Wrecked, solitary, here –
What Absence Is Made Of
Exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC, October 18, 2017–Summer 2019
“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” (280)
Tracy K. Smith
Last month, I dropped in at the Hirshhorn Museum and saw that the permanent collection had been rearranged to highlight works dealing with absence, void, and vacancy. Included among the pieces were Hiroshi Sugimoto’s stark photographs of horizons over dark water, which have always moved me. Evenly divided between sea and sky, they toggle between flatness and depth depending on how far away you’re standing. From afar, they look like black-and-white panels; up close, you’re drawn in by the wrinkled waves, and the line that divides them from the sky stretches not horizontally, but into the distance.
Boden Sea, Uttwil, 1993
Photo: Lee Stalsworth
This effect resurfaced when I was rereading a pocket anthology of Emily Dickinson poems on a long flight and found myself dwelling on the dashes. In addition to pulling the eye forward, there are moments when Dickinson’s dashes function similarly to Sugimoto’s horizons, carving out a vacancy that draws one in rather than urging one onward.
Commas create a pause. They guide the breath and rhythm of the poem. Dashes, by creating a larger negative space, do something more. In poem 280 (“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”), notice how the words they’re affixed to (“numb,” “Space,” “here,” “down”) lend themselves to the opening up of voids and vacancies:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
The dashes aren’t just controlling the timing of the poem, they’re making room for us to inhabit its empty expanses. Where, for instance, is “here”? We’re left hanging at the end of the stanza, adrift and exposed. By the poem’s gaping end, we feel disoriented -- we have “finished,” but how? What do we “know”? Where are we? The final dash stretches toward some unreachable horizon.
I was thinking about dashes when I read Tracy K. Smith’s new poem “Declaration”. In it, she lifts passages from the Declaration of Independence and carves them up, leaving the loose ends hanging.
sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people.
He has plundered our—
destroyed the lives of our—
taking away our—
abolishing our most valuable—
and altering fundamentally the Forms of our—
The erasure of certain specifying information lets us fill in the gaps. The grievances of the colonists, stripped of their context, reopen like fresh wounds. The enemy, an all-powerful He, could be anyone. Only at the end of the poem do we get a hint of where Smith’s mind has drifted:
We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration
and settlement here.
on the high Seas
Smith is performing an inversion here, scrubbing the Declaration of Independence of its whiteness (and maleness, and outmoded rhetoric, etc.) in the same way American history has so often scrubbed away other identities and experiences; in this case, those of Africans transported across the ocean against their will. In this subtraction, she’s creating space for an alternative view of the country’s founding which is, somewhat paradoxically, more intact and complete. Her act of removal is both a mirror and a lens.
The dashes feel essential to this. The subtracted words aren’t just left out -- they’ve been severed. The seams are broken open, exposing an enormous void. Like Dickinson’s final line, Smith pushes us off a cliff at the end of the poem. We’re left to consider what has been borne, and by whom, and for how long.
I keep picturing those Sugimoto photographs of “the high Seas” and trying to wrap my mind around that sense of infinite depth. Of course, it’s impossible. I suppose that’s the point.