on Dickinson in Her Own Time, edited by Jane Donahue Eberwein, Stephanie Farrar & Cristanne Miller (Univ of Iowa Press)
For both the poet and her engaged reader, the laws and behaviors of her poetry take precedence over the habits and accidents of her life. Is there a memorable poet who has ever limited herself to the mere facts of her experience? Who has portrayed herself solely as a subject of cause and effect? This is why one may read a poet’s biography asking “What is it exactly that I’m looking for?” While the poet lived according to her habits (unremarkable or eccentric), she was waiting for the next poem, the next opening to pass through as a radical presence. In her poems, she doesn’t resolve or even try to explicate the mysteries of her time, she calls out to them.
“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. Regarded as an agoraphobic spinster, Dickinson integrated the sweep of the world’s 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.” Nevertheless, we continue to drive to Amherst and ring her doorbell.
The editors of Dickinson in Her Own Time now offer “a biographical chronicle of her life, drawn from recollections, interviews, and memoirs by family, friends, and associates.” Naturally, Dickinson fails to materialize but we can get a feel for the agitation she triggered in others looking for “answers to questions about Emily Dickinson’s experiences and beliefs that the poems and letters themselves raised.” Among the documents collected here are familiar pieces such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s 1981 Atlantic Monthly article on Dickinson’s letters (”The impression undoubtedly made on me was that of an excess of tension, and of an abnormal life”). But there are several new things: letters to sister Lavinia discussing Emily, family reminiscences (some formerly available only as excerpts), and newspaper articles.
The editors suggest – and the book’s contents seem to prove -- that “these documents provide evidence that counters some popular conceptions of the poet’s life and reception.” Friends who knew Emily as a young woman indicate that she was not morose or withdrawn, expressed herself wittily, and wrote humorously for student publications. Although almost all of her poetry was published posthumously, she was not unrecognized as a poet in her lifetime and actively corresponded with various editors. Her work was not roundly criticized. She also “made considerable provision for the survival of her poems and laid the groundwork for their eventual publication.” While these clarifications may provide grist for Dickinson scholars, the pleasure of reading these memories of Dickinson lies in their speculation and lack of consensus on her romantic affairs (if), religiosity, and “odd behaviors.” She is this and she is that.
Included here is Amy Lowell’s 1918 lecture on “Imagism Past and Present: Emily Dickinson” – and it is hard to take. She wrote, “Here was a woman with a nice wit, a sparkling sense of humour, sinking under the weight of an introverted imagination to a state bordering on neurasthenia … The ignorance and unwisdom of her friends confused illness with genius, and, reversing the usual experience in such cases, they saw in the morbidness of hysteria, the sensitiveness of a peculiarly artistic nature.”
Dickinson died in 1886 but the growing interest in her character and circumstances inspired reminiscences long after her death. In 1924, Clare Bellinger Green recalled an event at the Dickinson house when her sister had been asked by Emily to sing “a solo which had formed a part of a memorable service in the village church.” The Green sisters had often come to visit Lavinia and regarded her as a friendly counselor – but Emily would not appear. On the day of the requested performance, Clare and her sister were left alone with the piano in the drawing room while Lavinia waited and listened upstairs out of sight with Emily. Green recalled, “At the close of the singing a light clapping of hands, like a flutter of wings, floated down the staircase, and Miss Lavinia came to tell us that Emily would see us in the library.”
Clare Green quotes Emily: “’Except for the birds,’ she said, ‘yours is the first song I have heard for many years. I have long been familiar with the voice and the laugh of each one of you, and I know, too, your brother’s whistle as he trudges by the house.’ She spoke rapidly, with the breathless voice of a child and with a peculiar charm I have not forgotten … wholly unaffected.”
She had been paying close attention to their voices for years -- and had concluded that their song would be singular, unspeakably suitable for an exception in a life, as Susan Howe intuited, “really alone on the frontier.”
[Published January 1, 2016. 214 pages, 14 b&w photos and illustrations. $55.00 paperback]