Review: The Essential Emily Dickinson (selected by Joyce Carol Oates)

There are 1,775 known poems of Emily Dickinson. A mere 116 are collected here. Even though most are short, some only a line or two, this selection by Joyce Carol Oates still took me weeks to read, which is perhaps a measure of their density. I read them a few at a time, knowing as little as possible about Dickinson, except her central and foundational position in American literature. I knew her the poet of “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers“, which I had previously found a little mawkish, but in context its strangeness of its imagery is revealed (what is the thing with feathers? A bird? Something more mythical?). I enjoyed the precision of her aphoristic poems, particularly “Much Madness is divinest Sense“, which suggests that what is mad and what is sensible is simply what the majority agree.

They are often intensely elliptical. Many of them she jotted down in letters to correspondents, which only sometimes revealed their intent. To fill in some of the biographical detail I read them alongside a guide produced by the Emily Dickinson Archives. Her own invented punctuation, rendered in print as em-dashes but in reality much more exotic, is difficult to decipher, as is her approach to capitalisation. Dickinson was prolific in her thirties, when she was writing hundreds of poems each year. Towards the end of her life, in her fifties, she was writing a few dozen. Famous for her reclusivity, she kept up an active social life through letters. The more I read of her the more I imagined how easily she would be at home in the weirder corners of Tumblr or Twitter.

Throughout her poems she keeps up an evolving conversation with the divine and eternal, although she had a complicated relationship with god. In “The Tint I cannot take—is best” she describes glimpses of the eternal mystery, leaving her soul in “a Discontent/Too exquisite—to tell—”. She talks about “hunger” in several poems, such as “I had been hungry, all the Years”, suggesting that the absence of fulfillment is illuminating and clarifying:

I did not know the ample Bread—

‘Twas so unlike the Crumb

The Birds and I, had often shared

In Nature’s—Dining Room—

She describes a table laden with food, but finds that sitting down to eat “takes away” rather than filling. She exploits this power contradiction throughout her poetry, juxtaposing a thing with its opposite to clarify its meaning.

Sometimes it is other people that offer transcendence. “He fumbles at your Soul” describes the experience of being struck by a powerful speaker, although it works equally effectively as a description of being physically ravished. In almost orgasmic terms she writes of being stunned, her breathed straightened, he soul scalped. “I think I was enchanted” is dedicated to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and describes the “Divine Insanity” produced by reading her poetry:

The Bees—became as Butterflies—

The Butterflies—as Swans—

Approached—and spurned the narrow Grass—

And just the meanest Tunes.

She has a typically Romantic interest in nature (apart from poetry, she also created a herbarium), describing the wonder of storms and orioles, “The Meteor of Birds”. She captures superbly the frisson of horror on seeing a snake, in “A narrow Fellow in the Grass”:

I more than once at Noon

Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash

Unbraiding in the Sun

When stooping to secure it

It wrinkled, and was gone—

Interestingly in both this and the oriole poem Dickinson adopts the voice of a man. My favourite of these nature poems is when Dickinson spies a bird on the path ahead of her in “A Bird, came down the Walk“. The bird has eyes “like frightened Beads”, “drank a Dew/from a convenient Grass”, but Dickinson reserves her most striking imagery for its flight, which she conceives of as “rowing” itself “softer home”:

Than Oars divide the Ocean,

Too silver for a seam—

Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon

Leap, plashless as they swim.

Much has been said about the grief Dickinson experienced in her life. Her father died in 1874, her mother in 1882, and a beloved nephew a year later. But what seems to be her greatest trauma, something that happens when she is 31 years old, goes unnamed. She describes the cataclysm in “The first Day’s Night had come“. Her soul’s “bow” (as in an instrument) has been “to Atoms blown”, and when she wakes to yet another day, her first reaction is to laugh. “Could it be Madness — this?” she wonders, incredulous that life can go on, and in a way it hasn’t. “That person that I was —,” she writes, “And this One—do not feel the same—”.

Unsurprisingly then her most precise and convincing poetry is around death. In “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died“, she imagines her own last moments. Everyone has spent their tears, Death is in the room, but then there’s a fly:

With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—

Between the light—and me—

And then the windows failed—and then

I could not see to see—

Years later, she doesn’t have to imagine in “The Last Night that she lived“, written after witnessing the death of a neighbour. Dickinson treats her presence as a privilege, writes reverently, even jealously of the woman’s final moments:

She mentioned, and forgot—

Then lightly as a Reed

Bent to the Water, struggled scarce—

Consented, and was dead—

These are bleak themes, but Dickinson finds the mystery in them, suggesting that by the light of death the true wonder of living reveals itself.

Gay rating: not gay, although Dickinson herself was likely queer.

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