Poet's Pick April 8
Emily Dickinson: "[God gave a Loaf to every Bird -]"
Selected by Luisa A. Igloria
National Poetry Month 2015

Letter from the Editors

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Editors


Luisa A. Igloria's Poetry Month Pick, April 8, 2015

"[God gave a Loaf to every Bird —]"
by Emily Dickinson (1830-1986)

God gave a Loaf to every Bird -
But just a Crumb - to Me -
I dare not
eat it - tho'
I starve -
My poignant luxury -

To own it - touch it -
Prove the feat - that made
the Pellet mine -
Too happy - for my Sparrow's chance -
For Ampler Coveting -

It might be Famine - all around -
I could not miss an Ear -
Such Plenty smiles opon my Board -
My Garner shows so fair -

I wonder how the Rich - may feel -
An Indiaman - An Earl -
I deem that I - with but a Crumb -
Am Sovreign of them all -

(The above version is a transcript from a manuscript from
Poems: Packet XVIII, Fascicle 36
Includes 22 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1863
Emily Dickinson Archive)

G​od gave a loaf to every bird,
But just a crumb to me;
I dare not eat it, though I starve,—
My poignant luxury
To own it, touch it, prove the feat
That made the pellet mine,—
Too happy in my sparrow chance
For ampler coveting.

It might be famine all around,
I could not miss an ear,
Such plenty smiles upon my board,
My garner shows so fair.
I wonder how the rich may feel,—
An Indiaman—an Earl?
I deem that I with but a crumb
Am sovereign of them all.

(The above version is set out as it appears in Poems, by Emily Dickinson, edited by T. W. Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1892)

 

* Luisa A. Igloria Comments:

Dear Emily,

It is this poem, of all your poems, I keep returning to through the years: its dark, hard pellet around which my hand, knuckle-fisted, has closed; but which, whenever I open my palm again to look, I find has expanded, like a piece of fermented, spongy bread. A living thing; sustainable, sustaining.

So much has already been written about this and your other poems that have the theme of stoic abstention in the face of hardship: given "just a Crumb," you "dare not eat it— tho' [you] starve—" Here you show how the contemplative self or heart, diminutive like a bird and dwelling in its spare isolation, must feel when regarding the comparative wealth of others and the plenitude of other ways of being in the world. The self that is less abundantly blessed, that has less of an ability to possess the object/s of its desire, comes to find solace in its spartan practices. A little becomes the world, a crumb becomes "poignant luxury."

I often wonder what it was that might have specifically occasioned this poem. Forgive me, but perhaps because I am a person of color, a woman born and raised in a third world country, where the poor are visible everywhere one looks, I cannot read this poem without considering how it is an indictment of poverty— no, not poverty itself but those seemingly invisible and abstract forces which control the distribution of wealth, of what we call luck or chance: "God gave a Loaf to every Bird -/ But just a Crumb - to Me -"

And while I know the poem speaks perhaps to more metaphorical and internal experiences of stringency, I cannot help but read it too against the braided contexts of race, gender, and power, and their concrete effects on real lives.

You mention "the Rich-" the "Earl[s]" and "Indiam[e]n" who came into their fortunes through the indentured labor of others. I read in the dictionary that an Indiaman is "a large ship formerly used by European and North American merchants on trade routes to India, East or Southeast Asia, or the West Indies." I think of how they brought back to the New World precious metals, spices, scrolls, statuary, as chains of brown bodies rowed in the hold and birds scattered in every direction, making small dark marks in the sky.

And so this is how I have come to know those internal reserves of which you speak in this poem: how having less can teach one to develop the resilience needed to survive, how a "Pellet" can be extravagant treasure when held against those longer times of seemingly endless deprivation and "Ampler Coveting." You might as well have subtitled the poem "The Art of Making Do."

Your poem's alchemy consists, for me, in its ability to lead through its language and juxtapositions, to the idea of a transformation that is almost spiritual— To show how I, "with but a Crumb -" might yet find internal reserves that are independent of external circumstance. It's a paradoxical idea, one that is especially difficult to comprehend because there can be so much evidence called up to thwart it.

But it's that crumb of hope that has become precious to me, that is the real "Sovereign:" the idea that reversals are possible, despite history.

Gratefully,
Luisa


About Luisa A. Igloria:
Luisa A. Igloria is the author of the eChapbook Bright ​as ​Mirrors Left in the Grass (Kudzu House Press, spring 2015); Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press), Night Willow: Prose Poems (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2014), The Saints of Streets (2013), Juan Luna's Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), Trill & Mordent (WordTech Editions, 2005), and 8 other books. Luisa has degrees from the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she was a Fulbright Fellow from 1992-1995. She currently teaches in and directs the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University. For more than four years now, since November 20, 2010, Luisa A. Igloria has been writing (at least) a poem a day; these poems are archived on Dave Bonta's Via Negativa website.


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