Emily Dickinson, "A South Wind — has a pathos" (J 719)

When you create something entirely your own, something no one else attends to, you could forget who you were.

Emily Dickinson, "A South Wind — has a pathos" (J 719)

I find it hard to believe future generations will understand the sheer hatred we have for strangers. You might argue the feeling comes from a media soaked in "copaganda." A non-stop barrage of police fighting criminals, whose crimes become more lurid and elaborate with each episode. But that phenomenon has a cause, too, and it isn't actual incidents of crime. Something taught us to be scared of anything different before we even knew what danger was.

I posit that one major culprit is a version of the American Dream. A dream that goes like this: our home is our castle. It takes maturity to gather the means to build, fill, and protect it. Maturity and the acquisition of wealth go hand-in-hand. Those who want to meet different people? Or dedicate themselves to public service? They're too idealistic, too babyish. Not only do they lack the strength to inspire fear, but they would welcome those who would hurt them and others. This "maturity" makes the defense of private property central while embracing paranoia and disproportional response. It needs an enemy to maintain itself, and thus makes racism all the more virulent.

Trump's "Snake" parable illustrates this. A woman rescues a nearly dead snake out of compassion, bringing it home. The snake recovers, then bites her. She asks why, and the snake asks why not—didn't she notice he was a snake? Trump's rally audiences love this trash story which means to dehumanize immigrants as well as completely destroy the social fabric. It isn't clear a willing audience for this story could trust anyone, as immigrants are just the most convenient scapegoat. Why are they the scapegoat? Because we're programmed to believe that other people only exist to steal stuff from us, and that if you don't believe everyone wants to rob you blind and leave you for dead, you're stupid, lacking common sense. The desperation of many immigrants is weaponized against them before they arrive.

Not all racist and anti-immigrant narratives are the same. The viciousness entailed in hurting evacuees at their most vulnerable was on display lately, and it is beyond my competence to address the specific hatred at work there. Still, given the dominance of American culture, I'm sure people the world over have been nudged to extremism by our toxicity.

In contrast to the above, Dickinson confesses to an "Emigrant's address."  It is tricky to see what emigration and immigration have to do with her personally, until you see how she's woven herself into the verse. She says she hears "a pathos / Of individual Voice" in the wind. Traces of suffering, of intense sadness, maybe of rage in the "South Wind." The "South Wind," to be sure, is traditionally held responsible for the storms of summer, but knowing that pushes us to think she hears herself in gusts of wind, pouring rain, and thunder. Somehow, she identifies with both the "South Wind" and an "Emigrant's address." "A South Wind — has a pathos / Of individual Voice — / As One detect on Landings / An Emigrant's address:"

A South Wind — has a pathos (J 719)
Emily Dickinson

A South Wind — has a pathos
Of individual Voice —
As One detect on Landings
An Emigrant's address.

A Hint of Ports and Peoples —
And much not understood —
The fairer — for the farness —
And for the foreignhood. 

The first stanza wraps together anger, tears, arrival, and loss. Dickinson indirectly presents herself as an exile. Her frustrations are scattered in the wind, but she has somehow landed at a place of her own creation. Funny, that. When you create something entirely your own, something no one else attends to, you could forget who you were. What you've been through. Most immigrants I know do a lot to remember the old country. They do not want to forget, they do not want to be only an emigrant.

Dickinson speaks as if her voice has broken into a million fragments. Some of it is found in stormy winds, others on landings where migrants sigh. I can't help but think that she's really talking about memory. There were times she could speak how she felt and it made sense; there were times where others accepted her and she felt welcome. All of that is in the process of being forgotten by her. She has been overwhelmed and needs to start anew. She's the "Emigrant" giving an "address," but as this is a beginning, it is incomplete and fragmented too.

What she has are pieces of images: "A Hint of Ports and Peoples — / And much not understood." Will she do anything with these hints? Can she create something new and lasting? These lines are frightfully lonely. They don't speak of acceptance or love, just travel. They don't add up to a complete picture of anything. But it's precisely in that lack of wholeness where Dickinson finds strength. "The fairer — for the farness — / And for the foreignhood." Dickinson's alienation is tied to the beauty of change. Change means accepting distance from what was. It means embracing what is strange. Dickinson's verse does not let these themes collapse into cliche. The pain of loneliness, the frustration of confused communication, and the fear that one is neglecting one's own life and memories are also tied to the beauty of change. "Farness" and "foreignhood" don't describe a state of blissful, easy reflection where one can contemplate one's life as if it were a game. There were real consequences, things did not work out, and now we're here, somewhere we never imagined. It's as frightening as it is beautiful. Maybe one reason why we're obsessed with picking on migrants is that many of us know we could never do what they do. That leaving takes a special kind of courage, one hard to even conceive.