Thursday, October 13, 2005

"As from the earth the light Balloon..."

I just returned from Albuquerque, where I visited with extended family. Saturday morning, we went to the International Balloon Fiesta and watched the Mass Ascension. This occurs early in the morning, when the balloons (about 750 of them) are filled with heated air, then untethered and lifted into the sky. For a few hours, the New Mexico horizon is dotted with balloons of all colors and shapes from all around the world. It is a beautiful sight.

I found this lovely poem by Emily Dickinson, which captures a little of the mystery of the ascension. By the way, thanks for all the kind words and good wishes I have been reading in the comments, along with some insightful poetry analysis.

As from the earth the light Balloon

As from the earth the light Balloon
Asks nothing but release --
Ascension that for which it was,
Its soaring Residence.
The spirit looks upon the Dust
That fastened it so long
With indignation,
As a Bird
Defrauded of its song.

Emily Dickinson


MB said...

Welcome home!

I love Emily Dickinson, in part for her rather liberated punctuation. Every once in a while I get stumped, though, and this is one. Help? It's the lines, "Ascension that for which it was,/ Its soaring Residence." I know I'm tired today, am I just being obtuse? What is that comma doing in there? And "that for which it was" -- I'm trying in vain to trace the multiple antecedents. Time for a cup of tea.

MB said...

Multiple referents, not antecedents. Sorry, I am tired.

Danny said...

I remember the last time I witnessed hundreds of balloons propelled by oxygen, not heated air, when I assisted the late Cardinal Jaime L. Sin in his Easter Mass at the Manila Cathedral. With Emily Dickinson's poignant line: "Asks nothing but release", I also remember the Cardinal's last statement, "Danny, wherever you're happy, I am with you..."

Like a balloon, he was releasing me from the church when I told him that I was leaving my vocation. It was my "ascension" then both internal and external, but I was so sad that day.

Amy said...

Hi Moose,

It's not you, it's the poem. The more closely I read it, the more confusing it seems. Or maybe we're both dense. :-)

I read it this way, taking the comma into acount: "it" refers to release; and "its" refers to the balloon.

Okay--so the ascension was release to the balloon. I think of "that" as emphasizing ascension--"ascension for the balloon release was." While the balloon was tethered to the earth, it cried to be released and to ascend into what seemed "its soaring Residence," the place it (the balloon) should be and wanted to be.

After it leaves, however, it (the balloon, the spirit) looks at the "Dust" and feels like "a Bird / Defrauded of its song," as if the spirit feels cheated. The earth was a good place to be, after all.

You could also read it that "the spirit looks upon the Dust / with indignation" for having kept it tethered, and felt defrauded in the past, as if it couldn't sing when tethered, but now can. But that doesn't work as well grammatically. But grammar is the whole issue here, and I'm not at all sure I have this right.

What's your take on this?

Amy said...

Hi Danny,

You have such an ability to relate poetry to your own experiences. There is something poignant about the flight of a balloon--it is beautiful, but the flight is temporary, and that transience adds sadness to the experience.

MB said...

Amy, thanks for responding. The tricky thing at times with her poems is knowing what punctuation she is leaving out and which referents are referring to whom... When I remember to, I tend to take her line ends seriously, as well as her punctuation. That's why I asked about the comma. The first time I read it, I glossed over the comma and mentally inserted one after ascension ("Ascension, that for which it was its soaring residence") which gives an entirely different meaning! Caught myself, and began the circles.

I think you are right, I came to the same conclusion about the first part - the "that" emphasizes Ascension, so the ascension is for the balloon the release the balloon was asking for. And the comma is there because the meaning of that phrase is distinct from that of the next phrase, "the balloon's soaring residence."

The second part sent me in an equal number of circles when I tried to parse it out! Yipes. But I came up with the second of your conclusions, rejecting your first conclusion, which was also my first interpretation. Here, I think the ends of lines function as commas or pauses, so the spirit is fastened by the Dust. And the spirit is looking upon the Dust (that fastened it so long) with indignation, because the true song of the spirit can only be heard once it is free of the dust... just as the true residence of the light balloon is in the ascension. There's a sense of both entities (balloon and spirit) being light beings who don't really belong here, but find their true selves/songs/roles (all they ever asked for) upon flight.

But I could be wrong! Tell me what you think. (Who knew reading a short poem could be so complicated!)

Amy said...


I think you are probably on the right track with the ending. I am a little muddled with the verb tense of "defrauded;" I want to read something like "As a bird / that had been defrauded of its song," but that would be silly. There's something unnerving about having "defrauded of its song" as the last line of the poem; it does not sound freeing. It sounds as if the spirit is still miffed. That doesn't sound freeing to me. But perhaps Dickinson intended this complexity. She is alluding to death, after all.

MB said...

Mm, but I think the your reading is right: as a bird that has been defrauded of its song... the spirit (bird) IS miffed (indignant) because it was the dust (earth-bound life) that was doing the defrauding. Now that the spirit is released from the dust (from life), 'twill have its rightful and true song.... right? I think?

SilverMoon said...

I adore Emily Dickinson's poetry for her complexity of meaning, housed simply in its succinct use of poetic elements. (A well-thumbed collection of her works adorns our den coffee table.)

Maybe I think differently, because her poetry has always easily spoken to me. As with much of her poetry, this is obviously about herself. Notice the words she capitalizes and the strong verbs.

She is that Balloon and poignantly expressed here, needed the freedom for her spirit to sing, feeling unjustly shunt aside, needing to soar, and yes, as she often does, contemplating death, sadly, as her only escape for she already lives a life of recluse.

Silvermoon said...

Oh, as freeing as flight (ascension) would be, to me Emily is still struggling with the here and now on Earth, as evidenced by "asks nothing but but realease, as if that should not be hard to grant that freedom.

In addition, the poem builds like ascension, showing her mounting turmoil and conflict. See the words "fastened/ so long/indignation and defrauded." The latter two words are intentionally strong, even harsh to the ear which I feel emphasizes her turmoil brilliantly. That one word "defrauded" has so much meaning and feeling packed into it... Just my take- A poem with ensuing discussion like this makes me long for real time discussion of such! Great post, Amy! Glad your trip was terrific.

Amy said...

Hi Silvermoon,

I agree. Dickinson's poetry is deceptively simple. Multiple readings reveal how complex her thinking really was. In some ways, she is an ideal poet: her work is accessible enough to enjoy casually, yet grammatically and symbolically complex enough to delve into over and over. What is up with that comma? Why the past tense for "defrauded," which grows ever more cryptic in that context? It is not important to answer these questions, but it is very important to ask them.

garnet david said...

I have little to add to this rich conversation. But I'm glad to have rested on this branch of this tree.

Dickinson's words and meaning float up, ever free, which makes it, as you said, the best poetry.

It's sad her life was spent waiting for the world to find her. But she found us, and for now that's what matters.