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.

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Moonset in Walt Whitman

These few lines from Section 8 of Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d provide something of a master class on how to write a skyscape within a funerary ode against a dark broiling broader political backdrop. They also epitomize how luscious repetition (anaphora) can be used as a poetic device. All those repetitions of ‘night’ and ‘as’ and ‘walk’ convey a glorious if gloomy experiential impression of walking through lush wet grass in the dead of night. Poetry to weep to and enjoy.

O western orb sailing the heaven,

Now I know what you must have meant as a month since I walk’d,

As I walk’d in silence the transparent shadowy night,

As I saw you had something to tell as you bent to me night after night,

As you droop’d from the sky low down as if to my side (while the other stars all look’d on,)

As we wander’d together the solemn night….

As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west how full you were of woe,

As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze in the cool transparent night,

As I watch’d where you pass’d and was lost in the netherward black of the night,

As my soul in its trouble dissatisfied sank, as where your sad orb,

Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.