“This is the Hour of Lead”

A Review of The Poet at Work: Emily Dickinson’s Poems as She Preserved Them, edited by Cristanne Miller

/ by Elisa Biagini

In such difficult times, when an era is closing and what we see in front us resembles an abyss, poetry is needed more than ever. We need it to sharpen our senses, to reflect on a language that, at the same time bonds and divides us. And who is better than Emily Dickinson in this hour, with her cartography of poems and letters?

What I have in both my hands (quite a heavy volume) is the recent publication of her poems, 1800 in total, “as she preserved them,” printed in the order and the form she left them to us:  Such 40 fascicles were made, between 1858 and 1864, stacking folded sheets of copied poems on top of one another, poking holes through the stack at the folded edges and then binding them together with string. Only one-fourth were sent to friends and acquaintances in letters, the majority remained private: Not all of them had titles or numbers, something added later by editors and curators for practical reasons, but with a complete lack of understanding and respect toward her choice, something that has characterized her critical history since right after her death. As Marjory Perloff reminds us, she has always been “hard to digest” for the majority of the critics, men and women alike. The journalist, author and abolitionist Thomas Higginson who, in 1891, published in the The Atlantic a long essay about his correspondence with Dickinson was, to his credit, fascinated and struck by her peculiar poetry, but was also confused and proposed “to lead her in the direction of rules and traditions” (hence her reply: “I think you called me wayward (…) I am in danger sir. You think me “uncontrolled,” with her wonderful irony). When he finally met her, the impression was that of “an excess of tension, and of an abnormal life:” The woman in front of him sounded like the potential granddaughter of one of the witches burned not that long before, in the very Massachusetts where she lived, and the grandmother of the hysterics described by Freud and his colleagues not many years later. A woman who sought a private space and the authority of her body and brain.

We had to wait until 1951 for The Poems of Emily Dickinson; Including variant readings critically compared with all known manuscripts that, at the time, was considered the first edition that had given us the poems as they looked (in fact, already right after her death the booklets were taken apart and the poems divided according to themes: Higginson himself provided titles for the 1890 edition). Rather, it went against the poet’s desire, disrespecting the division into fascicles, inserting stanzas and numbers that weren’t originally there, altering de facto the structure of the texts and, inevitably, their message. Still in 1981, R.W. Franklin, who curated The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson insisted, in a letter to Susan Howe, that “notebooks are not artistic structures and were not intended for the readers.” Through copying and binding, Dickinson clearly wanted to be seen as the author, as well as the editor and publisher of her work, demanding complete control (as is widely known, she published only a few poems in her lifetime understanding, quite early, that the times weren’t ready for her groundbreaking work), so why treat her as someone who doesn’t know what she is doing, who needs guidance, even after death? Her space is invaded again and again, the door she kept shut for a good part of her life—that nest of freedom—her page-body are violated, her written voice silenced. Hers are only “effusions,” as Johnson wrote in his introduction, and the reason why we have so many alternatives (potential substitutions written on the page of the poem) and untitled work was, in the words of David Porter, because “she had no definable purpose (…) she was unable to recognize the definiteness,” not the clear will of “choosing not choosing,” as wonderfully put by Sharon Cameron. In fact, only recently has the possibility become accepted that she wanted her work to be “open,” fluid—in the formulation of Cristanne Miller—her poems in a moving, active dialogue with the reader. Dickinson appreciated Keats and knew about his “negative capability,” when “a man is capable of being in uncertainties,” and perceived such apparent instability as a powerful resource. To impose a title is a way of closing, placing a frame that freezes the life inside the poem and any absence, as she wrote in a letter, “is condensed presence.” Naming and defining only cuts out other possibilities, and what does language do anyway, if not try to get as close as possible to the world, knowing its own inevitable fallacy? (Another author, also widely read by Dickinson, R.W. Emerson, writes that the “the universe is fluid” and “the way of life is abandonment.”)

Fortunately, in recent years, Dickinson has finally found the critical audience she deserves: Many are the voices who have fully recognized her innovations and originality, one of the most famous being the poet Adrienne Rich, in her essay “Vesuvius at Home,” where she explores the image of the volcano in Dickinson’s poetry and the intense metaphor of its sublime quiet beauty that could, all of a sudden, kill (a similar image is the one of the life of the poet as a “loaded gun” that has “the power to kill/without the power to die” and, interestingly enough, as Miller reminds us, in the fascicle, the poet wrote an alternative for power, and that word is art). But to me perhaps the most interesting of them all is the voice of another poet, the aforementioned Susan Howe, who has been working extensively on Dickinson’s legacy. She advocates the importance of seeing her poems as “visual structures,” her decisions on the page as her right to indeterminacy. She has insisted, for many years, on the publication of Dickinson’s poems “as she left them to us,” not as “others decided we should read them” and, in this volume, she finally got it ( the reader should know, as Howe reminds us, that still today, if one wants to write a book on her, in order to quote from her poems and letters, she should obtain permission and pay a fee to the “The President and fellows of Harvard College and the Trustees of Amherst College”… will Emily Dickinson ever own her own body?). A volume where we can find alternatives and variants (a word choice made in other copies of the same poem) of the words in the poems “as she preserved them:” The page becomes, at last, the room where we can see the poet at work, in movement, her writing as an act of coping and sewing, a gesture of deep care, to make the poems last as preserves of images and meaning, each in its neat jar of a page, ready to be sent into the future. She felt that her readership wasn’t ready, and she decided not to compromise: Right after asking, in her first letter to Higginson, to “say if my verse is alive,” she must have understood that even such a sophisticated reader could not really grasp the extent of her work, and she then decided not to let others domesticate her and her poetry. Dickinson chose freedom to experiment with the presence and the absence of the language on the page, she decided to “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” asking the reader to come into that page-room with her, to look for that Word that endlessly tries to define the World. Operating through subtraction, she made it possible for the language to emerge, in all its intensity and possibility, its “illocality” of time and space. “Perhaps I asked too large—I take no less than skies” Dickinson wrote, with her mockingly-condescending tone, and this is what the poet, in all times, should do: Never ask for less than the infinite, always struggle for the word that says the thing in the most precise form, and if the tension could overwhelm you at times never give up, never compromise. And imagine Emily sweating in her room every night, to name the essential while being essential, her writing a “finite infinity.”

Elisa Biagini