Joyce Carol Oates

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The Little Caboose Of The Emily Dickinson Express
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Coming at the end of so varied a collection, I feel rather like the little caboose of the Emily Dickinson Express. . . .But I'm very honored to be here.

I had intended to discuss several Dickinson poems of high seriousness, and these are, should you want to reread them, "After Great Pain..." (JP 341), "'Hope' is the Thing With Feathers..." (JP 254), and "The Brain Within its Groove..." (JP 556). But it might be a more felicitous idea to conclude these ruminations with poems in a somewhat lighter vein, since there may be some readers who are unaware of another side of Dickinson. For all the gravity, and beauty, and heartrending precision of her insights she could be, upon occasion-- upon, in fact, numerous occasions--sly, mischievous, impious, and subversive; simply very funny; her characteristically small female voice used to enormous advantage.

For instance, here is a poem that is a valentine, both metaphorically and literally. Its comic rhymes suggest a virtuoso talent at play--and the poet is only nineteen years old. Most of the Dickinson poems with which we are familiar are the great poems of her maturity in the 1860s. This is Dickinson in 1850:

Oh the Earth was made for lovers, for damsel, and hopeless swain,
For sighing, and gentle whispering, and unity made of twain.
All things do go a courting, in earth, or sea, or air,
God hath made nothing single but thee in His world so fair!
The bride, and then the bridegroom, the two, and then the one,
Adam, and Eve, his consort, the moon, and then the sun;
The life doth prove the precept, who obey shall happy be,
Who will not serve the sovereign, be hanged on fatal tree.
The high do seek the lowly, the great do seek the small,
None cannot find who seeketh, on this terrestrial ball;
The bee doth court the flower, the flower his suit receives,
And they make merry wedding, whose guests are hundred leaves;
The wind doth woo the branches, the branches they are won,
And the father fond demandeth the maiden for his son.
The storm doth walk the seashore humming a mournful tune,
The wave with eye so pensive, looketh to see the moon,
Their spirits meet together, they make them solemn vows,
No more he singeth mournful, her sadness she doth lose.
The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride,
Night unto day is married, morn unto eventide;
Earth is a merry damsel, and heaven a knight so true,
And Earth is quite coquettish, and beseemeth in vain to sue.
Now to the application, to the reading of the roll,
To bringing thee to justice, and marshalling thy soul:
Thou art a human solo, a being cold, and lone,
Wilt have no kind companion, thou reap'st what thou hast sown.
Hast never silent hours, and minutes all too long,
And a deal of sad reflection, and wailing instead of song?
There's Sarah, and Eliza, and Emeline so fair,
And Harriet, and Susan, and she with curling hair!
Thine eyes are sadly blinded, but yet thou mayest see
Six true, and comely maiden sitting upon the tree;
Approach that tree with caution, then up it boldly climb,
And seize the one thou lovest, nor care for space, or time!
Then bear her to the greenwood, and build for her a bower,
And give her what she asketh, jewel, or bird, or flower--
And bring the fife, and trumpet, and beat upon the drum--
And bid the world Goodmorrow, and go to glory home!

(JP 1)

Certainly this is a side of Emily Dickinson most people do not know ever existed. Dickinson discovered, early in her life, a distinctive voice--it is evident in letters written when she was a girl--and worked all her life to make it ever more distinctive. She was the spider, sometimes laboring at night in the secrecy of her room, unwinding a "Yarn of Pearl" unperceived by others and plying "from Nought to Nought / In unsubstantial Trade - " But she was far more than merely the spider: she is the presence, never directly cited, or even hinted at, who intends to dazzle the world with her genius. One aspect of this genius is this deliberate smallness; its meiotic strategy--reduce, and conquer. Here is "'Faith' is a fine invention" (P 185 in the Johnson edition). It's but four lines:

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see--
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

One of my favorite Dickinson stories has to do with the last letter she wrote, on her death bed. Succinct, and simple, and poignant; and funny: "Dear Cousins, Called back. Emily."

Here, a poem of three stanzas with four lines in each, fairly riddled with quotation marks that are, in themselves, signs of humor. How serious, the very custom of quotations?

You're right - "the way is narrow" -
And "difficult the Gate" -
And "few there be" - Correct again -
That "enter in - thereat" -

'Tis Costly - So are purples!
'Tis just the price of Breath -
With but the "Discount" of the Grave -
Termed by the Brokers - "Death"!

 

And after that - there's Heaven -
The Good Man's - "Dividend" -
And Bad Men - "go to Jail" -
I guess -

 

(JP 234)

And, finally:

The Show is not the Show
But they that go -
Menagerie to me
My Neighbor be -
Fair Play -
Both went to see -

(JP 1206)

* * *

To read one's own poems in juxtaposition with those of Emily Dickinson, with however a provisional sense of their worth, is an act of supreme chutzpah; an act to which, I would repeat, and insist, those of us who are participating in this volume have been driven. . . .

This first poem of mine is celebratory; if it carries a subtext within it, as I don't doubt it does, the very subtext (weeds, beauty, gloating, pride) is celebratory. The poem is for Jana Harris, poet- friend of mine whose garden I visited one lovely hot July. Such supremely healthy vegetables, and weeds--

IN JANA'S GARDEN
     --for Jana Harris

 

Here, in July, in Jana's weedy garden,
heat rising from the earth like vapor
and such luxuries of vegetables!--
red onions and parsley and peppers and
beets and mint and lettuce newly bolted
thigh-high and sweet corn in tall shaggy
rows and potatoes unearthed like crude
gems heaped in our arms and thank you,
thank you for every gift this life we
haven't deserved and now at harvest,
when the air pulses with heat and the sky
is massed with fat dimpled clouds like pride
licking itself unrepentant, hungry
for all you can give.

A feminist poem, conceived in anger but executed, I think, with rather more a sense of play; in response to an epigraph from Paul Valery--one of those 'great men' whose greatness excludes women.

PEACHES, PINEAPPLES, HAZELNUTS. . .

 

     Women are fruits. There are peaches,
      pineapples, and hazelnuts. No need
      to continue: it is clear.
          --Paul Valery, Melange

 

No need to continue, it is clear
how ecstatic we are you're dead
though we must not say so, but compose
our faces otherwise. Though death
is that marbled world of Absence
we cannot enter. We lead you to it--
but cannot enter. Peaches, pineapples,
hazelnuts, oranges, grapefruits, red
apples, apricots, plump black cherries,
sour red cherries, plums and prunes and raisins,
avocados, nectarines, kumquats
skin and all!--sweet pulpy bananas, pears
and papaya, persimmons and pomegranates,
rhubarb, blueberries and blackberries and
huckleberries and raspberries, straw-
berries, lemons, limes, mangoes, kiwi,
cantalope and watermelon so red-flushed and
coarse,--no need to continue but I love best
this sweet heavy Persian melon with its
fleshy meat like the softest skin
of the inner thigh, so many seeds and all
so sweet, subtle as the most judicious
of poisons.

This poem is of course in specific reference to Emily Dickinson, described, with such infuriating condescension, by the wife of Thomas Higginson, as "your partially cracked poetess." In writing it I thought of the cruelty of the ignorant; the incomprehension that prides itself upon not knowing; not wanting, or daring, to know, to acknowledge, another's high worth. . . .So most of the world dismissed Emily Dickinson as simply a woman-poet, a poetess who, in the presumably enlightened words of the critic R.P. Blackmur, took up poetry as other women took up needlepoint. But the "poetess" takes her revenge. Of a kind.

"HALF-CRACKED POETESS"

On my finger an antique ring I hadn't
deserved, but got. Like so much, you're thinking
meanly, and you'd be right.
And now the stone is cracked, a tiny disaster,
the opal's mild fiery light stares out
and no reflection.
Like an eye, in a way. Blind
but still seeing
except, what is it seeing?--
and why?

Technique is constraint, and control. There are poems whose subjects are so horrific, one can only approach them, as Medusa was approached, obliquely: by way of the mirror of art. In my short poems I want an effect that is brilliant, hard, icy-cold, like wires shooting up the nostrils into the very brain. Short poems carry with them the capacity for hurt even when they are, in their tone, lyric. As Yeats said: "A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been nought."

This is in response to Titian's great painting "Narsyas Flayed by Apollo," believed to have been executed between 1570 and the year of Titian's death 1576. The painting, as surely many of you know, is a masterpiece of detail held in a kind of narrative suspension: a hallucinatory work that takes on, by way of the painter's painterly skill, a terrifying domestic inevitability. I wanted this air of casualness for my poem but I wanted very little detail, the merest glimmer of narrative, no figurative language. The poem is in a sense sheerly a formal choice because, before I began thinking about specific words, I had the poem's structure firmly in mind: everything condensed into a stanza of about six or seven lines followed by a short mock- question. The form is a broken or dismantled Shakespearean sonnet but it relates to a genuine Shakespearean sonnet only tangentially; one might say poetically. The poem is about technique--this icy, inhuman precision, its curiously optimistic zeal--and is technique, with nothing human remaining.

NARSYAS FLAYED BY APOLLO

In this late, great oil by Titian the satyr
Narsyas is being flayed alive, hanging upside-
down from a tree. What technique is required
we have to guess, skinning a fellow creature alive,
what surgical precision, patience, craftsmanly
pride--the usual secrets
of someone's trade.

 

Does it require practice, or can it
be done properly the first time?

To conclude, two very short poems. One is about a living fish--an otherness supremely other; the second is about a dead fish, about to be devoured--thus beyond creaturely pain. In the first, the metaphor resolutely excludes us. In the second, the metaphor is us.

FISH

 

When you stand on the bank awash
in sun the fish dart slant-
wise through your upraised hand,
all gold, glinting, nerve-ends
quicker than flesh so
be humble. Don't even try
to change your life.

 

HOW DELICATELY...

 

How delicately the fish's
     backbone is being
lifted out if its
     cooked flesh--
the sinewy spine, near-

 

translucent bones
     gently detached from
the pink flesh--
     how delicately, with
what love, there can be no hurt.

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