Thursday, April 28, 2011

My Emily Dickinson (and a book by the same title)

My dad took me to see Emily Dickinson's grave one day. I remember the wet chill of morning in western Massachusetts in early April and crunching icy mud under my high-tops. The car was a rental. I was a teenager and we were visiting the town in which I was born, which borders the town in which Dickinson was born, which is the town in which she died. She hardly left.

Map of Hampshire County Massachusetts, 1854

I just read and loved My Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe, a poet's book about the life and work of a fellow poet. And "fellow poets" is, fittingly, one of the themes of the book. Through her examination of Dickinson's influence and correspondence -- largely through the lens of one of her best-known poems, My Life had stood a Loaded Gun -- Howe reveals Dickinson to have been astutely aware of the literary community and tradition in which she wrote, even though she famously did so from the confines of her room. While her reclusive habits were likely a result of severe agoraphobia, Dickinson's failure to publish during her life was not, as the story goes, a result of timid self-doubt, lack of awareness of the possibilities of the outside world, or a socially crippling side effect of her spinsterdom. It was, Howe argues, a result of the Calvinist values Dickinson deeply held, learned from her readings and her circles (which, being from a wealthy and well-connected family, she certainly had without having to leave the house). She sent her poems and countless letters to friends, many of whom encouraged her to publish, which she refused on the grounds that fame is an earthly reward and therefore a sin. She was just one of many terrified and freezing New Englanders saving their tokens to cash in in the next realm. But the most interesting point here, as I see it, is this: Emily Dickinson knew quite well that she was a poet. To my understanding of her mythology, this revelation was huge.

It's not an easy book. Howe writes both as a scholar and as a poet herself, her essay style being a cross between densely academic and windy in its transitions between thoughts, brimming with allusions and citations to the point where even the most footnote-conscious reader eventually has to let go of the treasure hunt therein and let text be text. The biggest trouble I had with the book at first, though, was in its often cold treatment of its subject -- for a book called My Emily Dickinson, Howe's is startlingly lacking in the first person. In fact, there is hardly an "I" statement in the entire book, and only the most intellectual sentimentality.

Until now, I hadn't much thought about my own E.D sentimentality. As a reader growing up near her home, I didn't have to think much about Emily to feel like she was just around, enshrined in brick libraries, a field trip destination, wafting spookily past the icicle-laden windows behind which I read. But upon reading this account of the practiced and self-aware craft she refined indoors but with plenty of company, I realized that the Emily Dickinson distinction lies at the crux of something I've struggled with personally for years: is one a writer simply because one writes? Or, in this case, was Emily Dickinson a poet before she died and was immortalized as one? And, if so, is that because she wrote poems, or because she endeavored to be and identified as a poet? Susan Howe's account was revelatory in a way that I didn't realize would unearth my own interest in Dickinson's ghosts.

In my frustration with the lack of an equally personal story in the book, I realized the power, deliberate of course, of its title. Dickinson fits a lot of the criteria for mythologized writers -- a woman in a difficult time to be one, posthumous fame, mental instability, a museum, not to mention the Puritanical tendencies of small New England towns to preserve and be haunted by their centuries-old claims to fame. Because of all this mystery about and evidence of her existence, and because we hardly see proof of her having lived as the person we now know her to be (a poet), definitions of Emily Dickinson are both pervasive and difficult to pin down-- and so, like any myth, they become our own. What's common, perhaps, is that anyone who encounters her has had blanks to fill in, narratives to believe or make up. Even the book's cover reflects this: one of the only and most famous images of our heroine, with her face cut out of it, reduced to the hands she wrote with. It's both inarguably and hardly her, and, perhaps, the only thing that my Emily Dickinson and Susan Howe's have in common.

Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886

That, and this. I'm glad to have been there. I'm glad to have read this book about her. We turned back to the car and left her that day right where she actually is, in the ground.

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