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Jerome Charyn: The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

 

Emily Dickinson has haunted my life — her poems, her persona, all the tales about
her solitude. Ever since I discovered her in the seventh grade, I’ve had a crush
on that spinster in white, who had such a heroic and startling inner landscape of
her own. “To shut one’s eyes is Travel,” she wrote, and I traveled with her, across
volcanoes, mountain villages, treacherous streams, and unfamiliar archipelagos that
were suddenly familiar when caught in the prism of her own merciless eye.

There’s that daguerreotype of her, taken when she was sixteen or so, with a ribbon
around her long swanlike neck as she peruses us, her potential readers. She looks
out at us with her unadorned face, as simple and plain as a handkerchief, and I felt
riveted to her and the rides she liked to take toward her own sense of Immortality.
It wasn’t a place of comfort or rest. It was as windblown as an orchard in February,
ripe with roots and a coverlet of moss. I always imagined it as the very secret garden
of a writer’s mind.

Sometimes she shared that garden with us, sometimes not. The old maid of Amherst
was implacable in her white dress. Many years later I arrived like a pilgrim in
Amherst and visited Emily’s room, which was as unadorned as the face in the
daguerreotype. I happened to be alone in that part of the Dickinson Homestead,
now a museum devoted to Emily. I wasn’t burdened by any tour guide or gaggle
of Dickinson devotees. I could run my hand along the sides of her sleigh bed, stare
at the replica of her tiny desk and wonder at the words she might have scratched
while she looked across the road at her father’s fields. It was the curious and quiet
electricity of her room that gave me the courage to write a novel about her, in the
quicksilver of her voice.

I danced in Emily’s room like some little devil who was also one of her devotees.
Dickinson believed in devils, and so did I. They must have accompanied her on her
own ride to eternity. I wish I had been there with her. And in my novel I tried to
imagine what that trip must have been like.

Some readers may be disturbed that I wrote The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson in
Emily’s own voice. I wasn’t trying to steal her thunder or her music. I simply wanted
to imagine my way into the head and heart of Emily Dickinson. I decided to start the
novel at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, even though many scholars and critics of
her work do not feel that the time she spent there — seven or eight months in 1848
and 1849 — was particularly important to her. I disagree. Even though she rarely
mentioned Mount Holyoke in her later letters, and was homesick from the minute
she arrived to the minute she left, I still feel that the seminary shaped her in several
subterranean ways. It gave her a sense of the Devil, and allowed Emily to hurl off the
straitjacket of established religion.

Emily was someone “without Hope,” who couldn’t declare her faith in the Lord. Her
religion was much more private, much more particular.

Slowly, slowly, she turned towards the gods and devils of creation. Such gods
and devils empowered her whenever she was scrunched over her writing desk
in Amherst. She suffered a great deal and had to hide her own fierce intelligence,
since women in a nineteenth century American village weren’t supposed to think
for themselves. And thus she had a dual life — obedient daughter, loving sister, and
later a loving aunt, and all the while she smoldered inwardly and was a demon at
her desk.

That’s one of the reasons why each new generation of readers responds to her
poetry in such a visceral way. These scrawls on scraps of paper — she often wrote
on the backs of envelopes and at the bottom of old recipes — were a matter of life
and death. We can feel her trembling in the words themselves. Her celebrated use of
the dash wasn’t some fanciful artifact. It was a weapon, as Emily moved from image
to image without giving us a chance to breathe. Her words attack us, bite our heads
off, even while they soothe and delight. There has never been another poet like her,
male or female.

Sometimes I feel that her one great advantage was that she seemed to inhabit both
sexes, depending on her mood and her will. She could be male and female, and was
often both in the same poem. Perhaps only a recluse like Emily could have had the
daring to do so. She’s virile and weak, and her constant shift in tone gives us a sense
of vertigo as we move from line to line, poem to poem.

She didn’t believe in titles; perhaps titles were too imperial, too complete, and might
embalm a poem. She wanted to ravage us, just as she ravaged herself in the writing.
She was both a penitent and a pixie, forever variable, hard to hold in one place. Just
when we feel that we’ve grasped her mood, and that we know Emily, she sweeps us
into another cove, and disenchants us even while she enchants.

That’s why we can always go back to her poems; there is no one final reading or
assessment of her as a poet. She is larger, and more mercurial, than we will ever be.
And whenever I visit Amherst and steal into her room, I begin to smile with some
kind of secret complicity. It’s not that I know her any better after writing a novel
through her eyes, with all her little adventures — her romps with her beloved dog
Carlo, her days and nights in Cambridge when she was half blind, her “love affair”
with one of her dead father’s friends. It’s simply that I feel an endless delight in
having been in her presence, at least for a little while.

 

Charyn will present his book The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson at the Library on May 21.

 

 

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