Saturday, August 2, 2008

Emily Dickinson by Cynthia Griffin Wolff

Skip this review, go on to the next one. This isn't a review, it's an ironic piece of anti-poetry - poetry is the embodiement of the unsayable in language, this will be the contrapositive - obscuring the eminently sayable in an excess of words. There is a elegy waiting to be written for Emily Dickinson. It will continue waiting, long after I finish writing her, I'm sure.

Let me begin, in case Ms Wolff should ever read this review, by saying that the author of this biograpy has an understanding and deep knowledge of the Mother of American Poetry that boggles the mind. While the accolades of someone who couldn't even manage a college degree probably bear little weight in this particular arena, I am continually struck by the agility of her wit, the deep, analytical power of her thought, and the almost preternatural power of narrative she can apply to the cryptic, inscrutable verse of someone who (and believe me this is not an insult) is so far above her sympathies as to almost make popular deification seem appropriate. Many of the points of her narrative make a seductie sort of sense. And some of them, of course, are factual. All of them have the power of a deep, and thorough scholarship behind them, at least to my untrained eye.

That being said, I think the book is largely completely untrue.

Again, I just want to emphasize, I don't offer that as any sort of insult to Cynthia Wolff. The book is deeply thoughtful, well-researched, and more or less plausible. It just doesn't seem to be completely a reflection of the truth. In most lives, this would be a sure reflection of a bad biography. In the case of Emily Dickinson, it is, as the great poet herself might say, the 'Circumference' of our efforts.

The other day, my wife was talking to me about how it would be more upsetting to travel to the past than to the future, because you would have your illusions about who you are and where you come from exploded. I can see the logic of this argument, whether or not I agree. However, the example she gave me, knowing what a moony-eyed Amherst hanger-on I am, was this (basically, and I'm a horrible quoter):

What if you went back in time and found out that Dickinson was, say, a pretentious jerk? Or what if you found it she was a child molester? Or that she didn't write the poems, but stole them from someone else?

I wouldn't care. Well, at least not on the level of her poems. Emily Dickinson, since her death, has lived so many other lives, what is one more? Biography of the Emily is not so much extracting Emily, as it is what I link to think of as 'Playing at Emily'. It's sort of a tremendous game, a virtuosic sort of game where you can use your skills of interpretation to say almost anything. In my older days, making up characters for online role-playing games, I once spent a good deal of time reinterpreting the life of Emily Dickinson, to show that she was turned into a vampire at some point by her beloved sister-in-law Susan - it was a remarkably easy task to do. No I mean it, go try it. When she was buried, at 50-odd years (which was much older then than it is now), TW Higginson said she didn't have a single gryey hair, and was pale and beautiful and didn't look a day over 30. She wrote multiple poems in the proleptic voice about what it felt like to die. Whoever produces the blockbuster film, gimme a cut of the royalties, I've got three children to feed, okay?

That's not to say that many people probably believe the biography that they're writing. But honestly, that's the really fascinating part of "Playing at Emily" - it usually seems to have more to do with the author than with Emily Dickinson. I read 'Open Me Carefully', by Martha Nell Smith, which posits (and I'm simplifying here, because I've not read it in ages) that Emily may have been a homosexual with a longstanding relationship with Susan Dickinson, and then presented all of Emily's letters, newly edited afterwards. I read the correspondence (as much as is left of it, anyway), and my feelings were that the spark of deep, passionate love between the two was probably unmistakable, at least at times in their long lives together. But, that the relationship was likely to present itself to the reader as whateer type of relationship they felt a longing to see. Perhaps they were lovers, I read it at a time of immense spiritual loneliness, and so I felt a deep feeling of supernatural sorority to it, feeling of a blood beyond blood, binding two people who understood each other, even if noone else did. The two results, are not even mutually exclusive. But they show a difference, and it's probably not a difference that says anything about Emily Dickinson, I imagine it says more about myself and the incomporable Martha Nell Smith (who, by the way, is a beautiful Dickinson thinker, and I highly recommend her books).

So it is with this book. Emily, in this book is many things: she is someone who felt alienated from normal face to face communication, she is an epic warrior (at least in her own mind) against god, she is a post-christian, keening over the loss of myth in language, she's an intensely sensual, erotic person. Some of these things? They might be true. Some might not be not. I don't know. All of the things are certainly present in her poetry, and I could read them from her works. Or I could read something completely different.

An example: Emily Wrote a poem in a letter to her friend (and lets not get into an argument about that word as applied to this man) Samuel Bowles, that goes like this:

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can See--
But Microscropes are prudent
In an Emergency.

Ms Wolff weaves this poem into a narrative about the voice of the poet as a religious iconoclast, someone who was continually at odds with God, who thought of God as a dark destructive force of heartless absence, sort of (Ms Wolff is definitely smarter than me, and I'm shrinking entire chaptes into a sentence, so if that's not precisely true, you'll forgive me all). To me, this poem says something different - that we as humans tend to believe that faith, a belief in things not seen, is something we hold close to us until God reveals the truths of the universe to the faithful (translate that into whatever your mythos or mythosless presents), at which point faith is transmuted into knowledge. The poem inverts this order of things, and states faith as the penultimate goal. Science, knowledge, microscopes, these are the neccesities of a life that presents us with 'Emergencies' before we have a chance to finish our journeys to faith. Vision, science, gentlemen who see, these are the expedients of emergency, and ironically, Faith - the unsurety of a world that we can only suppose how it is - this is the endstate of mankind.

Now, perhaps (with her obviously superior knowledge on the subject, I'd even say probably), Ms Wolff sees this interpretation apparent, in addition to mine. It's not difficult to imagine a discussion, in fact, that would make this layer of Dickinson's voice in the poem compliant with the arc of Dickinson's life that Ms Wolff draws. The point is, when I read the poem, I see something of me. My understanding is a function of who I am, and Emily Dickinson makes this conflict so clear as to make her biography a strange mixture of transcendant self-reflection and parody. In essence, our thoughts on Emily Dickinson reveal who we are, perhaps even moreso than we'd like. My thoughts on that poem, if I look at them honestly, say a lot about my general antipathy to telling the truth, my affection for the pretty lie over the ugly truth, I'd even so it sepaks volumes over the root of many of my ugliest sins in life. Excuse me for a moment, while I go to a quiet room and cry for a few minutes...

Anyway, the point is, I suppose it's a bit pompous of me to assume I'm RIGHT in my conjecture, but I'd say that this book was less of a book about who Dickinson is, and more a book about the narrative of postmodern scholarship, or in particular, probably, a narrative of the intellectual life of one Cynthia Griffin Wolff. And that's not a bad thing. I'd say it's probably more useful, perhaps, than writing about Emily Dickinson herself. Emily Dickinson is lying in the cold earth of New England, right now, after all, her battle, whatever that battle was, is over, her love, whoever that was or was not, can hold no claim on her any longer, or holds it in the proleptic afterlife that she experienced before it was even possible for her to do so, her battles with her internal demons are won or lost, and long past, and honestly, have no real affect on me, now. But my demons, my loves, my battles, are still waiting to be fought, and I am not honest enough to face them without the whispering voice of an old kindred spirit who whispers from that same new England earth to me, and tells me that it does make sense, somehow. OR that it doesn't, or that it should, and I must make it so, or whatever it is I need to hear. The real triumph of Emily Dickinson is that she is so universally a kindred spirit, that she somehow managed to transform herself into someone who could be sister to the saint, the lover, the whore, the wife, the husband, the god, the devil, and even little, insignificant, non-epic, me. And somewhere, in that cold New England ground, Emily Dickinson, I think, is wearing a little smile, for that. Whether it's a dvine, angelic smile, a demonic smile, or just the natural rigor mortis of the slowly decaying corpse, in the end, is irrelevant.

PS - The baby onesie says 'Tell the truth, but tell it slant'. What a wonderful lesson for America's infants... ;)

11 comments:

Jason Gignac said...

Hey, by the way, this site just pointed out to me the unexpected fact that Emily Dickinson backwards spells: "No snikcidy lime". The mind reels.

Wow, I've now hit the bottom of the barrel of the blogosphere echo chamber - I am commenting on myself.

Jen said...

I wonder who your favorite writer is??? Oh yeah, now I remember. I like Dickinson, although I only remember a few poems from high school. I should take another look at them. My favorite (probably one of the most commonly known, too) was "I Heard a Fly Buzz". That one still gives me goosebumps when I read it.

Rebecca Reid said...

wow, great review. Really makes me think about history.

hamilcar barca said...

hmmm. let's just say that i think Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost are equally talented American poets.

Jason Gignac said...

I have to admit, my education in Robert Frost, is limited to hearing a recording of him reading 'Some say the world will end in fire', and reading the Road Less Travelled in high school. I make out to be smart, but really, I'm pretty scattershot ;).

Amanda said...

You know what I think? I think it's too bad we didn't have a girl...

Jason Gignac said...

I don't see why. If it came in 5T size, Ambrose would probably wear it to school. Or... I coudl just ge you one of these...

Jen said...

Lol, did you just do that up on photoshop or is that an actual product that can be purchased? I would imagine the market for it would be quite small...

Jason Gignac said...

Jen, see here. Personally, I want a Dickinson Messenger Bag. The irony makes the mind reel...

jetgirl said...

Whats more fun than making up a new Emily Dickinson? Next year she will be a witch and we'll find satanic verses in her work. Or someone will uncover half a scrap of paper that actually explains who Master really was. Honestly how ironic would it be to make a trip back in time to try and visit Emily when you know good and well she would refuse you at the door. But I guess you could get tons more info from sue or vinny so the trip wouldn't be a total waste.

Jason Gignac said...

Sue and Vinny are sort of a funny thing. Or maybe they're just more human than I'd like. I'd like to beliee they wouldn't 'dish dirt' on Emmy, but then I suppose at least Vinnie sort of did, after Emmy died. But then, all this dirt was dished, mostly to friends and acquaintances (particularly to the Mistress), and I have to believe it was an innocent mistake, that she was just too sociable, and didn't think about what they would do with it. I dunno, I'm probably just idealistic. I just want to beliee they wouldn't dish to a complete stranger.