Poet's Pick April 27
Emily Dickinson: "Crumbling is not an instant's Act"
Selected by Kevin Craft
National Poetry Month 2018

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Kevin Craft's Poetry Month Pick, April 27, 2018

"Crumbling is not an instant's Act" (1010)
by Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)

Crumbling is not an instant's Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation's processes
Are organized Decays —

'Tis 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 —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crashe's law —

 

* Kevin Craft Comments:
Of the many Dickinson poems I feel close to, “Crumbling” stands apart. It begins with that characteristic Amherst hook—the declarative sentence to establish and define the existential stakes. Indeed, in Dickinson, an index of first lines can read like a book of aphorisms: “As imperceptibly as grief,” “Pain expands the time,” “Circumference thou bride of awe”—each line the leading edge of revelation, a premise sharpened with the clarity of a paring knife. Often this opening hook turns on the paradox of appearances: “A bird came down the walk” seems a simple domestic drama until it reveals an “Ocean, / Too silver for a seam.” Just a door ajar—and we turn from intimate to infinite, as if they marked the same distance. Juxtaposition, proximity to eternity—this is Dickinson’s great gift, exemplified in the urgency of her dashes. One swift kick reveals the molehill was a mountain after all.

In “Crumbling’s not an instant’s Act,” however, she takes pains to slow the associative process down. This poem (equally characteristic) operates with the measured diction of a scientific proof: in stanza one, there is the hypothesis in which “Decay” is perceived as “organized”—a proposition not readily apparent to the senses, perhaps, but intuitively curious and apt. As in much of her work, the image is abstracted, but the attention here is so fine-tuned it shines with a veritable prescience. Organized decay turns out to be a perfect description of the half-life of radioactive materials.

In stanza two, the microscopic evidence is brought to bear, with precision: as an image, “Cuticle of Dust” is both undulant and contained, like particle and wave. We are shown what’s near at hand—“Cobweb,” “Dust”—and also what’s hidden from view—the “Borer” like a beetle eating at Earth’s “Axis,” chewing away at the stability of the planet. I can’t help but hear prescience in this line too—the “Borer” an instance of climate-aided infestation, like pine bark beetles gnawing entire forests, killing them tree by tree. That “Elemental Rust” might be plastic particles plaguing the oceans—imperceptible, but doing great damage in the food chain all the same.

The third stanza draws its conclusion—the “law” extracted from the detailed work of empirical observation. There is a shift of imagery—the “Devil” and “man” enter the picture, raising the stakes, lending the drama a moral dimension. More significant is the acceleration of the rhythm. In the first two quatrains, we see only one dash per stanza. In the third quatrain, there are suddenly four—an exponential increase. The slippery slope is a fallacy in logic, but Dickinson pinpoints something deeper in the substrate of consciousness, an ontological restlessness that mirrors the instability of matter. Beneath the apparent order in the material world, entropy prevails. Every instant contains its own demise.

This appears as true of the social order as it is of nature. “Fail in an instant, no man did” she proclaims, though the syntax is carefully inverted, as if to undermine that claim, to emphasize human frailty. Life, like language, is always “Slipping – .” Meanwhile, death is the great dissolution, the limit of knowledge, and death has been preparing for us all along.

The genius of this poem is not allegory so much as the acuteness of attention brought to bear on the material world, visible and invisible alike. Because her scrutiny is so fierce, Dickinson’s proof touches universal principles. It strikes the reader with all the wonder of a paradox unraveled. That this poem speaks to our moment so clearly—as our antique democracy groans under the stress of demagoguery, one daily outrage at a time, as carbon gets added to the atmosphere with little apparent effect on our daily lives—only underlines how deeply these patterns obtain. Dickinson’s exactitude, the spareness of her vision serve as tonic in our information-addled, muddle-headed era. “Crumbling” is a slow motion instant replay of a poem, enacting a catastrophe that has been unfolding since time began.


About Kevin Craft:
Kevin Craft is the executive editor of Poetry Northwest Editions. He is the author of Solar Prominence, and editor of five volumes of the anthology Mare Nostrum. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in AGNI, Poetry, Ninth Letter, and Verse. He is the director of the Written Arts Program at Everett Community College, and teaches in the University of Washington's Creative Writing in Rome Program.


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