Coffee, Croissants, and Poetry – some thoughts on not being powerful and a poem by Emily Dickinson

Today, on an impulse, I went into one of the local cafés and had coffee and a croissant. Before the pandemic, I went there because they actually know how to make croissants rather than serving something croissant-shaped but with no flavour and the wrong texture. I’ve been avoiding cafés for what seems like a very long time now but today, I let myself be tempted.

I like that, as well as serving real pastries and passable coffee, the place is designed to look worn and welcoming. It’s easy for me to feel at home in a place that’s showing signs of hard use but still has a self-confident style that feels no need to shout or dazzle. You like it or you leave. It doesn’t care.

It’s the kind of place where the chairs don’t match, and the ceiling lights are adorned with inverted table lamp shade of various hues and shapes. It also has shelves of books so that people who, like me, wander in alone can have an author’s words to keep them company.

I picked up a poetry book called ‘Poems That Make Grown Women Cry’, that I hadn’t seen before.

Father-and-son team Anthony and Ben Holden, working with Amnesty International, have asked the same revealing question of 100 remarkable women. What poem has moved you to tears?

The poems chosen range from the eighth century to today, from Rumi and Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath, W.H. Auden to Carol Ann Duffy, Pablo Neruda and Derek Walcott to Imtiaz Dharker and Warsan Shire. Their themes range from love and loss, through mortality and mystery, war and peace, tothe beauty and variety of nature.

From Yoko Ono to Judi Dench, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Elena Ferrante, Carol Ann Duffy to Kaui Hart Hemmings, and Joan Baez to Nikki Giovanni, this unique collection delivers private insights into the minds of women whose writing, acting, and thinking are admired around the world.

To me, holding a found poetry book in my hands is like being a handed a new deck of Tarot Cards, I want to open it up and see what it’s going to tell me. By chance I arrived at an Emily Dickinson poem selected by Elena Ferrante.

Poem 540: I took my Power in my Hand

I took my Power in my Hand— 
And went against the World— 
'Twas not so much as David—had— 
But I—was twice as bold— 

I aimed my Pebble—but Myself 
Was all the one that fell— 
Was it Goliath—was too large— 
Or was myself—too small?

Emily Dickinson

I often struggle to understand Emily Dickinson’s poetry – both what she meant and what the poem means to me. Her touch is light and her ideas are large and sometimes I see them floating past me, admirable but inaccessible.

This one, delivered to me by chance, and served with coffee and croissant, spoke to me.

Over the past few years, my sense of personal power has been shrinking. It’s been battered by Brexit and COVID, sapped by returning after too-long an absence to a country so filled with hate and division and unpunished corruption that I barely recognise it, and diminished by leaving behind, through retirement, authority that I’ve held for so long that I feel its absence like a phantom limb.

For some time now, I’ve been taking my power in my hand and boldly going against the world. It’s a war of attrition that I have been slowly losing. The world remains unaffected by my power whereas I feel worn down, weary and defeated.

What I found engaging about the poem wasn’t the failure of Dickinson’s boldly used power but the question she poses about it: did she fail because the problem was too large or she was too small?

I’ve been learning how small I am and how little difference I can make to the big issues of the day. I could react by falling and staying down. I could hurl my power against the world again and again, making no progress but refusing to admit defeat. Or, I could weigh my power select a smaller target for it.

I’ve stepped back from the poisonous exchange of hate and anger that passes for politics on Twitter. I’ve started to ignore the news of the latest piece of certain-to-stay-unpunished perfidy practised by the people leading my country. But I don’t want just to give up. I’m looking to see what I can change here, where I live, using what power I have.

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