The Devil in the Em Dash: a reading of Emily Dickinson #1010

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays —

‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust —

Ruin is formal — Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crashe’s law —

Emily Dickinson is famous for her unfathomable punctuation. And nowhere is this more mysterious than in her heterodox use of the em dash. This versatile yet ponderous punctuation mark can appear in any position in her work—at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of sentences, or even at the end of the poem as a whole.

If we exclude the special kind of pause provided by the line break and enjambment, Poem 1010 contains only six marks of punctuation—all of them em dashes. It is worth examining these in the broader context of this extraordinary doom-laden poem.

Dickinson begins with an odd line that could be a single stand-alone sentence. ‘Crumbling’ it is asserted, ‘is not an instant’s Act’. The use of the possessive apostrophe ‘s’ after instant is unusual, but does not contravene the conventions regarding situations where this ending can be used, which include time—although not usually like this. The effect is to personify the instant to some extent, although this is offset by the use of a lower case initial letter.

The sense however is clear to the point of being banal: the process of crumbling is not something that occurs all of a sudden. The second line reaffirms this. Crumbling is no ‘fundamental pause’. The oddness of this phrase—as is often the case in Dickinson’s poetry—is slow in coming and strikes one only after a certain delay. The Unheimlichkeit thus produced does not itself produce any abrupt descent into lasting or absolute oblivion or drastic switch from order to disarray. Crumbling is clearly not akin to this.

The second distich of the first stanza sketches in this initially negative definition. ‘Crumbling’ is further defined as ‘processes’ (plural) of dilapidation, again personified—and is now presented as the seeming oxymoron of a sequence of ‘organized decays’.

Note the vocabulary here. The etymology of Latinate ‘dilapidation’ shows and tells us exactly what ‘crumbling’ means. Words themselves crumble and reveal themselves under the poet’s subtle scrutiny. Like saxifrage—as a later poet will put it.

Here comes the silent drum roll of the first em dash.

In the second stanza, the poem takes a more sternly moral turn. The shift from literal to figurative is mediated by the image of a cobweb—a structure spun by a sinister predator to entrap her prey but also an object synonymous with neglect—the first indication of a decline into disrepair.

Cuticle here presumably means a thin skin-like covering and does not have the more specialized meaning it has nowadays… Likewise ‘axis’ is closer to modern ‘axle’ and borer a kind of woodworm that eats away at the chassis of a carriage. The image is of some small unseen flaw ultimately causing a catastrophic collapse. ‘Elemental’ in the last line of this quatrain picks up ‘fundamental’ in line 2 and suggests the somewhat counterintuitive notion that rust —the initial /r/ harking back to ‘ruin’ and ‘borer’—is more primordial than the solid iron it feeds upon. Cobwebs, dust, woodworm, rust are all domestic manifestations of the original sin.

An em dash effects a second death knell.

The poem now enters its third and final quatrain with a slogan-like statement to the effect that ‘ruin is formal’. Oxymoron once again is the order of the day. The forces of darkness, going back to Ancient Egypt, have routinely been associated with chaos, not order, with formlessness and void. Here, however, the opposite is averred. Evil, far from being a vacuous destroyer, is a shaper of souls.

And here—heralded, of course, by a third em dash—the Enemy himself appears. Devil’s work surely alludes to kind of work that will be found, as the old adage has it, for idle hands. A work that Dickinson, further driving home the point, is not hasty, rash or impulsive, but steady and calculated ‘consecutive and slow’, the /k/ sounds in consecutive knitting the poem neatly together by referring back to ‘cuticle’, ‘cobweb’, ‘decays’ and ‘crumbling’, the ineluctability of damnation emphasized by portentously marking off the adjectives with a fourth em dash.

The poem now comes to a close with a couplet in which the ominous archaic syntax of ‘Fail in an instant no man did’ first combines a sudden flurry of ‘n’ sounds—as if illustrating the sheer numbers of fallen souls that throng this world—with the hissing inner sibilant of ‘instant’ picking up on the first line, and then concludes by equating ‘slipping’—its very slipperiness indicated mimetically by the penultimate em dash—with the mock physics of ‘Crashe’s Law,’ in serendipitous foreboding of the atrocities chronicled in the writings of J. G. Ballard.

It is worth dwelling on the verb ‘slip’ a little. Literally, it refers to temporary involuntary movement resulting from losing grip on a surface. However, the word has long been endowed with clear moral connotations. Standards and moral values are said to slip or slide. A lapse is the first step of a fallen woman. The Freudian slip is well placed somewhere between the two.

Dickinson plays on this double entendre. The path of the reprobate is not one of sudden headlong descent but the culmination of an accumulation of small moral lapses over time. Each almost accidental slip-up takes the sinner one step further down the path towards her doom.

And so with a crash of cymbals and the final flourish of an unpronounceable em dash, the poem pauses thoughtfully to reflect on its and our grim end.

As a final note on this magnificently crafted work of poetry, it is worth remarking how difficult it is in fact to read phonetically. A click-clopping sound of not quite touching consonants creates a kind of rickety clockwork apt to crumble in the mouth.

The savage stabs of occasional /v/’s are picked up by less vicious but no less deleterious /f/’s and /w/’s, as Satan manifests himself in the formal work of curation of our failings, leading us along the seemingly unprecipitous sequence of steps that punctuate our predestined descent into damnation.


200 — Section 28 — Epilogue Parts 1 -3

[Here, finally, is the concluding section of 200. Maybe I can start writing something nice now this is over…]

Epilogue Part 1

Hymn to Apathy

We march along a catwalk,

attired in outfits nobody would wear,

into the arms of men who touch us up

and sign our checks and whistle us away.

We are the Jihad brides of billionaires,

cold pretty thin and tall. Nobody really cares

for us. Why should we care at all?

Epilogue Part 2

Tweedle Dumb’s Mirror Soliloquy

Dumb steps up to the full-length body mirror;

scans himself back and front, sideways, from head to toe;

peers in and touches up a wisp of hair; is pleased

with what he sees. “Battle,” he utters

to his inner self, ‘begins again today.’

Dumb strides out under the make-up melting

spotlights to grimace to the unmasked crowds and launch

his last blast of obliteration in his bruising, bone-crunching last campaign.

“When I use words, they mean

just what I choose them to,’ Dumb puffs

‘The glory lies not in the paltry truth

to which purportedly they point

but in the use I put them to…’ Dee

hisses like a little demon in his ear.

‘I am the master of this twittering universe, Dumb huffs,

‘of slogans, memes, rumors and slurs,

diktats by proxy brought as gifts by friends’,

the president avers. “I am the Lord almighty,

handing down edicts etched in words of stone to

Moses and the Hebrews hopping around a cow of gold.’


‘This is only the end of my beginning’, fist

waving in air, ‘not the beginning of my end’.

The end. Roll credits. Stirring muzak. Thunder claps

in the clouds and lightning jaggedly dissects the sky,

as Dumb’s croaking inanities soar blasphemously to heaven

unamplified from flailing vocal cords.

The Dum, Dum, Dum beat of the drums

salutes him to the door.

The mirror’s cracked from side to side,

the echo chamber now a broken bell

tolling the death of death drive, wish-

think and self-reference; rebirth:

a real bird chirping in a tree through

clean blue air: the coming of the new.

Epilogue Part 3

Final Girl

The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl…. The Final Girl is also watchful to the point of paranoia; small signs of danger that her friends ignore, she registers… The Final Girl is boyish… Her smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters, and sexual reluctance set her apart from the other girls ad ally her, ironically, with the very boys she fears or rejects…

Yu springs up from the sofa and the soap opera

to promptly attend the tinkling doorbell. The guy

from the nerd2nerd online dating site drags himself awkwardly in.

Yu sits him down

before her antique chess board and picks up

the red queen. “Here is the deal, my dear,” the Russian

doll begins. “We play chess; I beat you; we fuck. I’m

not that bothered which order we do them in.”

Her face, smiling coquettishly, cocked to one side.

“You choose.”


The full moon rises once again

over the fake suburban chimney stacks as Da

coughs blood and dribble into the bathroom sink. Yu

lays him down in bed so he can see her and

the silver orb through rolling eyes until they gently disappear

downstairs and under the black horizon.


“Moon,” she exclaims. “Oh! How I long to feel your lifeless

dust, gray under my boldly going boots.

Oh, how I yearn to share your weightlessness; to hop

over your fruitless dunes. Oh How I dream to be

the first girl on the moon. Oh, How I thirst for that

desert men will risk their breath to plumb. Oh, How I

hanker after the desire of the unloved; oh, how I crave

the paradox of that infinite, sweet sea of deep


If he wins…

Using mixed conditionals to hedge your bets

Turmoil prevails regarding the use of modal verbs in Present-Day English. We can posit any number of deep underlying reasons for this. Modern life, for instance, remains stubbornly uncertain, despite (or perhaps indeed because of) the extent to which industrial society attempts to control the future. Likewise, growing belief in a world of technology programmed by computers in binary code, in accordance with strict scientific rules of cause and effect, contrasts sharply with a residual tendency still to think and act more in accordance with hunches, animal spirits, instincts, feelings, and faith.

Nowhere is this confusion more apparent than in the discourse of those modern-day oracles called elections and the pundits charged with forecasting their outcome.

Newspapers are currently filled with speculation as to what a different US president might do in the near future. In this context, it is not at all unusual to see the rules of grammar as they are taught in course books regularly breached … and, most often, for the very good reason that no such rules in fact exist.

A case in point is the use of the conditional.

 Conventional grammar books trot out the usual typology that divides conditional sentences up into three (or four) types.

The categories are as misleading as they are exquisitely neat; complete with (pseudo-) scientific-sounding coding system. Furthermore, (hurrah) the rules can easily be jotted down on the back of an envelope.

The Zero conditional refers to effects that follow logically or automatically from a condition (the computer code type of ‘if…then’ statement).  If x2 equals 4 and x is non-negative, then x equals 2. [If + Present Simple, Present Simple]

The First Conditional refers to a future event with a fairly high degree of likelihood.

If it rains, we will hold the event indoors. [If + Present Simple, will + Infinitive]

The Second Conditional refers to future events that are unlikely or counterfactuals (i.e. things that are patently not true).

If the sun disappeared tomorrow, the earth would freeze.

I wouldn’t do that, if I were you.

[If + Past Simple, would + Infinitive]

Some grammar books also include a fourth Past Conditional to refer to events that did not occur (counterfactuals) in the past.

If Napoleon had conquered Russia, people in Vladivostock would have had to learn French.

[If + Past Perfect, would (have) + Past Participle]

 Inclusion of the Past Conditional in fact upsets the whole neat and tidy system. It should be covered by the Second Conditional, but, if we do include it in that category, we will have to admit that the form of the verb in the main clause can be something different from would + Infinitive.

If we let in one exception, why not permit many? Come to think of it, why should we not allow any exception whatsoever?

This in fact is what real-life language users do all the time.

An article on Joe Biden in today’s Guardian newspaper bears the headline If he wins, what would the first 100 days of his presidency look like?

Here a First Conditional-type ‘if-clause’ is combined with a Second Conditional-type main clause. Far from being anomalous, in everyday life, such mixing of different types of conditional is quite common and is used to enable expression to a subtler range of degrees doubt and certainty and our attitudes towards them than it is possible to covere with a simple logical schema.

In real life, flux and ambiguity are the rule.

In this headline, for example, the mixed conditional serves two not entirely compatible purposes. First, more explicitly, the use of Present Simple in the if-clause suggests that a Biden victory is likely, while the use of ‘would’ in the main clause indicates that what he might do thereafter is much less predictable.

In fact, this reflects a broader rule that we can use any modal verb to convey a degree of probability or uncertainty with regard to past, present or future and the article that follows is thus duly peppered with ‘might’s and ‘could’s and ‘may’s and so forth, in reference to a Biden presidency.

More implicitly, however, this headline also suggests that the degree of likelihood of Biden being elected president in fact lies somewhere between the two levels of probability that the First and Second Conditionals alone would convey. It is probable, but not as likely as one might wish… Best hedge one’s bets…

As one analytically-minded philosopher has put it: simple predictions about the future can be tested and proved true or false when the future comes to pass; statements about probability, absent access to multiple universes, cannot. We will know some day who wins the election next Tuesday. Who might have won, however, will remain forever in doubt.

Table of Contents



Hymn to Ubiquitin

The Chancellor and the Songstress — Epilogue — The Baobab and the Baby Song

The Chancellor and the Songstress Part 7 — The Lion Unloosed


Propertius III.i


Inter Alia

Plurality in Question


Laudable Pus



Original Poetry


The Chancellor and the Songstress (2020-2021)


                    Part 1 The Tale of Lily-White Riotess

                    Part 2 Hymn to the Flora of the World

                    Part 3 The Balloonists

                    Part 4 The Little Drummer Boy

                    Part 5 The Toppling of the Chairman of the Board

Part 6 Interlude — Dumbo in Cuckooland

Part 7 The Lion Unloosed

Epilogue— The Baby Song and the Baobab Tree

17 (2017-2018)

Section 1 – Prologue – Selva Oscura

Sections 2 and 3 – Picnic and Gas

Section 4 — Bangers Section 5 – Fall

Section 6 – She Section 7 – Park

Section 8 – Dogs             Section 9 – Siren

Section 10 – Dot Section 11 – Dorothy Agonistes

Section 12 – Mower

Sections 13 and 14 – Mike and Michael Angel

Section 15 – Psychopomp

Sections 16 and 17 – Purgatorio and Epilogue

64 (1991-2016)

Section 1 – Part 1 Prologue

Section 2 – Epithalamium—Parts 2 – 3 

Section 3 – Ekphrasis Parts 4 – 8

Section 3 – Ekphrasis – Parts 9 and 10

Section 4 – Katabasis – Parts 11-17

Section 4 – Katabasis – Parts 18-23

Section 5 – Honeymoon – Parts 24-26

Section 5 – Honeymoon – Parts 27-29 

Epilogue Parts 30-35  

            Sonnets on Autism (2003)

# 6, # 7, # 8

# 9

# 18, # 19, # 20, # 21, # 22

              200 (2018-2020)

Section 1 – Prologue – Part 1

Section 1 – Prologue – Part 2 – Mental Arithmetic

Section 1 – Prologue – Part 3

Section 2 – Witness

Sections 3 and 4 – Newcomer – Miasma

Section 5 – Breakfast, Dinner, Tea

Section 6 – Jude

Section 7 – Kseniya and Zhenya                                             

Section 8 – Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dee

Section 9 – Duet

Section 10 – Hymn to Liberty

Section 11 – Song for the Opium Poppy

Sections 12, 13 and Intermission

Section 14 – Checkmate – Kseniya and Zhenya do the CIA

Section 15 – When Tweedle Dumb met Tweedle Dee

Section 16 – Hymn to Ammunition

Section 17 Porton Down

Section 18 Yu Home

Section 19 – Jessie Down

Section 20 – Magic Act – Kseniya and Zhenya do Las Vegas

Section 21 – Potpourri

Section 22 – Bella

Section 23 – Bell at Seven Part 1

Section 23 – Bell at Seven Part 2

Section 24 Part 1 – Kseniya and Zhenya do Sunset Boulevard

Section 24 Part 2 – Zhenya Arrested

Section 25 – The Chancellor and the Fox

Section 26 – Meeting

Section 27 – Zhenya does Yellowstone

Section 28 — Epilogue Parts 1-3

          Unholy Sonnets (2001)

                          # 1, # 17, # 19


I Things Drawn from the Earth (1989-1992)

Young Carrots

The Desk Lamp

Your Freckles

II Held in the Air (1993-1997)



III A Mind of Winter (1998-1999)

IV Inferno in a Teaspoon (2000-2001)


     The Butterfly



       New Moon

       Sunday Evening

VI Elegy for a Punk Nightingale (2003)

        Hymn to Sleep

         Ode to Oedipus

Propertius Elegies III.iv

         Propertius Elegies III.v

        Propertius Elegies

VII The Filth in the Machine (2005)

          Family Night Out


           Hymn to Home

             Hymn to Neptune

            Propertius Elegies III.xxi

VIII Fragments of Affairs (2006-2011)

Dona Cecília Wants an iPhone


Stuff Picked up at the Supermarket

Young Women in a Coffee Shop

X Seeing through Fog (2015)

                              Amores I.ix

                              Burning Questions


                              The Caterpillar


Daylight Hours

                               Expo 1851


                                First Crush

                                Expo 1893

The Little Auto

                                 A Little Metaphysical Haiku

                                 The Lizard


                                  Mangoes Growing


Hymn to the Moon

Morning Rain




                                  The River Biss

                                  The Rope

                                  School through Fog


                                  Stuff Stuffed in a Drawer


                                   Ode to Thread

                          Throwing the Postman out of the Pram


                                    Wind Eye

                                    Urban Haikus

 X Fun and Suffering (2016-2019)






                                     Luzia in Flame

                                     May Day


                                     Parkland Requiem Chorus

                                     Prince Henry Does the Cape

                                     Red Cross on White

                                     Ron Doe




The Street

Other Translations

     João Cabral de Melo Neto

                                     A Blade With No Handle

              Manuel Bandeira

                                      The Caterpillar

              Rainer Maria Rilke

                                       Duino Elegy # 4


First Nemean Ode


Elegies III.i

     Experimental Poetry

                               Habeas Corpus

Birth Year Words Poems


Short Stories

                                           The Street


                                            Second Post First

Fifty Years On

History and Psychology

Ten Differences Between Britain and Brazil

A Tragedy in Brazil

Black Friday

The Point of Killing

Decisions, Decisions


Five Types of Taxi Driver



                                               Sally in the Woods Chapter 1

Literary Criticism

The Ghost of Philip Larkin

The Lizard and the Caterpillar

Encavernment in Beckett, Musil, and Kafka

William Carlos Williams in the American Grain

Amateur and Professional Poetry

Why Poetry Didn’t Go Dada

John Berryman and the Male Gaze

Mower Poems

Dogme in Poetry and Film Part I

Dogme in Poetry and Film Part II

Why I Write

The Space of Writing

Creative Idleness

Sylvia Plath’s Full Stops

What Makes Literature Good

Why Poetry Didn’t Go Indie

Moonset in Walt Whitman

Advice to Young Poets

The Devil in the em-dash: a reading of Emily Dickinson



                 For the Love of Prepositions (and Affixes)

Part 1 At

Part 2 By

Part 3 The F-words: ‘of’ and ‘off’

Part 4 Back and Forth

Part 5 To be or not to be…

Part 6 On ‘on’…

Part 7 And…

Part 8 …but

Part 9a Games with ge-, y- and a-

Part 9b Playing the Language Game

Part 10a -ob

Part 10b ob-

Part 11 Till Death Us Do Part

Part 12 Coronavirus

     The Truth about English Verbs

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4a

         Modal Verbs

Modal Verbs over Time

Modal Verbs in the News

Managing Capacity – Modal Verbs in the Real World

             Miscellaneous Grammar

Governor Brewer’s Present Perfect

De-escalation and the Nature of the English Language

Grammar Lessons from Antonin Scalia

(Our) Words of the Year

Fluidity of Person

The Genuine Article

Ergativity in Trump White House Discourse                       

A Number of Issues Regarding Number

If he wins…

Plurality in Question


What Spelling Tells Us

Food for Thought


Hope and Speed


The Politics of Stress


                               Between Quotes

Teaching and Tests

Testing Tests

Creative Idleness

Poorsplaining and True Education

Sheep and Goats

Life in the UK



 Democracy as Alternation in Britain, France, the US, and Brazil

Laudable Pus


Learning from Ukraine

China, Russia, and the United States

Greece in Europe

Syriza and the SNP

The Sweet Inception of War

Catalonia, Scotland, and Kurdistan

UK Politics

The British Labour Party and Scottish Independence

The Voter’s Dilemma

Victory in Defeat

How not to Miselect a Government

       US Politics

  Piers Morgan’s Guns

Honey and Bile: The Rhetoric of Sarah Palin

Ergativity in Trump White House Discourse

The Politics of Stress

If he wins…

        Brazilian Politics

A Democratic Coup

What is going on in Brazil

Throwing the Bloody Book at Them

Other Topics

                Math and Science

                               Markov Chains

TV and Film

                Death of a Clown

Genre Shift in Film and TV

Dogme in Poetry and Film Part I

                Popular Music

                               Billy Bragg, the Smiths, and Eminem

Voice and Song – Part 1

Lucifer Falls over Lancashire