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.
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is to your brother, you remain steadfastly devoted to your brother’s wife and children, from whom your brother has withdrawn his daily affection; there will be "no treason," you tell the oldest child.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.