Sandra Gilbert

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I, Too, Will Be "Uncle Sandra"
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I want to begin by saying that Emily Dickinson was an artist, an artist of metamorphosis who located herself quite consciously in a female world of myth and magic, of empowered domesticity, of powerful difference, and of poetic self-dramatization. I'll tell you two stories about her that seem to me to explain just how mythical and how magical she made herself. The first little story that I want to read you, in case you haven't already heard it in the last day and a half, is a little comment made in a letter by Mabel Loomis Todd who was later to become one of Dickinson's editors. It's a very famous comment, actually, and one that was often misinterpreted by people, but one I think is crucial in understanding Dickinson. Having just arrived in Amherst, Massachusetts, where her husband is the director of the observatory, Mabel, in a letter to her parents, writes:

I must tell you about the character of Amherst. It is a lady whom people call "the myth." She is a sister of Mr. Dickinson, and seems to be the climax of all the family oddity. She has not been outside of her own house in fifteen years, except once to see a new church, when she crept out at night and viewed it by moonlight. No one who calls upon her, no one who ever calls upon her mother and sister, ever sees her, but she allows little children once in a great while, and one at time, to come in, when she gives them cake and candy or some nicety, for she is very fond of little ones. But more often, she lets down the sweetmeat by string out of a window to them. She dresses wholly in white, and her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful. She writes finely, but no one ever sees her. Her sister, who was at Mrs. Dickinson's party, invited me to come and sing to her mother sometime. People tell me "the myth" will hear every note; she will be near, but unseen. Isn't that like a book? So interesting.

Well, there is some way in which Dickinson is making herself like a book. The story has often been used against her to suggest how she's just this charming recluse, this peculiar, poetry-writing homebody. But in fact, this is one of the ways in which she transformed herself into a myth and into an acolyte of a kind of female magic. The other story that I want to tell you is one that also comes from a letter, written by her cousin, Clara Newman Turner. She says:

The poet's little nephew, Ned, boy-like, had a way of leaving anything superfluous to his immediate needs at Grandma's. After one of these little stints of omission, over came his high-topped rubber boots, standing erect and spotless on a silver tray, their tops running over with Emily's flowers; and another time, the little overcoat was returned with each velvet pocket pinned down, and a card with "Come in" on one, and "Knock" on the other. The "Come in" proved to be raisins, the "Knock," cracked nuts.

For there's some way in which what we're dealing with here is a poet who can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, what would seem to be the daily, the domestic, in the miraculous and the magical. And I want to read tonight in tribute to Dickinson, four poems of Dickinson's which seem to me to emphasize her concern with difference, her yearning for a different world that would be mythical and magical; her concern with the problem of writing poetry as a woman; the issue of what kind of muse a woman poet has, and, if a woman poet has a muse, what is its sex; and finally, her conscious relationship to the female literary tradition. So I'm going to read four poems of hers, and then, alas, I'm going to four poems of my own, although that feels like an absolute desecration to me to be reading poetry of mine in the same session in which I read poetry of hers. But at least I can claim that my poems were consciously or unconsciously written in some way in response to themes and ideas that I found in her poetry, and that they are an effort to pay tribute to her magic and her mythology. So the first poem of hers that I'm going to read is an early (I'll read these poems pretty much in chronological order; one is going to be slightly out of order). The first one that I want to read is an early poem which is about, as I said, her yearning for a different world, a world in which female difference could be liberated and celebrated. This is a poem--well, with Dickinson you have the problem of the titles, it's like the joke convention--this is going to be Poem 24. A name to conjure with right? But we call them by their first lines, so this is a poem we call, "There is a morn by men unseen - ":

There is a morn by men unseen -
Whose maids upon remoter green
Keep their Seraphic May -
And all day long, with dance and game,
And gambol I may never name -
Employ their holiday.

Here to light measure, move the feet
Which walk no more the village street -
Nor by the wood are found -
Here are the birds that sought the sun
When last year's distaff idle hung
And summer's brows were bound.

 

Ne'er saw I such a wondrous scene -
Ne'er such a ring on such a green -
Nor so serene array -
As if the stars some summer night
Should swing their cups of Chrysolite -
And revel till the day -

 

Like thee to dance - like thee to sing -
People upon the mystic green -
I ask, each new May Morn.
I wait thy far, fantastic bells -
Announcing me in other dells -
Unto the different dawn!

 

(JP 24)

It's important that that different dawn is in some way continuous with the world that Dickinson is reinventing when she puts raisins in one pocket, and cracked nuts in another, and say "Knock" and "Come in" and transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. The next poem of hers that I want to read is, to go on giving you the numbers in case you're taking notes, is number 103 (Johnson Edition), further along in her career. And it is about the issue of a kind of muse; she doesn't specifically say she's writing about a muse, but I think when you listen to the poem that she really is and here she imagines the muse as a silent, in some ways, sort of censorious male figure:

I have a King, who does not speak -
So - wondering - thro' the hours meek
I trudge the day away -
Half glad when it is night, and sleep,
If, haply, thro' a dream, to peep
In parlors, shut by day.

 

And if I do - when morning comes -
It is as if a hundred drums
Did round my pillow roll,
And shouts fill all my Childish sky,
And Bells keep saying "Victory"
From steeples in my soul!

 

And if I don't - the little Bird
Within the Orchard, is not heard,
And I omit to pray
"Father, thy will be done" today
For my will goes the other way,
And it were perjury!

 

(JP 103)

Very interesting that you see here that there's a kind of agonistic struggle that she imagines between herself and the male muse. There are other poems where that becomes clearer, but I think this is interesting because he both cooperates sometimes, and at other times, just refuses to cooperate. On the other hand, for Dickinson, there are countless female figures, female deities I would say, who really do cooperate, and one of my favorite poems of Dickinson's is about a kind of generalized range of female muses. This poem is Number 722:

Sweet Mountains - Ye tell Me no lie -
Never deny Me - Never fly -
Those same unvarying Eyes
Turn on Me - when I fail - or feign,
Or take the Royal names in vain -
Their far - slow - Violet Gaze -

My Strong Madonnas - Cherish still -
The Wayward Nun - beneath the Hill -
Whose service - is to You -
Her latest Worship - When the Day
Fades from the Firmament away -
To lift Her Brows on You -

 

(JP 722)

This is a kind of prayer in a female theology, a female mythology, which she does feel empowers her. It's very crucial. But then the last poem of hers that I want to read is one in which she very, very specifically locates herself in a female literary tradition, and you'll notice that in this poem, the female literary tradition within which she locates herself is one that she associates with magic, with witchcraft, with madness, with a kind of divine madness, and with transformation, with what I said seems to be essential to her work and to her life, and that is metamorphosis. Because throughout this poem, everything metamorphoses into everything else, and everything becomes increasingly fantastic. The poem is about reading the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who is defined as "that foreign lady," literally because she is foreign, she is an Englishwoman; but figuratively speaking, because she is foreign to the culture, too, as a woman poet. And she becomes a kind of emblem of female poetic power, who gives Dickinson permission to write, in a sense, and imbues Dickinson with the strength and the energy to transform her own world.

I think I was enchanted
When first a sombre Girl -
I read that Foreign Lady -
The Dark - felt beautiful -

 

And whether it was noon at night -
Or only Heaven - at Noon -
For very Lunacy of Light
I had not power to tell -

 

The Bees - became as Butterflies -
The Butterflies - as Swans -
Approached - and spurned the narrow Grass -
And just the meanest Tunes

 

That Nature murmured to herself
To keep herself in Cheer -
I took for Giants - practising
Titanic Opera -

 

The Days - to Mighty Metres stept -
The Homeliest - adorned
As if unto a Jubilee
'Twere suddenly confirmed -

 

I could not have defined the change -
Conversion of the Mind
Like Sanctifying in the Soul -
Is witnessed - not explained -

 

'Twas a Divine Insanity -
The Danger to be Sane
Should I again experience -
'Tis Antidote to turn -

 

To Tomes of solid Witchcraft -
Magicians be asleep -
But Magic - hath an Element
Like Deity - to keep -

 

(JP 593)

Well, the transition from Dickinson's poems to my own is very painful for me. I can't think exactly what to do except say that I think I was and am enchanted when I read the poetry of Emily Dickinson and I suppose it's out of the desire to express and explain my own enchantment that I did entitle my last volume Emily's Bread. I'll explain that later on, but I bet a lot of you know that she was a famous bread-baker, as was Emily Bronte. Cooking and poetry seem to go together in some interesting ways. The poems of my own that I've chosen to read are poems that do try to respond to the themes that I've tried to locate in the Dickinson poems. The first two that I'll read to you are about the question of a female muse. As I said, feminist critics and women poets, too, have recently begun to speculate a lot on the issue of the muse. The muse is poet's inspiration; the poet's inspiration, his muse, has traditionally been metaphorized--because the poet was male--as a beautiful, seductive woman. So what happens when the poet is a woman? What kind of muse does the woman poet have, and if she has a muse, what is its sex? I think that Dickinson answers that question in several ways in the poems that I've read you, and I find that I myself have inexorably and inevitably also answered the question in several ways. The first way is the way that we saw in "I have a King, who does not speak." This is a poem called "The Return of the Muse":

You always knew you wrote for him, you said
He is the father of my art, the one who watches all night,
chainsmoking, never smiling, never satisfied.
You liked him because he was carved from glaciers,
because you had to give him strong wine to make him human,
because he flushed once, like a November sunset,
when you pleased him.

 

But you didn't love him.
You thought that was part of the bargain.
He'd always be there like a blood relative,
a taciturn uncle or cousin,
if you didn't love him. You'd hand him poems,
he'd inspect them, smoke, sip a business deal,
and that would be that.

 

Then he went away and you hardly noticed.
Except you were happy, you danced on the lawn,
swelled like a melon, lay naked long mornings,
brushed your hair more than you needed.
Your breasts grew pink and silky,
you hummed, sucked the pulp of oranges, you forgot
all about words.

 

      And when you were
absolutely ignorant,
      he came back,
his jacket of ice flashed white light,
his cap of pallor bent toward you, genteel, unsmiling.
He lit a cigarette, crossed his legs,
told you how clumsy you were.

 

Ah, then, love seized you like a cramp,
you doubled over in the twist of love.
You shrieked. You gave birth to enormous poems.

 

He looked embarrassed and said how bad they were.
They became beasts, they grew fangs and beards.
You sent them against him like an army.
He said they were all right
but added that he found you, personally,
unattractive.

 

     You howled with love,
you spun like a dervish with rage, you
kept on writing.

The second poem I'll read gives an alternative answer to that question about the muse that the female poet has. And it's called "For the Muses":

They said I couldn't find you.
They said because I'm a she,
because the s in my name blurs my features,
a hiss around my face like uncombed hair,
you wouldn't be interested.

 

They said my breasts would hinder me,
heavy, hard to carry, with nipples like blinded eyes.
They said the inflatable rubber cell in my belly
would frighten you, and the lips between my legs:
you'd expect me to eat you up!

 

But I remember you too well.
You were to immigrant aunts I visited
in the suburbs of my childhood,
keeping house with what you'd salvaged
on the long flight from Paris:

 

diamonds in the linings of your coats,
embroideries from the 1890s,
Egyptian jewelry, a samovar, old
cashmere scarves, a rosewood wardrobe
larger than the bathroom.

 

Aunt Rose, your hair was black, it grew in wings from your
      forehead.
Aunt Lil, your hair was white, it circled your skull like a shawl.
You see, I remember.
And your fourth-floor flat, where I visited you, where you
fed me oranges and honey, cakes and wine--

 

I remember that too: the print
of the lovers in the forest, the witch
pictures on the walls, the plants
that hummed in the dark, the
black feet of the peacock.

 

You spoke to me there, you told me the stories.
I was yours as much as any boy.
Or more: for the notion of my breasts was yours,
you planned them, you designed them.
And the afternoon you led me to the rosewood wardrobe

 

and opened the great carved door
you smiled when I myself pulled out the center drawer,
smiled when all that light came spilling out
and wrapped itself around my arms, my thighs, my shoulders
like a bolt of old satin.

 

"A mantle, not a shroud," you said.

I do try to be upbeat in response to my mother's sort of complaint--"Why does she write poetry that's so morbid? She had such a happy childhood." The last two poems that I'll read will be poems that were very consciously written as tributes to Emily Dickinson. And again, one of them is darker than the other, reflecting my own changing sense of Dickinson. The first one that I'll read you is the title poem of my book, and it's called "Emily's Bread." And it was written at the time Susan Gubar and I were working on The Madwoman in the Attic, and when I thought a lot about Dickinson as being really trapped and imprisoned in her house and in domesticity. From the second and last poem that I'll read about Dickinson you'll see that I changed my mind, and I decided that, as Adrienne Rich put it, she decided to have it out on her own premises in a very powerful way. The first poem, "Emily's Bread," has two epigraphs--the first, 1857, is from a chronology of Dickinson's life, "1857 Emily's bread won a prize at the annual Cattle Show." I might note that her sister was one of the judges, but her bread was really supposed to be very good. It was rye bread, in case you're interested. "1858, Emily served as a judge in the bread division at the cattle show," and maybe Lavinia won a prize that year:

Inside the prize-winning blue-ribbon loaf of bread,
there is Emily, dressed in white,
veiled in unspeakable words,
not yet writing letters to the world.

 

No, now she is the bride of yeast,
the wife of the dark of the oven,
the alchemist of flour, poetess of butter,
stirring like a new metaphor in every bubble

 

as the loaf begins to grow.
Prosaic magic, how it swells,
like life, expanding, browning
at the edges, hardening.

 

Emily picks up her pen, begins to scribble.
Who'll ever know? "This is my letter
to the world, that never..."
Lavinia cracks an egg, polishes

 

the rising walls with light. Across
the hall the judges are making notes:
firmness, texture, size, flavor.
Emily scribbles, smiles. She knows it is

 

the white aroma of her baking skin
that makes the bread taste good.
Outside in the cattle pen the blue-ribbon heifers
bellow and squeal. Bread means nothing to them.

 

They want to lie in the egg-yellow sun.
They are tired of dry grain, tired of grooming and love.
They long to eat the green old meadow
where they used to live.

I really did see Dickinson as being trapped in domesticity and longing to eat the green old meadow where she used to live like the mystic green that she writes about in the poem about the different dawn. But the last poem that I'll read reflects, as I said, my changing sense of her. Of course, the wonderful thing about her is that she is so compelling and so various that one's sense of her is continually changing. This is a poem about Emily Dickinson's black cake. Some of you may know, that Emily Dickinson was very famous for baking black cake, and some of you may indeed know that you can find the recipe for her black cake in her letters. Indeed, there's also a little book called Emily Dickinson Cook and Poet, which gives all her recipes, in case you're interested in trying others. I myself decided at a certain point, as one of my many tributes to her which take lots of different forms, to try to bake her black cake. So I looked up the recipe in the letters, and I was a little bit daunted when it began, "Take a milk pail." More than a little daunted. So I quartered it, quartered the recipe, and I made a lot of black cake which I served to a graduate seminar in feminist criticism that I was teaching; and then I put away the rest of the black cake in my freezer, and I served it to five more seminars over the years. But you could try it; maybe you should tenth it. It's very good; it has a whole bottle of brandy in it even when you quarter it. You probably wouldn't have to put it in the freezer. This last poem that I'm going to read is called "The Emily Dickinson Black Cake Walk." It has two epigraphs, both from Dickinson's letters, and each intended to explain one or another strange aspect of the poem. In 1866, Dickinson wrote to somebody about her nephew, the very nephew Ned, in whose pocket she was putting raisins and cracked nuts, and for whom she was writing these wonderful little emblems and mottoes. And she obviously had made quite an effect on him because she said, "1866: Ned...inherits his Uncle Emily's ardor for the lie. My flowers are near and foreign, and I have but to cross the floor to stand in the Spice Isles...." Notice that she calls herself "Uncle Emily." The fluidity of her identity is part of her magic and part of the way in which she mythologizes herself. She signed herself, "Brother Emily," sometimes "Uncle Emily Dickinson." And then also she was "Emilie," sometimes, when she wanted to be particularly flirtatious and feminine. And then just plain old "Emily," at other times. My second epigraph is written in 1883: "Your sweet beneficence of Bulbs I return as Flowers, with a bit of the swarthy Cake baked only in Domingo...." Notice that she is the one who completes the metamorphosis of the bulbs into the flowers, and that she has become a kind of goddess. And Domingo, where the swarthy cake is baked, is really her own kitchen. So this is "The Emily Dickinson Black Cake Walk":

Black cake, black night cake, black
thick cake out of which Emily
leaps in bubbles of bitter sweetness--
lucid or dark balloons of Emily,
Emilie, Uncle Emily,
Dickinson, Nobody--
black Emily Dickinson cake,

 

how does your sugar grow?
What is the garden, where
is the furrow, whose
are the pods of heat and shadow?
How did the black bulbs dissolve their iron,
leaves their silence, bees their drone of sunset honey
into the oven that cooked you firm?

 

Black cake, black Uncle Emily cake,
I tunnel among your grains of darkness
fierce as a mouse: your riches
are all my purpose, your currants and death's eye raisins
wrinkling and thickening blackness,
and the single almond of light she buried
somewhere under layers of shadow....

 

One day I too will be Uncle Sandra:
iambic and terse. I'll hobble the tough sidewalks,
the alleys that moan go on, go on.
O when I reach those late-night streets,
when acorns and twigs
litter my path like sentences
the oaks no longer choose to say,

 

I want that cake in my wallet.
I want to nibble as I hobble.
I want to smile and nibble
that infinite black cake,

 

                     and lean
on Uncle Emily's salt-white
ice-bright sugar cane.

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