Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

The riddle of Emily Dickinson


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Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson occupy secure positions as the two great poles of American poetry, perhaps of modern poetry. Whitman is generally recognized as one of the great gay poets, while Dickinson remains, in the popular imagination, the demure, sexless, homely, housebound "Belle of Amherst" who sat at her desk in a quiet New England home writing cryptic, self-regarding verse. Jerome Charyn is not the first to think otherwise, but in his new book, A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century (Bellevue Literary Press), Charyn argues persuasively that Dickinson's two great loves – passions, really – were women.

It would be a dreary book if his entire point had been to out her. In fact it's his second volley in a sustained effort to re-envision the poet, following his 2010 biographical novel, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. Although serious and deeply informed, A Loaded Gun is not a scholarly book; if anything, it's an attempt to free the existing scholarship about Dickinson from the confines of the academy. It is less literary criticism than threnody, a bold, loose-limbed, Whitman-like prose-poem lamenting the constrictive previous, but still prevailing, notions of Dickinson and lauding instead a wild woman of words.

Charyn says, repeatedly, that Dickinson is a riddle that will never be solved, and we'll likely never know whether Dickinson acted on her sexuality. But he leaves no doubt that she had a sex life, if only in her fevered imagination. Her verse, he writes, "was the poetry of a renegade, who could unsex herself if she had to, masquerade as a man, or shift from sex to sex, like Virginia Woolf in Orlando. Her letters read like a catalogue of seductions, and her poems are often fired up with pain, in the coded language of a failed love affair, real or imagined. She was in love with Susan Gilbert, however we may define that love."

Drawing on research by Carol Smith-Rosenberg, Charyn notes, "Women [in 19th-century America] had their own signs and symbols, their own love codes. 'Girls routinely slept together, kissed and hugged each other.'" "Still," he writes later, "most critics were completely unprepared when Rebecca Patterson published The Riddle of Emily Dickinson (1951), a book that redefined this village spinster as a sexual outlaw, who had a romance with another woman, Kate Scott."

What fascinates Charyn more than any imagined sex is Dickinson's elliptical "coding" of it and much else. You can feel how much Charyn would have liked to break that code, to devise his own, definitive annotated version of Dickinson's Lexicon. But what readers get is not the thrill of the peeping tom but the deeper excitement of entering the labyrinth of the poems, these "telegrams from the moon." Charyn quotes the letter in which Dickinson writes, "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."

There's nothing dull about his depiction of the sexual tiger in Dickinson's tank, ever burning bright, but Charyn puts her poems in the refracted light of numerous other perspectives as well. He is at his most acute about the poems not as texts but as things, the written objects she composed with scant thought of posterity. He leaves you hungry to feel the poems in Dickinson's own hand, many of them fragments left on the backs of envelopes and other scraps of paper, later bound (stabbed, really) by hatpins and handed to others for whatever guardianship they preferred. Whenever possible, he's touched them, and his reports back from that frontier consider the famous dashes (he calls them "violent"), the word spacings, the eccentric spellings and the literal shapes some of the poems and fragments take as composed on three-dimensional paper surfaces.

There are asides, on downstream Dickinsonians from Joyce Carol Oates to the mid-20th-century artist Joseph Cornell, who made shadow boxes. The most "devastating" of them is Toward the Blue Peninsula (for Emily Dickinson), which incorporates a daguerreotype of what may well be Dickinson with Kate Scott around 1859, the relatively recent discovery of which haunts these pages. "It is," Charyn writes, "according to [Dickinson scholar] Christopher Benfey, the single most trenchant response, in all of American art, to the meaning of her life art."

Even second-hand, that's a modest assessment from a writer whose new book is another such response. A Loaded Gun is an invitation to meet Dickinson on the dizzyingly high ground of her imagination from a fellow writer who has done just that with his own writing. It's ecstatic and sometimes repetitive, to the point that the reader occasionally experiences ecstasy fatigue. But, it turns out, there's method in the collective madness. "Dickinson wasn't a madwoman, but she was maddened with rage – against a culture that had no place for a woman with her own fiercely independent mind and spirit," Charyn writes. "[She] had to reinvent herself or be stifled and destroyed by all the rituals around her."

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