Sunday, November 03, 2013

ModPo 2013 #57 Poet as Witness and Tool of Her Times: On Howe's "My Emily Dickinson"

Image of loaded gun from 

Here's the link to an excerpt of Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson, "My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -"

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply –

And do I smile, such cordial light
Open the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through

And when at Night – Our good Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head –
‘Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow - to have shared –

To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –

Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without – the power to die -
This was a powerful one-two-punch of Howe's text and Dickinson's poem that seems to be the unifying theme of Howe's text. 

I liked Howe's feminist observation/ critique of how women (particularly Dickinson and Stein) get passed over by the "Canon." Well, in the case she mentions in her text, "from Harold Blood to Hugh Kenner." Was it a disadvantage for women to be artists? To be leaders? To be anyone "of consequence?" Even today that question is still being asked: for example the concept of "leaning in" (Sheryl Sandberg). If it weren't an issue, it wouldn't still be a hot topic like it is today. "Having it all" is an illusion. And despite that, I will still tell my daughter that she has options even if "mother" is a construct that has already been prepared for her since forever (or since humanity's beginning). 

This conscious questioning of "Who polices questions of grammar, parts of speech, connection, and connotation? Whose order is shut inside the structure of a sentence?" tie in directly to Dickinson's poem. "First I find myself a Slave, next I understand my slavery, finally I rediscover myself at liberty inside the confines of known necessity." This is the progression of gun unpossessed, gun possessed, gun used "speaking on behalf of Him" and then gun becoming conscious of mortality and power (liberty within the confines of known necessity). 

To be in the margins is to be in the perfect place to observe the rules, to be conscious of the rules and, eventually, to have the power to break the rules. Politics is always in flux (as is language, which is a different political arena...but political still!). To be in power is to take the status quo for granted. Emily Dickinson writes from a position of "hesitation" (as described in the text) but writes with great liberty knowing her confines. Not being published was, in fact, a great advantage to Dickinson (though it didn't discourage Stein from achieving what she did in a very public sphere). She had no one to please but herself. And that is why we are left with a text that is ahead of its time. Text that survives the death of any "master" and has such power, such dangerous power, as it resonates through time. 

I interpret "the master" or the "owner" as Dickinson's own time. She has limited agency as a weapon. She is informed, shaped by her times, largely patriarchal. In fact, the idea of hunter and gun is a very male preoccupation. And the use of "he" for hunter and "she" for gun is very sexualized. The irony isn't lost on me. This gun culture persists in America and its increasingly violent history of mass shootings (mostly by disturbed young men) is, I'm sure, not lost on all those reading Dickinson's text.

As Howe puts it: "Gun goes on thinking on the violence done to meaning. Gun watches herself watching." Violence done to meaning! What an amazing couple of lines. The poet will always be "used" by her times, by the material that she constructs. She does not choose what she is born into. But she who speaks "for" her times is a tool that will never die, that will outlast her times. "Kill" of course has the twin of "spare" and any tool that deals with death also deals with life. I also observe that Dickinson never refers to "her life" as playing a part of a victim. The loaded gun is both witness and tool. The tool points the way and shapes the user (even as the user utilizes the tool) the same way that the world is a nail for the hammer. The tool, in this instance, is a gun. It's a curious metaphor to use for a poet's life but it is very Dickinsonian to use a loaded metaphor. 

So, thank you to Susan Howe for this vital appreciation of Dickinson both as a woman and a poet, a loaded gun of her times.

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