Oddly composed, but with a few fine opals inside… (12 Oct 2007)
I have been pretty much obsessed with Emily Dickinson since 1980, and have enjoyed reading many treatments of her life and her poems, while enduring many other books about her. She is quite a mystery, and shall always remain so, becoming the kind of woman and poet that each generation seems to need. I did not like this author’s prose style, which seemed to me to have many sentence fragments and many abrupt transitions which did not seem logical. However, it does contain one of the best meditations on Emily’s literary and theological influences, including the preacher Jonathan Edwards, and the Brownings, and the Brontes, and Shakespeare. For that reason, it is worth reading if you care about the Belle of Amherst at all. I found myself drawn to her poetry from high school on, but over the decades, becoming much more fascinated with her life choices and experiences. We will never know for sure how many poems are autobiographical, how many actually describe her take on the experiences of her small but intense social circle, and how many are pure fiction. What an impact she has made on the literary world, by living the life of a fairly affluent New England spinster who did not get out much. That is endlessly fascinating to me. Unfortunately it is not the thrust of this volume. My recommendation is to start with Richard Sewell’s huge biography of Emily from the 1970’s. It covers the life AND the poetry in a reasonable and accessible manner. Some think Emily a secular nun, some think her a deeply closeted lesbian and/or incest victim, some feel she had many love affairs but was discrete about them. Some think her insane, some believe her to be the sanest of us all. Some find her an early feminist, and others see her as an oppressed woman. This book is one fellow female poet’s appreciation of Emily’s talents and circumstances. Wait another year and another scholar will present a different view. Emily left us 1,776 poems, give or take a few hidden in the text of letters, and someday there will be 1,776 books about her.
In the way that Thomas Wentworth Higginson failed to appreciate the undermining of masculine fields of grammar and poetry taking place in Dickinson’s work, I would suggest that Adams is likewise uncomfortable with the unconventional style of prose Howe employs in her examination of Dickinson. Having focused on the contradictions in Dickinson’s work which refuse any comfortable stability of meaning it seems to me that Howe extends such instability into academic prose when she refuses to attempt a full or singular explication of Dickinson.
By instead juxtaposing quoted passages from these texts, conducting her examination in short bursts (sections), and highlighting phonetic contradictions in language, I would suggest that Howe allows contradiction to remain an active and generative force in her text. Howe seems particularly interested in the recurrence of words, ideas, and conditions as footprints tracing Dickinson’s interests in the texts she was reading and as a means of reading Dickinson’s poems against the grain of traditional interpretations. Evidence of such strategies can be read in the recurrence of “Daisy” in My Emily Dickinson as both the flower, but also the nickname given to David Copperfield by his friend, James Steerforth, in Charles Dickens’s novel.
Howe’s suggestion that Dickinson’s interest in Dickens may be due in part to the similarity of their surnames extends this kind of reading into the phonetics of language itself. In Howe’s work, these seemingly accidental similarities are fully capable of producing meaning and connection and should not be dismissed as accidental. We can see Howe practicing these meaning/connection-making strategies herself as she follows them through the contradiction embedded in the similarity of love and death in Dickinson’s Calvinist ideology and into Dickinson’s unconventional punctuation, saying
Perception of an object means loosing and losing it…. One answer undoes another and fiction is real. Trust absence, allegory, mystery—the setting not the rising sun is Beauty. No titles or numbers for the poems. That would force order. No titles for the packets she sewed the poems into. No manufactured print. No outside editor/’robber.’ Conventional punctuation was abolished not to add ‘soigne stitchery’ but to subtract arbitrary authority. Dashes drew liberty of interruption inside the structure of each poem. Hush of hesitation for breath and for breathing. Empirical domain of revolution and revaluation where words are in danger, dissolving…only Mutability certain.
‘I saw no Way—The Heavens were stitched—
I felt the Columns close—
The Earth reversed her Hemispheres—
I touched the Universe—
And back it slid—and I alone—
A Speck upon a Ball—
Went out upon Circumference—
Beyond the Dip of Bell—’ (Dickinson #378) (Howe 23)
Refusing a type of academic explication that would try to “know better” than Dickinson, or that would attempt to “know completely” by exposure of “secrets,” Howe seems to be “trying” Dickinson’s “pencil” rather than trying to make her fit into conceptions of what she should be or what her poetry should be. [Excerpt Dickinson: “If it had no pencil, // would it try mine—”] The doubleness and even duplicity of signification produced by that “pencil” seem to be produced as well by the juxtaposition of clipped “sentences” and the sharing of phonemes between words with radically different meanings.
Compounding her taking up of Dickinson’s “pencil,” Howe follows Dickinson’s tracks through literature, which focus on Shakespeare, the Brontes, the Brownings, James Fenimore Cooper and the theology of Johnathan Edwards. By doing so, Howe is able to piece together a textual environment with which Dickinson’s work is in conversation. The juxtapositional and overlapping strategies I have described seem to position readers of My Emily Dickinson as writers themselves who are interested in conversations with texts rather than the “answering” of texts. I would suggest that for Howe, [HER] Emily Dickinson is an incredible reader for whom reading functions as her primary means of writing. (My use of the term “reading” does not exclude one’s experiences/environment from texts to be read.) Taking up Dickinson’s “pencil,” then, would entail careful reading, positioning contradictions side-by-side, and understanding repetition of phonemes and words as overlap. We might read this interpretation of Dickinson’s strategies in Howe’s “mirror-maze,” which describes the functions of the final stanza of “My life had stood—a Loaded Gun—” (1863):
My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—
In Corners—till a Day
The Owner passed—identified—
And carried Me away—
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods—
And now We hunt the Doe—
And every time I speak for Him—
The Moutains straight reply—
And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow—
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through—
And when at Night—Or good Day done—
I guard My Master’s head—
’Tis better than the Eider-Duck’s
Deep Pillow—to have shared—
To foe of His—I’m deadly foe—
None stir the second time—
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye—
Or an emphatic Thumb—
Though I than He—may longer live
He longer must—than I—
For I have but the power to kill,
Without—the power to die—
I would suggest that the necessity of this type of diagram to begin to break into the kind of overlap and gyrating signification occurring in this final stanza and within the poem as a whole evidences an incapacity of language to address the activity Howe has found essential to [Her] Emily Dickinson. This evidence is compounded by the increasingly indented list involved in Howe’s unpacking of what would be glossed over with two deceptively small and simple words, “My” and “Life,” by the kind of prose Adams seems to be left desiring.
I would also suggest that Howe’s diagram and unpacking-list exemplify the generative force of contradiction in general. Specifically, we can see the length of the list, as well as the length of Howe’s work as the product of the contradiction between the material smallness of “My Life,” the capitalization of two single-syllable words, and the sort of accumulation that those two words claim to encompass. In terms of the diagram, this generative force becomes the motion of the eye and the mind, following the diagonal line back and forth between words and across linear boundaries, struggling to reconcile the conflict to some visual and/or verbal sense.
In this diagram, it seems that we could see a microcosmic representation of My Emily Dickinson’s strategy if we recognize it as a gathering, rearrangement, and triggering of words’ reactions to one another as language. The trajectory of the text can be read as the diagonal line while the boxes can be understood as the boundaries produced by the clipping of quoted material and by the sectioning of the work as a whole. I would emphasize that when read in this way we might notice that despite the obvious material presence of lines, this diagram’s functioning is not linear. We don’t follow from one word to the next, as we might in a simple sentence, any more than we can simply follow one word to another in Dickinson’s final stanza. To grasp even the barest hint of meaning, we must go back and forth and through again, multiple times.
This contradiction suggests and enacts the doubleness and duplicity Howe has emphasized in Dickinson’s innovations to grammar throughout the book. Through Howe, we find the reemergence of apparent complicity and absolute radicalness, but in a different form. I would suggest that rather than mimicry of Dickinson’s grammar, we find Howe’s work in conversation with Dickinson’s work and the sphere of texts she gathered for herself.
To return to Adams’s discomfort, I would point out that if we continued to describe Dickinson by the terms of historical discourse which notoriously excludes women from it’s considerations we would perpetuate the very masculine dominance that excluded Dickinson in the first place. In other words, our appreciation of Dickinson would remain a masculine one. It is this “Emily,” passed through the filter of historicization and masculine values that seems to be the one who is of interest to Adams. His interest in this version seems especially apparent when he links his “fascination” to categorizations of her as the “fairly affluent New England spinster who did not get out much.”
If that’s the “Emily” Adams “knows” and is “fascinated” by, “OK” I say, let him have her. However, I would argue that such preference becomes a very weak grounds for criticism once we recognize the extent to which Howe’s My Emily Dickinson both traces and extends the innovation of Dickinson’s work. Through Howe and Dickinson we may come to recognize that the illusion of complicity can function as an intense force of transformation in the fields of poetry, history, and criticism. I would also point out that Adams has actually recognized this illusion, but has departed from Howe in that he would rather preserve his “Emily” than participate in her project.
Such preservation might be valuable to those interested in history alone, but I would argue that Dickinson’s continued influence upon the poetics of poets writing today, like Howe, implies that Dickinson and her work are not inanimate snapshots of a life or a body of work. Howe has brought reading to the surface of Dickinson’s work as a means of both interpretation and production. Thus writing a space of a non-masculine poetry, I would point out, has not only displaced capital-P, Poetry but also bears the imprint of strategy and the forces which generated Dickinson’s work. Howe has traced those strategies and produced My Emily Dickinson through their implementation.
Seemingly unconcerned with the potential, or perhaps poetential of Dickinson’s strategies, I would suggest that Adams seems most interested in solving the quintessentially historical question of the unsolvable “mystery” of a historical figure’s life. His strategy for “solving” Dickinson apparently centers on distinguishing between “autobiographical” poems, “her take” on her “social circle,” and “pure fiction.” Thus, it is not any great stretch to recognize the historian’s problem of separating Truth as historical facts and events, from biased interpretation, and from fiction in Adams’s desires and taste in prose. Embedded in Adams’s description of “Emily” is Dickinson as a series of “life choices and experiences” structured by the sort of logical order he finds lacking in Howe’s prose.
All this is not to say that academic prose and history texts are bad, but rather to point out their centrality in Dickinson’s struggle to create space for her writing. It seems crucial to me that refusing to write by the conventions of academic prose and history creates the possibility of writing otherwise. Like Dickinson, I would suggest that Howe has recognized that the only way to make space for a new kind of writing is to write it. As Howe claims, Higginson’s unwillingness to publish Dickinson suggests that Higginson didn’t recognize Dickinson’s work as “poetry,” thus evidencing the originality of Dickinson’s work. I would extend this to Adams’s critique of Howe’s prose by pointing out the evident nonconformity of Howe’s Dickinson with a historicized Dickinson which seems likely to be the version preferred by Adams (judging by his recommendation of Richard Sewell’s biography of Dickinson).
Adams interest in Sewell’s biography and aversion to Howe’s My Emily Dickinson may indicate a desire for an explication of Dickinson, one that would make her a logical system capable of being comprehended if one only had enough of the right information. Despite Adam’s extensive reading list from which he has “enjoyed reading many treatments of her life and her poems,” while having merely “endured” others, I would put pressure on Adams’s emphasis on the number of perspectives on Dickinson’s work. It seems as if Adams would rather dismiss Howe’s Emily Dickinson for its incongruity with his “Emily,” rather than inspect his own discomfort with Howe’s prose.
, Emily Dickinson
, loaded gun
, my emily dickinson
, Susan Howe