Frances Payne Adler

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Toward a Poetry that Matters: Emily Dickinson as Activist/Activator

Writing this essay is like entering a time warp, returning to a place outside of voice. It isn't easy. I'm resisting going back there.

I'm in my bedroom in Montreal, Quebec, where I was born and grew up. The clothesline outside the window is squeaking. I'm nine years old and I've just finished writing a poem. I stash it in the back of my underwear drawer. I've been writing poems since I was six. They are laughed at, aren't they cute. In my family, creativity is regarded as character defect. I hide out a lot in my bedroom. It makes good sense: my father drinks--there are no Jewish alcoholics, wrong--and the only books in the house live in one bookcase: in my bedroom. I shut the door, shut out the house, and read the twenty-four Books of Knowledge. They're blue, and faded. I love them, especially the poetry. My favorites are usually signed anonymous. And they give me chills.

You can imagine what it was like for me when, years later, and I mean years--I'd gone back to school after marriage and children--and I read "If I read a book (and) it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know. Is there any other way?" (Dickinson, according to Thomas Higginson's letter of August 16, 1870.)

Here's someone, a woman someone, Emily Dickinson, from another place and time saying with the passion in her voice that loving/writing isn't a character defect, it's important. She's also saying listen to your body, it's wise. My body--that chilled to fine poetry--knew things that my head--so filled with what I'd been taught to believe--had forgotten.

To begin, Dickinson's legacy to me was not solely her poems. It was the method she passed down of developing her voice, of retrieving what Carol Gilligan is now calling, "the voice gone underground." Now, I'm not talking some mythic woman in white here. I'm talking flesh and blood sister-woman locked out of a system she didn't have a voice in designing. I can look at Dickinson's white dress floating in the closet in the upstairs bedroom on Amherst's Main Street, and make much of the romantic goddess writer from the nineteenth century. Or I can thank the, alas unnamed, graduate student I heard about when I visited Dickinson's room, who had culled years and years of records at the local Amherst pharmacy to find a standing prescription for one Emily Dickinson. It was for skin balm, along with the written advice of her physician to wear white muslin. Dickinson had sensitive skin and was allergic to fabric dyes. This was no mythic goddess clothed in white, this was a woman with a skin problem, knowing what she needed and taking care of her health.

Look, if I were a painter, I would paint the vision I carry of Emily Dickinson in my head--sitting in her room at her eighteen-inch cherrywood desk--in white--with her skin rash, writing her poems with the door shut, telling her truth and telling it slant--floating Magritte-like--like bread floating in the sky. She gave me her legacy: say no to a world that doesn't include you, that you didn't participate in designing, that doesn't value you, that denies your voice. And yes to being bold, developing your voice, empowering yourself, and creating a world in which difference is richness.

I'd like to take you along the path I experienced Dickinson traveling from silence to voice. Her roadmap had six identifiable turning points:

And years after that, reading Adrienne Rich's story about Dickinson: "Her niece Martha told of visiting her in her corner bedroom on the second floor at 280 Main Street, Amherst, and of how Emily Dickinson made as if to lock the door with an imaginary key, turned, and said: 'Matty, here's freedom'" ("Vesuvius at Home," On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, Norton 1979). The image of her shutting her door, and more than a hundred years later, I'm shutting my door. Dickinson--from a time that wasn't mine, from a class that wasn't mine, from a religion that wasn't mine--gave me, in the years I've spent reading and studying her with the help of such feminist critics as Rich, Ostriker, Juhasz, Gubar, Gilbert, Gilligan, Walker--Dickinson gave me the roadmap to voice.

1) First, she recognizes that her mind has been colonized by the values of her time, that her circumstances are unacceptable for a woman genius: In a letter to her brother Austin, she writes about how her father watched and inhibited her: "I arrived home at 9 - found Father in great agitation at my protracted stay - and mother and Vinnie in tears, for fear he would kill me. . ." (June 1851). In a letter to Higginson, she writes about the lack of a role model in her mother, and a father who discourages her from feeding her intelligence: "My mother does not care for thought - and Father, too busy with his briefs - to notice what we do - He buys me many books - but begs me not to read them - because he fears they joggle the Mind" (April 25, 1852). Then her poem:

His mind of man, a secret makes
I meet him with a start
he carries a circumference
in which I have no part

(JP 1663)

She's sensing her lack of self in the first half of this poem:

I felt my life with both my hands
To see if it was there -
I held my spirit to the Glass,
To prove it possibler.

I turned my Being round and round
And paused at every pound
To ask the Owner's name
For doubt, that I should know the Sound -

(JP 351)

Then, in another letter to Austin, the self-deprecating voice, masking the not-so-shadow feminist text:

I suppose I am a fool - you always said I was one, and yet I have some feelings that seem sensible to me. . . . Why not a "eleventh hour" in the life of the mind as well as the soul - greyhaired sinners are saved - simple maids may be wise, who knoweth? (June 22, 1851)

2) Second, Dickinson moves into shutting out the patriarchal values, to taking her own values and perceptions seriously. In a letter to Austin, who was also writing poems, she declares:

Now Brother Pegasus, I'll tell you what it is - I've been in the habit myself of writing some few things, and it rather appears to me that you're getting away my patent, so you'd better be somewhat careful, or I'll call the police! . . . I declare, I have half a mind to
throw a stone . . . and kill five barn door fowls. (March 27, 1853)

3) Third, she creates an external and internal writing environment that supports her: she chooses to stay in her room, as Rich says, "having it out on her own premises." Years later, she would write to Higginson on the question she herself had answered: "Is it Intellect that the Patriot means when he speaks of his 'Native Land'?" (May 1874). Through metaphor, Dickinson was claiming the country of her mind.

4 & 5) Fourth and fifth, she recognizes, develops, and documents what Rich has since called the authentic woman's voice--the one your hear when no one is listening. "If your nerve deny you - " she writes in a poem, "Go above your nerve - " (JP 262). And in another: "I took my Power in my Hand / And went against the World / 'Twas not so much as David - had - / But I - was twice as bold - " (JP 540).

She imagined her world as she perceived it, not as she'd been taught to perceive and imagine it. She fought and won the selfless/selfish battle--the one Suzanne Juhasz would later discuss in her essay, "The Double Bind of the Woman Poet"--and developed a strong sense of self, what Juhasz calls "that primary male attribute, the ego." Dickinson knew she was a strong poet. Knew her life, her views, her images mattered. As she says in the last stanza of a poem:

And then - the size of this "small" life -
The Sages - call it small -
Swelled - like Horizons - in my vest -
And I sneered - softly - "small"!

(JP 271)

She wrote to Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson of having what she called that "old king feeling" (February 1852), and "The purple - in my Vein - " (JP 663). She said no to going to church, and no to the traditional woman's role. She also said no to the destructive effects of negative criticism and the rejection of her poems. And said yes to her poems, packeted them carefully, and kept on writing. Despite Higginson saying that she wasn't ready to publish. Right.

Dickinson designed her own cosmos, wrote her vision for women: a morning as yet "unseen," a day in the future on the first of May, when women would put down their lives--as designed in her time--and come together to celebrate their freedom:

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 324)

Not only does Dickinson foresee women's freedom, and the celebration of it, but she also sees herself as part of that future and imagines us acknowledging her for her part in getting us there:

I wait thy far fantastic bells -
Announcing me in other dells -

I sense that Dickinson was connected to women across time and place, that it was what she meant by "Circumference." The circle that connected her to me, to my students each semester, to students across the country year after year, to people reading her and who have read her in different languages in this country, and around the world, she is "announced" in all their "dells."

6) Sixth, she had faith in the power of her poetry, of her vision, her map of transformation. And the faith that those she had "shunned" so that she could do the work she needed to do, would in the end, understand. In 1877 she copied out the poem:

I shall not murmur if at last
The ones I loved below
Permission have to understand
For what I've shunned them so -
Divulging it would rest my Heart
But it would ravage theirs -
Why, Katie, Treason has a Voice -
But mine - dispels - in Tears.

(JP 1410)

Treason? "My Wars are laid away in Books," she recorded in the 1880s (JP 1549). For me as a white woman poet standing fifteen years on the cusp of two worlds: the traditional one and the emerging one, Dickinson was the first subversive woman poet I read. I found Dickinson's life--more than 100 years earlier--strangely familiar: my anger, when I attempted to speak it, "dispelled in tears"; my desire for change that somehow felt like "treason," the sense of feeling "my life with both my hands / To see if it was there - "

I knew, from Dickinson's example, that I needed my version of a locked room. I chose a simple steel locked box. And began the search for self-definition.

At that time, living a traditional marriage, I knew little about the process of my "voice gone underground." I didn't even know that I had. What I knew was that I was holding back. I was writing lines, at this time, like "I often hold back a part of me / hold back the great dark beast / sleek and shuddering beneath my skin." I sensed Dickinson to be my guide. The simple steel locked box provided mind space, where anything was safe to write about, even something that felt dangerous. "If your nerve deny you - / Go above your Nerve - "

This at a time when those in Washington were saying there was no hunger in America. I was in graduate school at the time. And some of those who were my writing professors were questioning my writing about the homeless. It was not, they said, my experience. It was not, they said, about me. Stick, they said, to your own experience. In 1984, it felt dangerous to talk to people living on the street. It felt dangerous to write about it. The country was flying high economically. The Presidential Task Force had concluded that, "There is no evidence of rampant hunger in this country." The papers weren't making much of it. And certainly no one I knew in the "poetry community" was writing about it. My then-husband thought I was crazy and "putting the family in peril" by talking to the homeless. Dickinson made me bold. I wrote poem after poem about it. As in "Los Desaparecidos"

Like the mothers of Plaza de Mayo, I cannot put out like fire
the memory of those who are disappearing. Like the mothers
of the desaparecidos who circle the Presidential Palace
every Thursday in Argentina, parading photographs
of the disappeared, I parade photographs in my city:
On Fifth Avenue next door to the Guild Theatre, a young man
who sleeps in the crawl space under an apartment building,
turns his face from the blade of light thrown by patrons
opening the theater door. They don't see him. On Washington
Avenue, a woman whose feet ulcer from walking the night,
disappears behind a wall of three-in-the-morning
Food Basket silence. In a La Mesa Boulevard house, a young girl
who will not eat, sharpens her bones the color of fine blue china,
and crawls under the tombstone pages of a fashion magazine.
On Ocean Beach Boulevard, 7-11 shoppers see an old man with three coats
stalling death, sleeping on the heat exhaust of an ice-making machine.
In Argentina and El Salvador, men in jungles and in office buildings
might laugh at the fine way we mask mutilation. No death squads, no
white handprint warnings on doorways here. No lye is poured over bodies
to make bones vanish. In my city the desaparecidos obligingly make themselves disappear.

Dickinson wrote her world. I was writing mine. Emily Dickinson gave me dignity. I could take my work seriously. I began to work with a photographer, taking our poems and photographs as an exhibition about the homeless to galleries, to state capitol buildings, and then to the Senate in Washington, D.C. "I ceded, I stopped being Theirs - "

I began to write moments that my body responded to. Trusting my body to be wise in ways my coopted mind wasn't. My mind was being told to write intellectual publishable poems, my body was responding to excluded women, disenfranchised people. The fist I felt in my stomach when I met so many women unable to find prenatal care. It was not OK that we were the only industrialized country outside of South Africa where millions of pregnant women who wanted care couldn't find it. I did another poetry-photography exhibition. This poem is called "Joshua":

I could hold you, Joshua, in the palm of my life
cup my forty years around your hanging flesh
and say, what have we done.

I could hold you, tell you lies:

that all babies are born as you are
bound to breathing machines
their bodies weighing less than two pounds
small enough to fit a hand

that all babies are born equal,
that I can look you in the eye
this is no lie:
that the moon of your birth night
tracked your mother from hospital to hospital
spilled its cool light on insurance ledgers
weighing your worth

that her fertile heart froze to sand
each time she was turned away

that at twenty, I was a nurse,
starched and stupid with notions of night sirens
unloading pain at emergency room doors
as a call to care

I hold you, Joshua, in my palm,
your chest blows the breathing machine
and the walls of my denial tumble

Emily Dickinson wrote that her wars were laid away in books. Mine weren't solely in books. I was spit on while reading this poem, "Friendly Fire," at an anti-war protest march:

Someone wants to know how I feel about women in war, women in
war, I mean sending women, I mean, we're talking mothers here,
some kid, if the woman gets shot, loses his mother, hey, they've been
losing fathers down the tubes since who knows when, but what the hell,
no one ever sent a father home for the kid's sake, fathers, I guess
they figure fathers expendable, send the woman home, have to
take care of our women, send her home, someone wants to know
what I think about women and rape, someone wants, every six
minutes a woman is raped a daughter is raped a wife is beaten every
eighteen seconds, someone wants to know what I think, have to take
care of our women, send her home, what I think send her home
to raise the kid, the kid they care so much about, the one that will grow
and go to war

As Alicia Ostriker says, "We've moved beyond Dickinson. . .we no longer pretend to prefer nonexistence." We have Tillie Olsen, making visible the ways in which our will has been "leeched"; we have Mary Helen Washington telling us about Zora Neale Hurston "jumping at de sun"; we have bell hooks teaching us to "talk back"; we have Maxine Hong Kingston refusing to collude any longer in the erasure of her aunt; we have Susan Griffin "putting a frame around our lives"; we have Gloria Anzaldua "making face, making soul"; we have Adrienne Rich, "What if I tell you you are not different / it's the family albums that lie"; we have Joy Harjo, giving back the fear; we have Sandra McPherson saying we don't need a "security clearance to write our poems"; we have Judith McDaniel proclaiming that "Witnessing is especially necessary when the reality of a lived experience is denied by the culture at large, the culture to which the witness is brought. . . ." We have Audre Lorde, "For women. . .poetry is no luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. . . .Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. . . .It is the skeleton architecture of our lives." And on and on.

Yet semester after semester in my classrooms, Dickinson's poems are pivotal in breaking open the silence that has blocked students' writing--particularly in my "Woman As Witness" feminist creative writing class. I remember one student in particular, who said to me two days before the semester began:

"I'm nervous about taking your class."

"Nervous about what?" I asked. "That you won't be able to write?"

"No, that I will. It's so presumptuous."

"What is?"

"That I think I have something to say."

This from a young woman who had lived more than 20 years, lost a father in her early years, a mother in her teen years, raised herself and a baby alone, and here she was apologizing for having something to say. Two weeks into the "Woman As Witness" class, her response to "I'm ceded - I've stopped being Theirs - " was a poem titled, "To My Rapist's Mother." Dickinson is the first step in reversing the domino theory of felled and muted women.

I wrote earlier about a dark time. We are here together, a few months from the RodneyKing beating and its aftermath in Los Angeles. I watched--as we all did--the buildings being torched and gutted, the lootings, the rage, the violence. I saw a man throw a garbage can through a store window, climb in and carry out a television. I saw another man roll a refrigerator down the street. I saw a woman rush out of a store, a large sack of diapers in one hand and her baby in the other. The next day, I saw men in U.S. military uniforms stand outside Ralph's supermarket, with machine guns poised.

I saw the violence. And couldn't help hearing the voicelessness, the powerlessness. Thirty years earlier, we had the Watts riots, studies were done, commissions convened, conclusions compiled, and ignored. Little has changed. And last Spring, men and women white-hot angry at a system that has excluded them, given them no hope, a system that wasn't designed by them. I saw violence, and heard desperation, voicelessness.

Semester after semester in all of our classes, students outside the mainstream come to voice. Women and men. We have the roadmap. Emily Dickinson might say this is a time to be bold: to re-envision our role in the community, and make poetry matter.

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