Saturday, 11 October 2014

Emily Dickinson - Lives Like Loaded Guns

My son bought me a Kindle reader some time ago and I freely admit, the battery life on that tablet has never been over-stretched or extended anywhere near melt-down.  I’m sorry, but there’re far too many reasons why I stay back with my beautiful hard print books.  I did think that the Kindle might be useful when travelling – easier to jam into the seat pocket in front, and it does do that.  Yet, here I was on holidays, squeezed into economy, and I’m turning the pages of a thick book, and struggling with where to stuff it when the food trays come around.  Any inconvenience I might have suffered was worth it – this was a great book; a biography of Emily Dickinson written by Lyndall Gordon, Lives Like Loaded Guns, Virago Press.  Anybody studying Dickinson should read it.  I had never studied or read any of Dickinson’s poetry, so this was my introduction to her work.  The first thing you get about Emily Dickinson is full mystery – early American woman poet, died young, a recluse by habit, wrote 2000 poems but only 7 published in her lifetime, wrote her first poems in the winter of 1862, accused of staying in obscurity because of early criticism, not married (disappointed love, jilted? labelled by male critics as a half-cracked little spinster), misrepresented by meddling editors, and so on and so on!  What you get from Lyndall Gordon’s, Lives Like Loaded Guns is I believe, a factual insight into the intrigues of the Dickinson dynasty of the late 1800’s and the family feuds involved in bringing Emily’s poems to publication.  You come to realise how Emily may not have been a recluse by habit, but in fact suffered epileptic fits and therefore had no choice but to hide from the world and reflect privately on life.  Epilepsy in Emily’s time was seen as a shameful condition that brought embarrassment to oneself and one’s family, so never a chance for somebody with epilepsy to live a normal social life.  No question of getting married, no question of extended social contact because one never knew when a fit might come on.  Also, the sufferer’s physical environment had to be controlled because of the affect that light and vision has on triggering fits.  In view of such knowledge, when you read Emily Dickinson you do get a sense of a poet who has looked deeply within herself through personal pain, isolation and affliction.  In fact, reading Dickinson is discovering Emily Dickinson in person, the who that she knows she is.  Most of her poems are reflections about life, nature, death and surety of God and an afterlife cemented in the 1800’s.  Something else about Dickinson is that her work may have remained unpublished if not for family feud and rivalry involving Emily’s sister, Lavinia, their brother Austin, his wife Susan, Austin’s long-time mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd and the off-spring from the Dickinson’s and the Todd’s.  Hey, read the book, Lives Like Loaded Guns.
I’ve selected four Dickinson poems for this post – not because any are among my favourite poems, but because I feel the first two are good examples from Emily’s self-reflection, and the next two give an insight into illness and seizures that may have ruled her life.

(Emily Dickinson 1830 – 1886)
I never saw a moor,
    I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.
(Emily Dickinson 1830 – 1886)
I’m nobody!  Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

A lot of Dickinson’s poems were published untitled.  In a lot of them the ‘Dickinson’ voice can be recognised through her favoured use of a 4 foot / 3 foot rhythm.  Both the poems above share with us something of Emily Dickinson – her Christian faith and certitude; her humility, lack of pretension, quaint humour.  The poems read with simple emotion and joy.  Given the volume of such short poems Emily wrote, you could follow her work by reading one poem each day – sort of like those inspirational collections, called perhaps – ‘Day by Day with Dickinson’.  I bet it’s out there already.

The next two Dickinson poems are a little different:

The Lost Thought
 - if ever the lid gets off my head
(Emily Dickinson 1830 - 1886)
I felt a cleaving in my mind
   As if my brain had split;
I tried to match it, seam by seam,
   But could not make them fit.
The thought behind I strove to join
   Unto the thought before,
But sequence ravelled out of reach
   Like balls upon a floor.
(Emily Dickinson 1830 – 1886)
One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.
Far safer, of a midnight meeting
External ghost,
Than an interior confronting
That whiter host.
Far safer through an Abbey gallop,
The stones achase,
Than, moonless, one’s own self encounter
In lonesome place.
Oneself, behind ourself concealed,
Should startle most;
Assassin, hid in our apartment,
By horror’s least.
The prudent carries a revolver,
He bolts the door,
O’erlooking a superior spectre
More near.
The collection of Dickinson I’ve got is a Chatham River Press edition, Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson.  The poems in the collection were selected from the first three volumes published of Dickinson poems (3rd series published 1896).  These volumes were edited by Mabel Loomis Todd.  Remember, Mabel Todd was the mistress of Emily Dickinson’s brother (Austin).  Mabel never met Emily Dickinson face-to-face (weird).  A preface to the book is written by Thomas Higginson (Boston man of letters and publisher).  Higginson rejected four poems that Emily sent to him for possible publication in 1862 (“A Day”; “We Play at Paste”; “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers”, and “The Nearest Dream Recedes Unrealised”).  Higginson said her style was too ‘spasmodic’.  Higginson may have only seen Emily from a distance, once in his life!  Yet these are the people who first edited Emily’s hand written poems and introduced her to the public after her death.  I’m sure further study of Dickinson publications beyond these first three series will show that early editors made subjective changes to Emily’s original text for what they thought was an improvement in structure and in applying their own interpretation.  An example is in the poem, The Lost Thought.  I believe this is Emily describing what she perceives in her mind when suffering a seizure, how her logical thought is disrupted, “the thought behind I strove to join, unto the thought before”.  This is supported in the original manuscript notes (from Lives Like Loaded Guns), where the poem is titled, If Ever the Lid Gets off My Head, and Emily describes how she feels a ‘cleaving’ in her brain, as if the lid of the brain gets off her head and can’t re-attach.  In the first published version of the poem, the title may lead us to believe it’s about not being able to remember something (Lost Thought).  Also, in the original manuscript the first line reads, ‘I felt a cleaving in my mind’.  In the edited version the line reads, ‘I felt a clearing in my mind’.  A ‘clearing’ (emptying) is definitely less dramatic and painful than a ‘cleaving’ (splitting) in the mind.
I include Ghosts, because it is one of the tracks on Paul Kelly’s album, Conversations With Ghosts – brilliant.

My connection to Emily Dickinson in this post is by way of a couple of poems of mine where I have looked within and attempted to express myself / my soul.  This is a great subject matter for a poet – how I see the world; how I really feel; who I feel I am.  Writing in such a way requires honesty, self-awareness, acceptance and authenticity – conditions that you grow into.  And there can be danger in honestly revealing the inner self; exposing the soft under-belly; putting yourself out there to be judged.
1998.  Maybe it is how it is - and our circumstance won’t change until we accept it.

Of all my pleas for intercession,
I’ve heard God answer twice,
Once upon our paper round, wet night,
Flogged tired up Regal Way,
Oh Lord let me do thy will, I pray,
Please grant me something more than this,
………… and God answered,
…… you are doing My will.
And once more when I walked the dog
Past mansions on Mainsail,
Wondering, when will I prevail,
Where lies my success, oh why,
Have not I, until I give it up,
Resigned to you Lord Jesus Christ,
………… and God answered,
…… thank you.
                                      J. O. White

2000.  People say you need to be more ‘assertive’.  They say you get over-looked because you’re not assertive.  Well, shit, I’m not the one doing the over-looking, I’m here.  And if people can’t see me because they’re too busy being assertive so they themselves can be seen, then maybe I don’t want to play the game.

I’ve got to say,
Somewhere deep in my soul,
Life is a dead ache of desire,
For what, I do not know,
And I have to get up each day,
To be superficial at things,
That drift away from binding prayer.
When it does lead,
It brings me argument
Defeat at the hands of others
Also aching but stronger
In their determination for me
To be subjugated so they
May live to their potential and I to mine
I guess,
Until I see it’s all in your mind,
All in your mind, they say.
                                                J. O. White

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