Elaine Maria Upton

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A Word Made Flesh Is Seldom: A Conversation Between Certain Poems Of Emily Dickinson And Angelina Weld Grimke

It is possible that I could write a neat little comparison-contrast essay on the lives/works of Emily Dickinson and Angelina Weld Grimke. Certainly the lives, and to a significant degree the poetry, of these two women offer themselves up to remarkable comparisons and revealing contrasts. What both have left for me are records of particular forms of what I will call disembodiment. And I find myself wondering what would these two women, so alike and yet so different, have said to each other had they been able to live at the same time and meet one another. I am reminded of an interview of contemporary poet, Adrienne Rich, with Audre Lorde, where they discuss issues of feeling, particularly pain, race, privilege, and poetry. Given what I see as the particular disembodiments of Grimke and Dickinson, I cannot imagine such a conversation as that between Rich and Lorde, but what I imagine is a conversation between certain poems of Dickinson and Grimke, since the poems are mainly what are left and what live out of their little known lives. Let, then, the brief comparison-contrast serve as introduction to the "conversation in poetry."

Dickinson, the older of the two, born in 1830, and Grimke, born half a century later in 1880, can both be seen as daughters of the nineteenth- century in the U.S.A. Both were born and grew up in Massachusetts, Emily in Amherst and Angelina in Boston. Although stories of these daughters' relationships to their mothers differ greatly, both had respectable, proud and stern fathers, who practiced law, and both girls grew up under the tutelage of these fathers in genteel, Protestant settings. They attended prestigious girls' schools, Emily for a short time, and Angelina until she graduated from the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1902.

Emily, in her relationship with Susan Gilbert (Emily's sister-in-laws), and Angelina, in her relationship with a colleague in Washington, D.C. where she later went to teach, were both apparently sometimes unfulfilled lovers in a world that had little or no tolerance for lesbian relationships. In Washington, as in Boston, Angelina would have found it difficult to openly express her love for Mamie Burrill or perhaps other women. Both Dickinson and Grimke might be said to have had, to borrow Gloria Hull's term, "buried lives." So much of their intellects and of their heats' desires must have remained hidden from public and family view. Yet both found expression, in similar and different ways, in poetry writing, Dickinson in almost 1800 poems and Grimke in a much smaller but important number of as yet uncollected poems.

Grimke, being the younger of the two, would have had the opportunity to read Dickinson's poems, while the possibility did not exist during Dickinson's life (unless she were clairvoyant) for her to read or know Grimke. Generally speaking, Grimke's poems, like Dickinson's are filled with images of nature and the seasons, and with an attraction to death that some have said borders on obsession. It is quite possible that Dickinson's poetry influenced Grimke, even as Grimke seems influenced by English poets, Victorian and Romantic. One hundred sixteen of Dickinson's poems were first published in 1891 when Grimke was ten years old, and while I have not yet found evidence that Grimke read Dickinson as she grew up or even in her later life, it seems likely that her upbringing with her prideful father and her attendance at prestigious schools would have afforded her the opportunity, either at home or at school, to read Dickinson. At school, Grimke apparently had not learned of the differences facing her as a black child in a white world, although she does express some awareness of her alienation. Yet throughout her recorded life she continues to read and apparently admire white poets.

But here is where the most striking contrast between Dickinson and Grimke appears. Dickinson was a white woman, and as such, racially normal, while Grimke was doubly racially abnormal, because she was by blood bi-racial, and socially, in effect, black. Sooner or later, she and Dickinson, each in her own time, would come to be treated differently in a century during which at least one-half of the nation condoned enslavement of black people. Although Boston might be though of as a liberal city in the nineteenth century as compared to cities all over the South, it would not have been a perfect haven for Grimke, as it was not for Harriet Jacobs or Harriet Wilson or Frederick Douglass. On the other hand, whatever difficult challenges Dickinson faced in her hometown of Amherst, racially she was a member of the (consistently) privileged group.

Yet this very difference between Grimke and Dickinson can serve the comparison, and the lives/work of both women can be instructive today for us as women and poets, some of us lesbian, black and white. If we can say that both women had "buried lives," both were buried in similar and yet different ways, or we might say that there are similarities in the difference. Through recognition of this, we, their daughters, can find strategies for survival and creative fulfilled living.

In the matter of differences it seems to me that Dickinson's poetry might be thought of as, in the main, disembodied in terms of sex-gender, and brilliantly so. Grimke's poetry, on the other hand, reveals, with a few exceptions, a racial disembodiment. Given the places of women, black and white, in the nineteenth century, the occurrence of such disembodiments in the lives and/or the poetry of women does not seem surprising, yet what is still surprising is that these women wrote at all amid the severe limits of sex- gender and/or race that were their inheritances. They wrote, in the very challenge of disembodiment, for and against the particular deaths that threatened or lured them. Thanks to the research of Gloria Hull, we are encouraged to see that Grimke wrote, although in a veiled manner with neutral pronouns, love poems to women, poems of lovemaking in the body, whereas Dickinson, it seems, wrote very little that would reveal her or her persona's life/love in the physical or the private and personal domain. But then Grimke's writing (with a few notable exceptions in the poetry and in her play, Rachael) seems for the most part color-blind, racially disembodied.

In Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence, Joanne Dobson has convincingly argued that Dickinson's poetry shows a kind of reticent resistance to nineteenth-century conventions of the "female" as private and the "feminine" as public woman, where the public (societal) definition of woman is pitted against the private, so that the private all but disappears in the writing. This sounds very much like the ages-old (European, at least) notion that women are the unruly, irrational, sin-bearing daughters of Eve, and they must be kept in check by public systems of censure and censorship. The Victorian codes of decorum figure here.

Feminist scholarship on white women has already done a lot to show the shapes and designs of the physical and metaphoric corsets that women have worn. If Dickinson were confined to these corsets through notions of the "weaker sex" who must be rigorously morally trained in order to serve as proper wife and mother to (white) sons, then Grimke's life is likely to have been all the more circumscribed, not only by notions of women's weaknesses and waywardness, but also by prevailing notions of the inferiority of the "negro" race, notions held in the North only if less obviously than in the south, as the situation of Grimke's parents' marriage suggests.

Grimke's mother, Sarah Stanley, was a white woman, who, from all reports, married a black man, Archibald Henry Grimke, under conditions of disapproval by her parents. Sarah Stanley eventually left her husband, taking the young Angelina with her at first. But she later sent Angelina back to live with her father and to be raised by him. Mother and daughter were apparently separated for the rest of their lives. What conflicts this rupture produced in Grimke, the daughter, can only be imagined, but it does seem that Grimke's youth was one of largely uncertain racial status.

This early experience of racial ambivalence seems to find its way into the condition of mainly a-racial poetry that Grimke was later to write when she moved to Washington, D.C. In this regard she was not unlike many of her contemporaries, and F.E.W. Harper and Phillis Wheatley before her. Yet Grimke's hunger for women, or for a particular woman, could not be erased from her poetry. Her poems show desire, in body and soul, although the desire is oftentimes unfulfilled and linked with death, as in "El Beso" or "A Mona Lisa."

Thus Dickinson's "A Word Made Flesh Is Seldom" might be seen as a multi-lensed index of both women's particular forms of disembodiment in poetry, sex-gender in the case of Dickinson, and race in the case of Grimke. Dickinson's poems can also serve as the starting point in a conversation between certain poems that paradoxically reveal disembodiments and also write the poem as body/text, so that art teases, confounds, fascinates and entertains reality.

Dickinson's "A Word Made Flesh Is Seldom" is a complex and rich poem that suggests to me now some occasional entry of the speaker into the joys of the body.

Each one of us has tasted
With ecstasies of stealth
The very food debated

(JP 1651)

Besides the allusion to Christ as the Incarnated Word and the rare high achievement of language as one with experience, the poem suggests the tasting of a forbidden fruit, seldomly tasted, but seldom is not never, as we can hear a hint of in a few other poems.

Today or this noon
She dwelt so close
I almost touched her -
Tonight she lies
Past neighborhood
And bough and steeple,
Now past surmise.

(JP 1702)

Who is "she" that was "almost touched"? More pronounced as an entry into the body's expression of love is

Her face was in a bed of hair,
Like flowers in a plot -
Her hand was whiter than the sperm
That feeds the sacred light.
Her tongue more tender than the tune
That totters in the leaves -
Who hears may be incredulous,
Who witnesses, believes.

(P 1722)

Still, these instances of entry into the body are rare in Dickinson's poetry. If Grimke were reading and responding in poetry, what might she say?

Grimke could be as otherworldly as Dickinson, as in "The Want of You":

A hint of gold where the moon will be,
Through the flocking clouds just a star or two,
Leaf sounds, soft and wet and hushed,
And oh, the crying want of you.

Yet she could also write the body into her poetry of love.

I love your throat, so fragrant, fair,
The little pulses beating there;
Your eye-brows' shy and questioning air
     I love your shadowed hair
I love your flame-touched ivory skin;
Your little fingers, frail and thin;
Your dimple creeping out and in;
     I love your pointed chin.
I love the way you move, you rise;
Your fluttering gestures, just-caught cries;
I am not sane, I am not wise,
     God! how I love your eyes

Or more, in "El Beso":

. . . . Lure of you, eye and lip;
Yearning, yearning,
Languor, surrender,
     Your mouth,
And madness, madness, . . . .

Grimke's pronouns are neutral, yet the speaking of woman to woman seems clear in the feminine images. Unmistakenly lesbian are the poems of Grimke's contemporary black poet, Mae Cowdery, yet Grimke's love poetry is nearly as obviously addressed to a woman's as Cowdery's. Given the restrictions of the 1920s and earlier when Grimke was writing, these poems are remarkable in their forthrightness and sensuality. Although Dickinson and Grimke were born in the nineteenth century, perhaps Grimke nevertheless had the advantage of living into the twentieth century in New York and Washington, where other men and women around her were living noticeable homosexual lives--poets like Cowdery, Gladys Mae Casely Hayford, and several men of the so-called Harlem Renaissance period. Even so, there was no broad societal acceptance of same-sex love, and Grimke's poems are not without contraints.

But what seems more constrained, or simply most often absent in Grimke's poetry, is the subject of race in a time when (the early twentieth century) migrations from the South brought many changes in the lives of black people, when race riots occurred and continually threatened in the cities, and Alain Locke and others were proclaiming "the new negro," while Marcus Garvey advocated a return to Africa. Nella Larsen wrote of the complexity of racial "passing" in her fiction, and Langston Hughes celebrated Harlem in his poetry. Yet oftentimes women lyric poets, on the surface at least, wrote a kind of color-blind poetry. Grimke was no exception, although she does have a few poems that show clear racial consciousness--for example, the poem she wrote celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of Dunbar High School in Washington, where she taught, and a playful poem celebrating black beauty, "The Black Child."

At least two of her love poems seem addressed to a light-skinned or white woman, and while this is certainly no flaw in the poetry, nor in Grimke's life, if the poetry reflects the life, Grimke's sense of who she was in the context of race in the U.S.A. does not always seem clear. Is her color-blindness, when it occurs as often as it does, simply a matter of free personal choice, a condition of her bi-raciality by blood, or part of the seemingly apolitical view of poetry held by her and perhaps many of her contemporaries and forebears, including Dickinson. I cannot arrive at any definitive answer to these questions. It does, however, seem that Grimke's early childhood experiences in a mixed and troubled marriage, and her eventual separation from her white mother and her longing for a mother (expressed in her first diary entry, July 18, 1902), as well as other factors contribute to Grimke's frequent racial disembodiment in her poetry. It seems.

And would Dickinson have been able to speak to Grimke about race? Likely not. About the loss of a white mother? Perhaps not. About the loss of a mother? I am not sure. About childhood traumas? Perhaps yes, as in

Softened by Time's consummate plush,
How sleek the woe appears
That threatened childhood's citadel
And undermined the years.

Bisected now, by bleaker griefs,
We envy the despair
That devastated childhood's realm,
So easy to repair.

"So easy to repair?" Then again, likely not. But here I venture into dangerous territory. Am I requiring a didactic poetry, a poetry of moral edification? Not quite. Poetry does not have to each us lessons, and certainly Dickinson does not have to console a little black girl on the loss of her white mother. But modernism and postmodernisms notwithstanding, I, like Alice Walker and Audre Lorde and a host of other embattled women, black and white, hetero-and homosexual, do read/write in order to save my life. As Lorde has said for many of us, "Poetry is not a luxury." Still, it is not a sermon either. And that is the trick, I believe. In poetry, there is a fine line between sermon and luxury, between "a poem should not mean but be" and "I read for instruction on the meaning of life." Poems, I believe, do console, reveal, imagine worlds, give name to, open possibilities. And here Grimke, in her small but important way, especially gven the limitations of her complex raciality, her sex and her sexual preference, and Dickinson, given the limitations of her nineteenth- century privileged and confining New England upbringing, her role as a woman, and her love for another woman, both by their very confluences of reticence and writing, withholding and speaking, disembodiment and embodiment (however seldom) of words console, reveal and open many possibilities. Their disembodiments tease and fascinate reality. Their seldom embodiments do make space for us the living to live and speak. And as they speak to each other perhaps, they also speak to us, and help us not only to live, but to die when time comes, for the embodiment we may yearn for, nevertheless implies disembodiment, something both poets seem to have known well.

Grimke seems ever aware of the tension between life in the body and death, as in "A Winter Twilight" or in "Grass Fingers."

Touch me, touch me,
Little, cool grass fingers,
Elusive, delicate grass fingers,
With your shy brushings,
Touch my face--
My naked arms--
My thighs--
My feet.
Is there nothing that is kind?
You need not fear me.
Soon I shall be too far beneath you
For you to reach me, even
With your tiny, timorous toes.

Did Grimke learn from Dickinson? If so, what did she hear?

Before she died in 1958 after Dickinson's Complete Poems had been published, perhaps Grimke heard or read many of Dickinson's poems on death--the soul's taking leave of the body. In the best of her death poems, and I count many to be her best, Dickinson brings the word to life, so that the word become flesh in our living and dying. And we, as Grimke, following Dickinson might read/hear:

The distance that the dead have gone
Does not at first appear -
Their coming back seems possible
For many an ardent year.


And then, that we have followed them,
We more than half suspect,
So intimate have we become
With their dear retrospect.


(JP 1742)