Ardor and the Abyss | The Nation


Ardor and the Abyss

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What makes a human being make a poem? Why does the language we employ every day—language suited equally as well to thank-you notes or parking tickets—ask to be liberated from its more workaday chores, its rhythmic vitality threatening to overpower its capacity for plain sense? Why do readers enjoy the feeling of being overpowered? We don't reread great novels or poems because we can't remember the story; we reread because we want to feel our familiar world becoming strange again.

Lives Like Loaded Guns
Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds
By Lyndall Gordon
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About the Author

James Longenbach
James Longenbach’s most recent books are the poetry collection The Iron Key (Norton) and, in prose, The Virtues...

Also by the Author

In his music and his prose, Virgil Thomson perfected a whimsically deadpan sensibility.

Censors thought it dirty and rebellious, but what makes Ulysses radical is its dramatization of the unending conflict between good and evil.

A friend of your brother sends you a gift, a painting of Indian Pipes, which is your favorite flower. You write a thank-you note: "I know not how to thank you." Because your brother's wife is your closest friend, you have refused to meet the bearer of the gift: you know, as most people do not, that your brother's friend is in fact his mistress. You know this because their assignations have taken place in your own house, in the dining room, on a black horse-hair sofa in front of the fire. The assignations have been facilitated by your sister, with whom you share the house your grandfather built. Your brother, his wife and their three children live next door in a house your father built for them.

Another gift arrives: a yellow jug painted with red trumpet-vine flowers. You are being wooed by your brother's mistress, but unlike your sister, whose primary allegiance is to your brother, you remain steadfastly devoted to your brother's wife and children, from whom your brother has withdrawn his daily affection; there will be "no treason," you tell the oldest child. To the mistress you write a second note:

Nature forgot—The Circus reminded her—
Thanks for the Ethiopian Face.
The Orient is in the West.
"You knew, Oh Egypt" said the entangled Antony—

For all intents and purposes, this is a thank-you note, but because its language fails so aggressively to embody those intents and purposes, it feels like a poem. The writer does not mean merely to refer to the occasion at hand, the receipt of a gift, but to force the giver to attend to a new and more pressing occasion: the reality of the language itself. Does the writer mean to compare the giver to the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, making herself King Solomon, recipient of the queen's gifts? Does she mean to compare the giver to Shakespeare's luxuriously two-faced Cleopatra? To a circus? The recipient of this thank-you note would be baffled, threatened or enraged by these provocative metaphors. The reader of this poem would be thrilled—not simply by the metaphors but by the speed with which one provocation is superseded by another.

"This is the only drama in Dickinson's life that's not of her making," says Lyndall Gordon in Lives Like Loaded Guns, her account not only of the life but of the afterlife of Emily Dickinson, an afterlife that continues to be shaped to this day by the internecine warfare within her immediate family, their progeny and their associates. The writer of the thank-you notes is Dickinson, infamous recluse, the author of some 1,775 poems, almost all of which remained unpublished until after her death. The adulterers are Austin Dickinson, her brother, and Mabel Loomis Todd, who first laid eyes on Dickinson only when she was lying in her coffin but who became the first editor of Dickinson's poems. Austin's spurned wife is Susan Gilbert Dickinson, with whom Dickinson shared 276 of her poems, including many of her greatest.

"With the exception of Shakespeare," wrote Dickinson to Sue, "you have told me of more knowledge than any one living." Sue would eventually publish some of the poems in her possession, and her daughter Mattie would continue until her death in 1943 to exert her mother's right to do so. Until her death in 1968, Mabel Loomis Todd's daughter Millicent would exert her mother's right to do the same thing, a right that was perhaps unintentionally bequeathed to her by Dickinson's sister, Vinnie, who asked Mabel to transcribe the hundreds of poems found in Dickinson's bedroom after her death. Lies, vendettas and lawsuits proliferated: a drama of marital infidelity was played out over the dead poet's manuscripts with an intricacy that Henry James could not have imagined. The last major player in this drama, Mary Hampson (the wife of Mattie's companion, Alfred Leete Hampson), died in 1988. Until the end, she lived in the house that Dickinson's father built for Austin and Sue, the Evergreens, and the house has remained basically unchanged since the poet's lifetime. Dickinson last entered the Evergreens on the night of October 4, 1883, when she came to sit beside her dying nephew, Gib. Today, Gib's rocking horse still stands in a shroud of dust beside his bed.

When Gordon says that Austin's betrayal of Sue was "the only drama in Dickinson's life that's not of her making," she means to emphasize that Emily Dickinson was an extraordinarily powerful woman, an artist who was intimidated by nothing—the opposite of a fear-driven recluse, the opposite of the lovelorn spinster that some of her family members were driven to concoct for the world. The drama of her brother's marriage is familiar, but the Dickinson family happened to include among its members one of the most brilliant poets in the English language. Shakespeare, Blake—who else is as rivetingly inexplicable yet as charismatically inviting? The great virtue of Gordon's biography is that it makes Dickinson the person—sister, friend, seducer, adversary—seem as scary as her poems. The inevitable liability is that Dickinson the maker of poems remains as elusive to us as she was to the people who knew her best.

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