September 22, 2020

The Chariot

Zitkala-Sa, in 1898, a Yankton Sioux woman whose experiences and life I used much of to describe my character, Isabella, who was of the Mandan tribe. Zitkala-Sa wrote memoirs, the first American Indian opera, and aided in reforming national policies.

The Chariot, by Emily Dickinson, originally published in 1890, is a poem I thought about in my novel, The Square Grand.  One stanza makes an appearance, as one of my characters, Isabella, remembers the poem as she thinks about her heritage, gone and irrevocably altered by small pox.


Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I furst surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

Dickinson-sign1 I write about it today because my heart is still battered from last week.  I write about this poem in particular, because there is something so disorienting about life changing so abruptly.

Let me explain: We live in a world that changes in a radical fashion every decade.  The eighties had women working in corporations around the world, it had a woman in space.  Then the nineties had an Internet, and home computers were common place.  The aughts had Facebook and Twitter, and the internet somehow became a reliable place to cite academic works (still not sure how that happened.).  But think one hundred years ago, two hundred, three hundred.  Those cultures were bound to the past, and it was comfortable.  There was an established order, a way things were done, and everyone understood the rules, even if the rules were confusing.

I’m in no way advocating a return to the past, believe me.

But the sense of order, in religion, in hierarchies, the way its been done for a thousand years, that gives an argument a certain heft.  I thought about that when I was reading the new National Geographic (yes, I know, and yes, I am).  There is a stone called the London Stone.

An older picture of the London Stone, in its protective cage.
An older picture of the London Stone, in its protective cage.

It is public, though I’ve never thought to look for it while in London, since I didn’t know it existed.  National Geographic details the references to the stone in history, and even in property deeds dating to 1108, and it was considered old then.

Since then ’tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day

My point is the feeling I got from reading about the London Stone; or thinking about the generation that comes after a devastating epidemic, stranded without their history; Emily Dickinson felt that, too.  Perhaps we all feel that, which is why this particular poem has been reprinted for over a century, and has been set to music by Aaron Copeland to Susan McKeown and Natalie Merchant.

Robert Pinsky wrote,

…we sing to one another all day.

He meant our inflections in our speech.  But could we not also infer that in music, we try to resonate a feeling in another person?  We attempt that in songs, in poetry, in operas, in novels.  We try to resonate, finding harmonics in other bodies, seeking compatibility to alleviate the effort of vibrating to our own frequency when alone.

Susan McKeown & Natalie Merchant’s version of The Chariot, something to brood on today:

Something to brood on, today.

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