job–and when she gets off work at 5, it’s far too dark already for us to go for our usual three-mile walk. So you know what this means! I’ve had to settle for being more productive. Less walking, more productivity. What a trade-off!

  3. I hate the dying of the light. Every year I try to be brave about it but end up fussing and whining and getting nothing done from 4pm onwards. Out here on the flat fens we get slate grey days, too, when it feels like the sun never rises. Ugh!

  4. Yes, she certainly knew what she was talking about. Emily Dickinson was my favourite part of my American Literature module! I remember liking her when I learnt that she used to wear an extravagant hat when answering the door to remove attention away from her because she was so shy. Sorry, that wasn’t a particularly relevant anecdote!

  5. But Lilian, That’s a wonderful thing to know about Emily Dickinson, that she dealt with her shyness with so much flair! I have a friend whose New Year’s Resolution for five years running was “Wear More Hats.” I think that’s do-able, don’t you?

    Dear Ann — I can’t wait to read what you’ve written. As I posted it, I thought about how with Dickinson you think you’re getting something simple and rhythmic, but in fact, she disrupts that expectation in magnificent ways which is one thing that makes her such an important and valuable poet.

    Oh Litlove, I think that is what tea must have been invented for — to take the edge off 4 pm in the winter. I wish I lived near you. I’d drop by with some juicy gossip and a cup of tea and maybe also some nice Belgian chocolate.

    Hi Sandi — A three mile hike sounds like such a good idea, and the interruption of that for winter not so great. I’m glad to see you’ve turned that into a productivity bonanza. Still, I hope you figure out some other way to get a hike in. (After I have tea in England with Litlove, I’m headed to Connecticut to go hiking with you. I’ll bring the OTHER chocolate bar with me for after the hike.)

    Cam, I think curling up after work sounds like such a good way to spend the evening. A good book, a glass of wine….

    I’m so glad you like this poem, Reed!

  6. bl–
    for most of my younger life, i loved fall and winter best. all the color, and the new beginings of the school year, fires in the fireplace and long days curled up on the carpet near the heater reading either the comics or the next good book off the shelf. Winter is when i read the Man in the Iron Mask, and all the Sherlock Holmes, and all Lord Peter Whimsey…and it just seemed like a time to be in. I also loved summer being out. The season’s turned and I got the next good thing.

    Then I got older, and dreams didn’t all come true, and people started dying and all of a sudden, the onset of fall/winter seemed the onset, as you say, of an end. The end. I got spooked around age 45 and am still spooked at age 55.

    My resolution this year (as if it could be done by fiat!) is to try to recapture the fun of hibernation. The deliciousness of not being able to go out. Figuring out how to wrap myself and my kid and my critters in a circle of us and not want/depend/be drawn so much to the world outside…spring comes in less than 90 days. Certainly we could dream for that long?

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