There’s a Certain Slant of Light

A member of a book club that read REUNION wrote to me, wondering if the “horizontal light” that my narrators see when they are feeling suicidal was inspired by this poem by Emily Dickinson. I don’t believe it was–although who knows how our unconscious deals with poetry we may have read decades before?–but I have to say that Dickinson describes in these concise but powerful lines something it took me paragraphs to (try to) capture:

There’s a certain Slant of light, (320)

By Emily Dickinson

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

This, opposed to my first reference to the same sort of light during a scene when one of the sisters is recounting an early suicide attempt:

“We’ve all struggled with this: how to explain the desire to do something most people find pathological at best, selfish at worst, incomprehensible always. We sometimes describe it as a chit we were each handed at birth, a card to get out of jail free if one thinks of her life as jail.

“Or we talk about the horizontal light, which is how we refer to the light that sometimes replaces sunlight, the light we see for a brief moment virtually every day, the light that isn’t golden, but is as silver as the nacre inside a seashell, and comes not down from the heavens but from beyond the skyline, oozing and seeping until it lies over the day like an opalescent blanket inviting us to slide beneath it. There’s no telling when we’ll see the horizontal light; it appears at a different time every day, and most days we overlook it—it tends to come and go in an instant—and on other days we see and it lingers, but we manage to ignore it or, at least, after a while, to look away from it.

But then there are the days we can’t look away. “Man, the horizontal light was really strong today,” one of us will say, and the other two will say, “But you resisted,” and the first one will say, “Yeah, well, today I resisted. Who knows about tomorrow?” and we all say, “Who ever knows about tomorrow?” and we refresh our drinks.”

Not putting myself down–I still like my paragraphs and it is, after all, prose that I’m writing, and the language is also in service of a contemporary narrative voice, and yadda yadda yadda–but still…it is just stunning to read that poem. I am definitely doing the “I’m not worthy” bow right now.

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