on My Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe (New Directions, reissued with a new preface by Eliot Weinberger)

“A great poet, carrying the antique imagination of her fathers, requires each reader to leap from a place of certain signification, to a new situation, undiscovered and foreign,” writes Susan Howe in My Emily Dickinson, originally published in 1985. “She carries intelligence of the past into future of our thought by reverence and revolt.” Mighty and mystifying, Emily Dickinson’s poetry stands inviolate among an abundance of superficial readings. Perhaps this is the key to Howe’s stunning book: she hunts down her subject even as she adulates her, just as Dickinson and her fellow spirits grappled with a life they loved: “Jonathan Edwards, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson looked into the core of eternal destruction. They greeted what they saw with affirmation and elation.”

howe.jpgDeparting dramatically from the typical drone of critical explication, Howe speaks about Dickinson in a manner aligned with the latter’s unconventional, piercing language as found in the poems and letters. The result is both an illuminating definition of the qualities of any great lyric poet – and a resetting of the notion of avant-garde (a most valuable contribution in light of the current blather for avant-garde bragging rights). Howe says, “She built a new poetic form from her fractured sense of being eternally on intellectual borders, where confident masculine voices buzzed an alluring and inaccessible discourse.” With a clarifying economy, Howe makes us feel the daunting pressure against expression facing Dickinson – not with pedantry but through an inspired reader’s tour of what Dickinson revered, resisted, and reclaimed in literature and cultural history: Spenser, Shakespeare, Edwards, New England captivity narratives, Cooper’s Deerslayer, the Brontës, Thoreau, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. “The lyric poet reads a past that is a huge imagination of one form,” Howe writes. Her book is packaged with an intuitive reach that proves this assertion with startling insights.

EmilyBW.jpegDickinson’s “My life had stood – a Loaded Gun” is the book’s focal point. One vector of Howe’s remarkable reading of the piece travels along the theme of the taking of power. In the poem, of course, the narrator portrays herself as a rifle. To set the context, Howe first introduces the wielding of power against women. But she goes much further to comment on civilization as a whole: “The family and woman’s position in it, slavery, fate of the eider, are the image of a wide world order. Power of the state corrupts us all.” (The “eider” appears in the fourth stanza of the poem: “And when at Night – Our good Day done - / I guard My master’s Head - / ‘Tis better than the Eider-Duck’s / Deep Pillow – to have shared.” Howe suggests that Dickinson would have been aware of the near extinction of the eider in North America – the bird that plucks its own breast to feather its nest.) Probably written in 1863, the poem drapes the Civil War as a backdrop. “The war seems to have fictively enveloped her own,” Howe says. “All war is the same. Culture representing form and order will always demand sacrifice and subjugation of one group by another.” Remarkably, Dickinson integrates that worldly power into herself by way of the poem. Howe then sweeps across the moors and figures of Wuthering Heights to say:

“Nature furls us in the confidence of her huge harmony. Assimilation into civilization’s chronology, its grammatical and arithmetical scrutiny calls for correcting, suspecting, coveting, corrupting my soul into a devious definition of Duty. I must pursue and destroy what was most tender in my soul’s first nature. A poem is an invocation, rebellious return to the blessedness of beginning again, wandering free in pure process of forgetting and finding.”

However, if this were all the lyric poet is capable of, our poetry on power would consist of little more than complaint, sounded from a position winched above culture, not within it (“culture representing form and order” – what other kind of culture is there?). Instead, Dickinson’s locus is something closer to the wilds of King Lear where, says Howe, “homesick and in homeless isolation every soul comes crying here. Locked alone in the vision of my brain, even language never truly connects me to another. When we are born we ‘wawl and cry,’ Love succumbs predestined to obey. All lendings off, meaning utterly unsafe, I destroy what I love and love is joy.”

Back to “My life had stood – a Loaded Gun”: “This verse-Gun-Poet-royal “We” [gun and Master shooter] dissects the violence of will underlying all relationships of love, all human caring.” Did Dickinson ever write a line infected with the aim of reflecting credit on herself merely for her point of view? Howe says, “First I find myself a Slave, next I understand my slavery, finally I re-discover myself at liberty inside the confines of known necessity. Gun goes on thinking of the violence done to meaning. Gun watches herself watching.” Sometimes I think that the real damage of the 1960s came from whatever made us believe that we could evade “the confines of known necessity.” Institutionalized, subsidized and indemnified, so many of our writers and artists go mincing around necessity.

EmilyHowe.jpegI must imagine that writing “My life had stood – a Loaded Gun” tempted Dickinson to confront the puzzle of service versus servitude, and perhaps to feel the unresolved bind in herself, freed only through language that could radically order, and alter, all elements. Thinking of the civil wars of Shakespeare’s plays, Howe claims “this [American] Civil War broke something loose in her own divided nature.” And more: “As she well knew, the original American conflict between idealism and extremism was being acted out again.” That is a stunning sentence, if one considers the currency we now give to those terms as we gaze out globally. The terms come reverberating back at us, into our own lives. “She studied terror,” Howe says, “… to tell the feverish haste, the loss, to warn of storm approaching – Brute force, mechanism. Cassandra was a woman.” Regarded as an agoraphobic spinster, Dickinson integrated the sweep of conflicting powers into her verse, “coding and erasing -- deciphering the idea of herself, dissimulation in revelation. Really alone at the frontier, dwelling in Possibility was what she had brilliantly learned to do.”

New England had its share of great Calvinist thinkers. Dickinson knew that most of the top thinkers “broke down in some way under the strain of worldly ambition that clashed with morbid fear and merciless introspections.” To not break down, one fights. "Through a forest of mystic meaning, Religion hunts for Poetry's freedom, while Poetry roams Divinity's sovereign source." Dickinson marked the transfer of professional energies from unconventional preacher to poet, and continued the fight. Nothing has changed for us. The great poets can only struggle. One of the main effects of Howe’s My Emily Dickinson is to stiffen one’s spine.

In the early 1870s, Dickinson wrote the following poem:

‘Twas fighting for his Life he was –
That sort accomplish well –
The Ordnance of Vitality
Is frugal of its Ball.

It aims once – kills once – conquers once –
There is no second War
In that Campaign inscrutable
Of the Interior.

[Pub date: 11/30/07. 160 pp. $14.95 paper]