Emily Dickinson composes herself

“When you had gone the love came. I supposed it would,” wrote Emily Dickinson to her friend Elizabeth Holland. And then she thought about sitting down to table with her love and added, “The supper of the heart is when the guest has gone” (letter 318).

Dickinson often thought of love that way, as a communion with the sole self. Sometimes, in fact, the communicant even excluded those whom it was ostensibly inviting sub tectum. After Dickinson’s cousin Eudocia Flynt returned home from a visit with the Dickinsons, for instance, she was followed by a letter which began, “You and I, did’nt finish talking. Have you room for the sequel, in your Vase?” Then the chalice approached Eudocia, brusque and unbidden. Its ministrant said:

All the letters I could
write,
Were not fair as this –
Syllables of velvet –
Sentences of Plush –
Depths of Ruby, undrained –
Hid, Lip, for Thee,
Play it were a
Humming Bird
And sipped just
Me –

(Letter 270, with poem Fr380A lineated by Alfred Habegger as in the manuscript)

All Cousin Eudocia could do in response was to try to compose herself. To herself she wrote a diary entry made up of 60 percent words, 40 percent doodled exclamation points: “Had a letter from Emily Dickinson!!!!” (Habegger 460). The stunned memo lies as inert on its page as a blasted flower, and there’s no record of any words spoken back to Emily.

And as to the bouquets Cousin Emily was capable of dispatching to someone who was close:

In January and February 1859, Susan Dickinson’s school friend Catharine Scott Turner paid an extended visit to Amherst, staying with Sue and Austin at The Evergreens. More than fifty years later, Kate would recall “Those celestial evenings in the Library – the blazing wood fire – Emily – Austin,– the music – the rampant fun – the inextinguishable laughter, the uproarious spirits of our chosen – our most congenial circle” (Habegger 373). In due time, of course, the laughing came to an end and Kate went away, and that, of course, was when the love came. “Dare you dwell in the East where we dwell?” demanded Emily in the letter that followed Kate. “Are you afraid of the Sun?–”

And then: “When you hear the new violet sucking her way among the sods, shall you be resolute?” (letter 203).

In 1951, Rebecca Patterson’s hints at a lesbian reading of sentences like that one caused scandal. As of 1951 the Johnson editions of Dickinson’s poems and letters were yet to come, feeling was under Cold War censorship, and the Dickinson of the bookstores’ poetry nooks was still the sweet little girl dressed up in white by her enterprising niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Sixty years on, we’re more open to the possibility that if Emily said she loved Kate, she may have meant she loved Kate. On the other hand, the past sixty years have also taught us that Emily Dickinson was a writer of literature, and some of the literature she wrote was fiction. Poems like “All the letters I could write” and “I tend my flowers for thee” (Fr367) have erotic undergrowths just as lush as the sods in the letter to Kate, but they don’t seem to arise from any desire experienced by what Dickinson called the biographied. If they are love poems, “All the letters I could write” and “I tend my flowers for thee” tell of love conceived not as something communicated but as communication’s metaphoric aftermath. The poems communicate love, but they aren’t love. They’re love letters.

Which brings us to this double daguerreotype portrait.

Click to enlarge.

This low-resolution reproduction appears in a 2012 article, “Is There a New Dickinson Daguerreotype?” on the web page of the Emily Dickinson Museum. The original may have been made in the area of Springfield, Massachusetts, it may date from about 1859, and the woman on the right has been positively identified as Kate Turner. The question that the article asks is: is the woman on the left Emily Dickinson?

Historians and anthropometrists are now working on an answer. While we’re waiting for their data, however, let’s study the picture in our own way: as if we were linguists reading a corpus written in body language. If we do that, we’ll see that the two body texts in this image are quite different. Kate, for a start, presents herself before us as fully composed. Her shoulders are relaxed, as are her hands. She is balanced in bilateral symmetry, with a vertical line clearly visualizable from the part in her hair through her nose, the narrow V of her white collar, and the wide view of her crossed hands. We can’t see her chair because her clothes drape evenly over both sides.

But the woman on the left is sitting entropically. With her spine twisted, she barely perches on the edge of her chair. From there she edges away from Kate, but at the same time her right arm (like most daguerreotypes, this one is a mirror image) reaches itself out behind Kate’s back as awkwardly as a teenager’s on a first date. Meanwhile, the left arm is stiffly and unnaturally hinged: elbow close to the body, forearm held away. It lies like an iron bar across the woman’s lap, and the hand’s fingers are rigidly extended and rigidly held together. This body language is of the bone, not the flesh. It is not even organized into a skeleton. No composition regulates it. Its words are not yet in order.

Now compare another composition — this one made up equally of body language and of words from beyond the body. Because the body in this daguerreotype is dressed in the style of the daguerreotype era, its wordy accessory proclaims, “I am daring.” The proclamation isn’t a mere fashion statement, either. Yes, it was daring for a woman dressed in the style of that history to strike her pose with a volume of Whitman. That pose could have carried real consequences. It was especially daring for a woman to pose with this particular volume, the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, because the 1856 edition was the first to include the body poem now called “A Woman Waits for Me.” In 1856, Ed Folsom reminds us, that poem had a different title: “Poem of Procreation” (33).

This is the image downloaded from the Daguerreian Society link in Ed Folsom’s article. However, a better image is the zoomable high-resolution one at
The Daguerreian Society’s site,
http://daguerreian.org/fm3/detail.php?Databasenumber=572

The woman’s compositional tactic for making Whitman’s dangerous words feel welcomed and loved is simple: she sits the words down on her chaste and motherly lap. There they compose themselves and, from behind the shelter of the woman’s hands, look us readers calmly in the face. The full significance of the composition’s paraphrasable content is as lost to history and us as the woman’s name (is she saying, “I love Walt?” is she saying, “I love Fanny Fern?” is she saying, “All right, I took your dare?”), but the act of composition certainly is meant to achieve something. Because the picture of the woman exhibits forethought (an answer to the question, “What should I do with my hands?”), it has a consciously assumed form. Posed together within their form, the woman and her book are a work of art – specifically, a work of art illustrating in some way the sense of a work of literature, one that has taken in some words from a dictionary (“leaves,” then “of,” then “grass”) and comprehended them in a new formal body whose parts include satin and lace and sheaves of hair and a book held lovably upside down. We readers like that new body. It makes us feel well disposed — toward it and toward Walt, the child who went forth. In body language, that feeling is a work of art.

But there is no art in the way the other woman’s body is piled up in its half of the other daguerreotype plate, and we aren’t entitled to suppose that a poem must ensue after the daguerreotypist’s chemistry has done its work on rigid arm and stiff fingers, fleshy lips and large half-averted eyes. Perhaps, after all, what we see on this silver surface is only a clumsy accumulation of some words belonging to the language of body. But perhaps, too, Dickinson’s letters 270 and 318 offer us a way to read this picture as a conspectus of a body poem. Perhaps this stiff clumsy thing before the lens was an Emily Dickinson after all – an Emily whose body language is saying to itself:

“When Kate goes away and my body is able to resume its solitary hunger, I will be able to open my mouth again and take in. Then the supper of the heart will lay itself on the table and its poem of invitation will arrive.”

Works cited

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

—. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R. W. Franklin. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Folsom, Ed. “The Sesquicentennial of the 1856 Leaves of Grass: A Daguerreotype of a Woman Reader.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 24.1 (2006): 33-34.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Modern Library, 2002.

“Is There a New Dickinson Daguerreotype?” http://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/new_daguerreotype. Accessed 10 August 2012.

Patterson, Rebecca. The Riddle of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951.

The poetics of cleansing

As of April 21 my new WordPress blog hasn’t yet been found by Googlebot, but it already seems to be picking up more spam comments in a week than the old Blogger blog attracted in six months. The latest one compliments my brilliance and then extends an invitation to advertise something called Juice Cleanse Detoxify, and the more I look at that phrase in my own blog’s composing window the more seductive it seems.

After all, the notion that the literal or figurative body is a vessel full of poison is not just perdurable but ancient. Walt Whitman, who suffered from chronic constipation, was always writing himself resolutions to purify and then rebuild his body, and the metaphor is prevalent throughout nineteenth-century America, from the writings of the health lecturer Sylvester Graham, “the peristaltic persuader,” to the Book of Mormon. In twentieth-century Europe, too, Gottfried Benn was attacked by a fellow Nazi, the propaganda painter Wolfgang Willrich, in a book which was called Säuberung des Kunsttempels, or “Cleansing the Temple of Art.” In that title the metaphor presumably (I haven’t read the book) comes from the Bible, perhaps by way of Psalm 51: Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” At the opening of the Mass, the priest symbolically purifies the congregation by sprinkling holy water as he chants that verse.

Willrich’s own art was pure in the extreme;

Click to enlarge

Benn’s perhaps less so. Taking notes in wartime like a responsible clinician, Dr. Benn observed one of his fellow officers in the act of commenting on his own language practice — “I command only once” — and then completed the communication by completing the predication: “The subject was latrine-cleaning” (58). That realized a little zone of the world by anchoring its language to the soiled human actuality of a toilet brush. As spoken by the officer, the phrase “I command only once” could have significance only for the officer, but after the poet translated it into what Wordsworth called “the language really spoken by men,” it acquired communicable meaning.

But the art of Willrich’s portrait begins by expelling the really spoken. Erase the black, says this art, and leave the paper white; purge the unclean and leave the perceiving eye nothing to perceive but the clean. Willrich’s head model has been cleaned that way by the artist’s charcoal, and so he no longer senses the persuasions of his lower body. Erased from within, his expression has lost the fascia that once made it move. You can’t believe you could see through that unmoving face into a mind full of thought, as you might believe in front of a portrait by Rembrandt. A head by Willrich has no body, and there is nothing inside it except paper. The paper is a painter’s, too, not a poet’s. It’s blank and wordless.

As for me writing words in the postwar, I dismissed as spam my commentator’s persuasive invitation to collaborate in the ongoing work of cleansing and detoxifying. But thanks anyway for thinking of me, anonymous bringer of hyssop from the ancient world.

*

Work cited: “Block II, Room 66,” trans. E. B. Ashton. Gottfried Benn: Prose, Essays, Poems, ed. Volkmar Sander (New York: Continuum, 1987), 53-63.