This isn’t the music I’d planned to write. I’d been exploring quasi-instrumental ways of writing for choral voices lately, and I’d planned on doing something similarly crystalline and ebullient for the Young People’s Chorus. But it’s been a sobering season. I lost my father in September and a friend in December. I found myself returning to four Emily Dickinson poems that had figured in a symphony I’d composed—a symphony on which I and my friend had collaborated for the last time.
They’re dark poems: poems about a kind of double abandonment. The first abandonment is the one you feel when a loved one leaves. The second is when you look at the things people say will console you—God, church, heaven—and realize they don’t console you much: not really; not at all. But weren’t these too heavy—too adult—for the Young People’s Chorus?
Except: my father’s dying reminded me so vividly that part of you stays always a child. And who said childhood was all red balloons and happy endings? Children don’t suffer?
So I imagined Garland as what might go through your mind as you were attending the funeral of someone you loved.
The music begins in humming a soothing melody, but there are no words yet: it’s longing for a comfort it hasn’t yet found. Then the piano plays a short, solemn overture. (The humming, maybe, is inside the person’s head; the piano overture, maybe, is the actual funeral.)
The first poem, “Is Heaven a physician,” in a polite, pointed way, notes the difference between how people describe God and death and how it feels to the ones left behind.
The second—“Crumbling is not an instant’s act”— is crazier. It tries to describe what happens when you’re seeing something so awful—someone dying, little by little— that your feelings switch off. You observe everything in minute detail, because it’s easier to describe it as if from a great distance than as if it were happening to you, or to someone you love. The music crashes to a halt. The soothing melody from the opening begins in the piano, but the chords crash over it before it can go on.
The third poem–guilty, regretful—says goodbye for the last time. A line or two of the first poem “Is Heaven a physician?” flashes through the music like a fleeting thought. The piano takes over the music of third poem, and brings it to a very high pitch of grief. I think of this as the moment when you hit a kind of wall of sadness. You literally can’t hurt any more than you do now.
That’s often the moment when you begin to see a way through the pain. And so, when the piano gives up, the music from the beginning comes back: but with words and harmonies this time. It sings a fourth poem, “The life we have is very great,” which answers the first poem. It says that stories of heaven and infinity are all very well, but that you don’t need those stories to love someone, or miss him, or to heal from the pain of losing her and going on. The human heart is everything.
The funeral music returns in the piano. It doesn’t need happily—it’s too soon for that—but it ends.
Four Poems by Emily Dickinson
1. Is Heaven a Physician?
2. Crumbling is not an instant's Act
3. We cover thee, sweet face
4. The Life we have is very great
Is Heaven a physician?
They say that He can heal;
But posthumous medicine
Is Heaven an exchequeur?
They speak of what we owe:
But that negotiation
I’m not a party to.
Crumbling is not an instant’s act,
A fundamental pause;
Are organized decays.
‘T’is 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;
Fall in an instant no man did.
Slipping is crash’s law.
We cover thee, sweet face
Not that we tire of thee,
But that thyself fatigue of us;
Remember, as thou flee
We follow thee until
Thou notice us no more;
And then, reluctant, turn away
To con thee o’er and o’er,
And blame the scanty love
We were content to show,
Augmented, sweet, a hundredfold
If thou wouldst take it now.
The life we have is very great;
The life we are to see
Surpasses it because we know
It is infinity.
But when all space has been beheld
And all dominion shown;
The smallest human heart’s extent
Reduces it to none.