Ardor and the Abyss | The Nation


Ardor and the Abyss

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Yet Lyndall Gordon believes there is a "simpler reason" for Dickinson's seclusion, and here Lives Like Loaded Guns takes a peculiar turn. One of Dickinson's most famous poems describes a state of psychological disorientation that invokes, among other things, one of the most essential pleasures of poetry—its propensity to turn swiftly against itself, the sound of language seducing us through a discontinuity of sense:

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.

The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before—
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound—
Like Balls—opon a Floor—

This is the feeling aroused by Dickinson's gnomic thank-you note to Mabel Loomis Todd, and while the feeling of radical discontinuity can be scary, poems exist to make that feeling enjoyable: by shirking our everyday notions of usefulness, they allow us to take pleasure in an utterance that we may not yet fully comprehend. Gordon recognizes this, and she cautions against the urge to read the language of poetry as a transparent vehicle for the poet's life. Yet Gordon is at the same time willing to ask this question about Dickinson's poem: "are we not looking at epilepsy?"

However efficient its means, Lives Like Loaded Guns ultimately feels divided in its ends. This is not because half the book is given over to events that occur after Dickinson's death; the documented passion with which Dickinson's heirs battled one another helps us to imagine more clearly the undocumented passion of Dickinson's life. The book feels divided against itself because Gordon becomes seduced by a posthumous medical diagnosis as the key to all Dickinson mythologies. Evidence is available; two of Dickinson's close relatives were epileptic, including Sue and Austin's older son, and medical records show that Dickinson was sometimes prescribed drugs associated with the treatment of epilepsy (though Gordon is always careful to point out that these drugs were prescribed for a variety of reasons). Inconclusive in itself, evidence breeds speculation. "Sickness is a more sensible reason for [Dickinson's] seclusion than disappointed love," argues Gordon logically enough, but who believes any longer that this intimidating woman, an artist with the power to create the world in which she walked, was driven into seclusion by a broken heart? Speculation becomes assertion: "To keep epilepsy the secret it had to be, she must remain at home as long as she lived." I can imagine this reclusive woman as the author of the sentence "I know not how to thank you" but not of "Thanks for the Ethiopian Face" or "the Door ajar/That Oceans are."

Even if it could be proved that Dickinson was epileptic, the revelation would explain almost nothing about her and even less about her poems. A variety of factors may well have determined Dickinson's decision to seclude herself, but to champion illness as the single most determining factor is to disregard what is otherwise so bracing about Lives Like Loaded Guns: its portrayal of Emily Dickinson as an artist who was, during her lifetime, the victim of nothing. While the posthumous legend constructed by Sue's daughter Mattie "built up a pitiful Emily bereft, for life, of the one and only man she loved," says Gordon, the legend constructed by Mabel's daughter Millicent offers "a pitiful Emily 'hurt,' for life, by her 'cruel' sister-in-law from whom she withdrew into disillusioned seclusion." Having so deftly analyzed the various and pernicious ways in which Dickinson's life has been packaged at the expense of her poems, why does Gordon offer one more solution? A "solution" is precisely what her publisher proclaims that Lives Like Loaded Guns offers, and it's hard not to feel discouraged by the assertion, which does both Dickinson and Gordon the disservice of enlisting them in one more mercantile gambit. Fortunately, the solution is unconvincing, and the otherwise brilliant pages of Lives Like Loaded Guns float free of it.

"Abyss has no Biographer," wrote Dickinson, who even among poets had an extraordinarily high appetite for the abyss. "An initiation in infinitude was the gift Dickinson offered to the few she admitted to intimacy," says Gordon. "Contrary to the usual view that people changed her, it was she who operated on others for the brief periods they could bear it." Gordon has made this person vivid, and by doing so, she reminds us that the few people who could bear Dickinson's true company were as bewildered as the majority of people who could not. Those few were the kinds of people who also like to read poems, the kinds of people who perhaps also want to make them. Dickinson's father was no such person, but at least in one regard he did come to see his daughter truly: as head of the household, he relieved her of morning duties so that she might begin her reading and writing at 3 am.

Such privacy is crucial for any writer, but Dickinson had the inevitable misfortune, especially after her death, of being surrounded by people for whom the act of writing was not private enough, or for whom the act of privacy took on warped and astonishing forms. The companion of Dickinson's niece Mattie, Alfred Leete Hampson, didn't want to leave Dickinson's manuscripts in the Evergreens while he traveled to Europe, so every winter he packed up almost 1,000 poems and 200 letters in a suitcase and took "Emily" along. It's because of the efforts of such people, however complex their motives, that we are now able to read Dickinson at all, but of the many fascinating characters surrounding the poet in Lives Like Loaded Guns, my favorite is Dickinson's cousin Loo Norcross, who enraged Mabel Loomis Todd by refusing to hand over the letters Dickinson had written to her. It's impossible not to imagine the poet's approval.

The Soul selects her own Society—
Then—shuts the Door—

Loo kept the letters with her in a nursing home until she died in 1919; then the letters were burned.

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