Emily Dickinson, "To fill a Gap" (546)

I believe it is possible to speak of loss as lasting without completely exonerating those who are greedy, panicked, or paranoid.

Emily Dickinson, "To fill a Gap" (546)

What is the significance of public opinion concerning Afghanistan?

Jonathan Katz writes about the American public's reaction to the Afghanistan withdrawal:

I’m a bit flummoxed. Everything that I have seen in my life as a foreign correspondent led me to the conclusion that Americans don’t really care about what’s going on overseas—even when our own troops are involved.

I believe it worthwhile to let this puzzlement linger. I have a few ideas about why many have suddenly become experts on nation-building and military evacuations. But I really want to appreciate where Katz is coming from. You've seen things for yourself firsthand; you've talked with people who deeply understand what you've witnessed; you've read your history; you have knowledge people should want before forming an opinion, let alone policy; no one cares. Then all of a sudden, they do care, and a number know exactly who to blame.

I'm making it sound like the interest in Afghanistan has to do with everything being a partisan game. There's some truth to that, but there's a larger issue to which Katz's puzzlement speaks. Afghanistan could have been used by either opposing party much earlier, after all—there's plenty to blame in a war going nowhere, as long as the party in power continues it. What's worth thinking through is how the public believes it knows something, and that belief makes it seem interested and aware. This is not a phenomenon peculiar to partisanship. As Katz writes:

The original Forever War is, officially, and suddenly, over. We lost. At least some of us are coming to terms with that fact.

The public is correct in believing the war is over and the US lost. It's not an easy truth to accept. In struggling to come to terms with it, there needs to be a reassessment of what is known. Two ideas Americans have must be scrutinized, and we may be a long way from doing that. First, the notion that war is a real solution to anything. (This is very difficult to dispel, given the mythological status and necessity of the Second World War.) Second, American exceptionalism: the notion that we serve, kill only the bad guys, and can do no wrong. The known, public, grisly details of the drone killing meant to protect US soldiers may be a sign things are changing.

Below, I've written a comment on Dickinson's "To fill a Gap." Dickinson's poem is a brief but packed statement on how our personal losses affect us. Please do let me know if the poem speaks to you.

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Emily Dickinson, "To fill a Gap" (546)

"You cannot solder an Abyss / With Air:" Dickinson ends "To fill a Gap" with these charged lines. Not mere absence, but the "Abyss," a chasm of pain and doom, seeding doubt about the value of life. It has to be filled, healed, repaired. Can it be soldered? Made whole enough, made somewhat useful? I've got so many words, so many plans, but it's all "Air." The "Abyss" has cosmic power, if it is not itself a primordial force.

To fill a Gap (546)
Emily Dickinson

To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that caused it —
Block it up
With Other — and 'twill yawn the more —
You cannot solder an Abyss
With Air. 

Vendler notes that Dickinson considered using "Plug a Sepulchre" instead of "solder an Abyss." Accordingly, she reads this poem as focused on death. "One cannot insert a dead friend back into one's life... nor can one block up the absence of one indispensable person with the presence of a different person." "To fill a Gap," then, is impossible (278).

I believe it is possible to speak of loss as lasting without completely exonerating those who are greedy, panicked, or paranoid. It does seem like some people want everything because of power they might not have otherwise. Or they're obsessed with the possibility of losing what little they have. Or they refuse to think realistically for the briefest moment, as they don't want to assess what they actually possess. None of these attitudes do justice to how loss shapes us. Rather, they exaggerate a problem already so deep it is fair to call it an "Abyss."

"To fill a Gap / Insert the Thing that caused it" speaks a singular sadness and anger. Losing someone you love often entails feelings of betrayal, though they may have been the purest of the pure. Still, if they didn't allow themselves to be loved, they wouldn't have "caused" this "Gap," a gap only they can fill. It's hard to admit how dependent we are on others. We don't just use their thoughts and stories to understand the world. Their very presence matters, so much so that when they're gone, it doesn't feel like we can get a grip on anything.

This, I believe, enlarges Vendler's point about someone "indispensable" not being replaceable. Everyone is potentially indispensable. As Dickinson says, "Block it up / With Other — and 'twill yawn the more." If you try and fit someone where someone else was, you only increase the distance and pain. I should say I find it stunning how even the worst of us recognize individuality in some way. I've known a lot of people who do not bother to properly value those willing to give them their time. They'll vent or rant for hours, but not listen to a thing said to them. They won't be able to explain in any detail what someone else does, because they simply don't care. Before a problem is told, they have the solution to it. Lots of "nice" people fit these descriptions, and that should give us pause. The bar for being a decent human is on the floor nowadays.

Still, even those wrapped up in themselves feel the loss of another in a multitude of ways. I think of someone whose rage completely controlled her. She'd hurt the people she was with, and when they turned away, she would use that emotional distance to look for others. Someone always had to be in her life; she had to feel accepted and acceptable. It took me a while to realize she remembered every rejection, as each one stung.

In this awful way, individuality asserted itself. Sometimes people are known by pain because we're not open to them in any other way. And other times, people are known by pain because they've opened our lives to so much more. "You cannot solder an Abyss / With Air:" it's cloying and cliche to say our uniqueness has the power of a cosmic force. That all our words and gestures, all the science and logic we can muster, won't ever replicate it. So I won't say that. I'll spell out some conditions instead. There are people who expand the range of possibilities life offers, and there are people receptive to that. Both are special, so special we want to believe everyone is like them. It doesn't work that way. Everyone is unique, everyone will be mourned, but some losses are more keenly felt than others.


Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Harvard, 2010. 278-9.