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  • Teleiopoetic World
  • Peggy Kamuf (bio)

“How much can come/ And much can go,/ And still abide the world.” The lines are Emily Dickinson’s and they conclude a 17-line poem ostensibly about a thunderstorm, which begins “There came a wind like a bugle.” According to a concordance, they contain one of only two occurrences throughout her poems of the verb “abide.” This apparent paucity of use, however, is more than made up for here by a little explosion of possible readings. These can be divided, first, between intransitive and transitive uses: how much can change and still the world abides, on the one hand, but also, somewhat less idiomatically perhaps and on the other hand, how much what comes and goes, how much all the finite things and beings being brought into and taken out of the world still abide it, still bear it or bear with it and tolerate it. Whether one hears it intransitively or transitively, however, as the world abiding or abided, world, the world would be figured in either case as itself an unchanged, unchanging ground or background for all the transience that comes into and goes out of it, while it remains, abides, as world, as the world that it simply is and remains abidingly. Yet, one can also call up a somewhat unexpected sense of the verb from these lines (and, by the way, the English verb “abide” had for the longest spell in its long history the primary sense of “to await, to expect,” a trace of which sense remains in the expression “to bide one’s time,” but see also a late use in this sense by Eliot in 1935 in Murder in the Cathedral, where like Dickinson, the later poet also thought of storms in the verb’s vicinity: “In the storm, Should we not wait for the sea to subside, in the night Abide the coming of day?”). I was saying then, one can call up a somewhat unexpected or unawaited sense of Dickinson’s line if, instead of as a declaration, statement, or constative, one bids to understand it as having a performative force. This is to read the line “And still abide the world,” then, as neither a transitive nor an intransitive declarative, but as an optative or even imperative subjunctive: Abide! Still abide the world! Which would perhaps be tantamount to saying or to praying: Let it come, the unexpected world, where all will have come and gone, again, an utterly changed world, not the same and yet still abiding, still awaiting, still bearing what is to be borne, which is its own disappearance as this here world that is already going, going, gone. Or as the other poet says, in German, fort. [End Page 10]

As always, a few lines of Dickinson, or a few lines of any comparably strong poet, sustain, abide, or bear up seemingly a whole world for its readers, those whom the poem addresses from out of its expectant abiding of an act of understanding and hearing, of a responding that calls to the other to call. Abide! (A flash to the hymn, “Abide with me,” whose first verse I still know by heart: “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;/ The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;/ When other helpers fail and comforts flee,/ Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.” The lyrics are based on Luke 24:29: “But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them.” Dickinson may well have known the hymn. The lyrics’ author, a Scottish Anglican named Henry Francis Lyte, wrote them in 1847 as he was dying of tuberculosis. According to legend, the hymn was played by the orchestra of the Titanic as it sank. Abide is, in a word, a prayer, the word of prayer.) It calls to others to call, I said, it awaits the call of response but in another sense, or according to the force of its performative, it does not wait at all, but makes come what abides, what awaits, as if abiding were the mode of expectation without expectation...


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