An Attempt at a Deed

A Deed knocks first at Thought
And then—it knocks at Will—
That is the manufacturing spot
And Will at Home and well

It then goes out an Act
Or is entombed so still
That only to the ear of God
Its Doom is audible— ~Emily Dickinson (draft here)

I am flying solo with this one, and I don’t know what to do with it past a certain point. I am beginning to wonder if this is how an Emily Dickinson poem works–it lures you in with some lovely tidy little aphorism that of course you understand, and then BOOM!! you get hit over the head by syntax and the thing with feathers is flying in circles around your skull, cheeping like in cartoons when someone gets bludgeoned with a falling Acme anvil.

Every act manifests first as thought, and then you have to actually summon the will to enact it. Will is the “manufacturing spot,” but what on earth does “And Will at Home and well” mean?? I feel like there is something very important here that I’m missing.

Then it becomes an act, or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t, then it perishes so silently that God only knows what happened to it.

It seems really straightforward–except for “And Will at Home and well.” Does this mean that when you connect the idea of a deed with the will to do it, then it has arrived and it is going to happen? Or is the “And” the archaic “and” that means “if”–the deed will be made into reality if will is present to do so. I think the whole interpretation of this bit might hinge on the meaning of the word “and.” Tricksy Emily.

I chose this poem for today because it seemed like a beginning-of-the-year poem–like a New-Years’-resolutions-not-abandoned-yet kind of poem–or like a warning not to abandon them. But now I find myself unequal to the deed. I would very much like to say something intelligent about this poem, but right now it is winning.

This poem does one of the things that I love in Emily Dickinson poems–it personifies an abstract idea. A deed, in a sort of seed-form, knocks–and there’s something in this that reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk about inspiration. Gilbert critiques the modern notion of the suffering artist, juxtaposing it with the classical idea that inspiration come from without. Dickinson’s deed is like this–it comes knocking. It is not manufactured by the speaker, but invited in by her, in stages–like progressing through the various walls of a fortress. This is a polite kind of invasion–the deed is knocking, and presumably will go away if not invited in. It strikes me that Dickinson often portrays abstracts as very courteous–like Death, who “kindly stopped.”

In any case, for me this poem is a reminder that no idea becomes reality, no intent becomes manifest, unless we have the will to do the necessary work.


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