Jan 182003

The Rabbit wants to know, or pretends to want to know, what “Jamaicas of Remembrance” are in the following bit from Emily Dickinson:

And so encountering a Fly
This January day
Jamaicas of Remembrance stir
That send me reeling in.

I will answer the question as if it were serious though this will no doubt lead to my being made fun of. Humiliation favors the bold.

Emily Dickinson spent a lot of effort in her poetry on being odd, although she was pretty odd without trying. She would pick the proximate word very often, not the obvious one but the next one over. Most of her really weird locutions can be traced to this habit. Sometimes it would work, more often not. There’s an instance of each in “There’s a certain slant of light”:

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.

In the first stanza “heft” for “weight” is such an obvious failure, in apposition to “oppresses,” that her first editor, Mabel Todd, used “weight” anyway, even though it has no textual warrant. On the other hand, in the last stanza, “look of Death” for “face of Death” is completely successful. You win a few, you lose a few.

“Jamaicas of Remembrance” is like that. “Jamaica” is an exotic and uncharted region, or was in 1884, and that’s all she means. It sounds like it should be more but it isn’t. (The preceding analysis was partly lifted from the late and great J.V. Cunningham.)

  9 Responses to “Jamaicas of Remembrance”

  1. I much prefer "heft" to "weight." And "Jamaicas of remembrance" is no more difficult than the Bard’s "twice-vexed Bermoothes."

  2. Tim is a very fine poet but "heft" is the sort of word that one internally translates to "weight" when puzzling out the poem and then wonders why she didn’t use "weight" in the first place. Quite like "Jamaicas." "Weight" also supplies an off-rhyme that is paralleled by "distance/listens" in the last stanza.

  3. I’m with you on the heft/weight deal, Aaron. Heft carries with it the transitive verbal sense, and it’s all wrong here. It fights as well the oppresses. In addition to weight being the correct choice on the above grounds, weight resonates alliteratively with winter to good poetic effect.


  4. I happened to read rabbit yesterday and my first thought was … well it means it’s a distant, unknown place … but then I thought, that’s too obvious … and gave up thinking about it.

    I think heft is a much more musical, much less pedestrian word that weight. I vote for heft.

  5. I’m with Howard. Lots of great poems proceed from disorder to order (A Disused Shed in County Wexford), but from order to disorder and back to order? Hmmm

  6. "Heft" matches the ‘e’ in ‘oppresses,’ the ‘h’ in "heavenly hurt," and of course the ‘breath/death’ rhymes in the final stanza. And "Weight of cathedral tunes" seems a bit cliche. I’m no serious critic, but I much prefer ‘heft.’

    The Jamaicas of remembrance, on the other hand, reminds of Heller’s "Snowdens of yesteryear" in Catch-22, except that the latter was wittingly silly…

  7. But no one suggested what the Jamaicas of remembrance are.

    It seems to me that Miss D. has simply devised a colorful locution for the warmth of summer by naming someplace tropical. Quite simple, really, and not all that odd.

  8. Your interpretation sounds more like "Remembrance of Jamaicas" than "Jamaicas of Remembrance" although I think you are right that the temperature has something to do with it. My story was that Jamaica was exotic and uncharted, like the memories that the January fly stirs, and I’m sticking to it.

  9. Perhaps "heft" was chosen because it is less common than the casual word "weight," and thus focuses more attention to it, giving it, indeed, more weight. It also has different connotations than "weight", since it is derives from the same root as "heaviness" (think: like the heaviness of cathedral tunes).

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