Theme Essay by Martha Nichols
Why Fiddle With an Iconic Writer?
Perhaps I’ve left my soul ajar, and no one’s home. Perhaps I’ve dunked myself too thoroughly in The Emily Dickinson Reader by Paul Legault. Regardless, this loopy Canadian-American poet has me believing that the Belle of Amherst is a zombie.
I’m not usually fond of literary mashups that throw together, say, shy girl writers with the walking dead. I love Dickinson’s poetry, and the idea of some hipster guy messing with my Emily did not sit well at first. For instance:
I’m kind of like a little boat in the sea of life.
Who wants to have sex with its brother’s girlfriend.
Preposterous as it seems, however, The Emily Dickinson Reader has invaded my psyche. Beyond the goofiness, Legault’s “English-to-English Translation” of Dickinson’s “1,789 poems in her lifetime” makes clear why creative reinterpretation matters. Suddenly, the idea that literary icons can never be rewritten or remade seems ridiculous to me. We authors and editors are dabbling in artistic alchemy all the time.
Shhh! There’s nothing sacred about the original text.
Sure, Legault takes huge liberties with Dickinson’s work; his impertinence may even cause some fans to hurl this little blue volume with its gold-cut pages at the nearest wall. For example: Dickinson’s “It feels a shame to be Alive,” written circa 1863, has twenty lines arranged in five stanzas. His two-line take:
I prefer zombies to living people. They have a stronger sense
of moral justice and a better sense of style.
This is obviously not translation or adaptation in any conventional sense. The Emily Dickinson Reader is a creative work in its own right—but more than that, it’s a form of possession. Legault has done the literary equivalent of raising Dickinson’s bloodless body and making it walk anew. And even his silliest riffs remind me that interacting with a text is what keeps it alive—possibly forever.
There’s a “dear diary” quality to Legault’s translations that may seem juvenile, until you realize he’s deliberately playing with the Belle’s legend and the way many of her poems sound like private notes to herself. He’s also sending up the conventions of modern “updates” of classic books like the Bible and the Iliad—versions that court young readers with dumbed-down prose.
Consider the following series, which begins with a poem written circa 1882, just a few years before Dickinson died. (Helpful hint: Legault adheres to the same numerical sequence as R.W. Franklin’s 1999 “reading edition” of The Poems of Emily Dickinson.) Here’s Dickinson’s eight-line version of number 1574:
The Moon upon her fluent Route
Defiant of a Road
The Star’s Etruscan Argument
Substantiate a God –
How archly spared the Heaven “to come” –
If such prospective be –
By superseding Destiny
And dwelling there Today –
Legault condenses 1574 to one line, then gallops forward in sequence:
Screw Heaven, I want to live on the moon.
I hope God still likes you if you turn into a zombie.
Saints are good at making renovations around the home.
The bible is about: dead people, ghosts, Bethlehem, Eden,
Satan (who was awesome), Judas (who was an asshole),
David (who was pretty cool), and gay people.
It was nice running into you, Sue, because you make me happy.
He leeches the poetry from her lines, no doubt. And sometimes his contemporary stylings don’t work. Dickinson was a dark wit herself, and it isn’t fair to reduce her to tweets like “I’m a little emo” or “Death is mean.”
Still, compared to the scholarly editions of her complete works, Legault gives her poems far more narrative drive and meaning. Some of his transformations are pitch perfect, too, as if Dickinson has taken over a new-millennial poet's body and is typing away in her own blog. Her circa-1861 original of 228, for example, sounds giddy and quaint:
My eye is fuller than my vase –
Her Cargo – is of Dew
And still – my Heart – my eye outweighs –
East India – for you!
Legault's 2012 prose version is just one line:
I want more than I can emotionally capacitate.
No sprightly rhyme scheme here. Yet, his use of “capacitate,” that densely layered word, echoes her “vase." It evokes intense, conflicted longing: I want more but I can’t let it happen. I want more but I can’t allow myself to feel such want. I want I want I want.
Full Steam Ahead
Few critics would deny that Dickinson’s poems reek of internal conflict. Of all the leaps Legault makes, however, his explicit references to sex seem most calculated to shock her worshippers. His unusually long translation of number 269 includes “And oral sex is not enough. I would also like to put my fingers inside you in every configuration.”
Those who believe the fey little spinster never took off her ghostly white dress may require smelling salts. But, in fact, her original poem generates some steam:
Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
While there’s no direct evidence that Dickinson was ever sexually involved with anyone, female literary critics have been suggesting since the early 1950s that she was a lesbian. And a number of scholars view Susan Gilbert as the love of Dickinson’s life, whether that love was platonic or sexual. Sue’s marriage to Emily’s brother was clearly unhappy; he had at least one infamous affair (with Mabel Loomis Todd, wife of a local Amherst professor). Even Dickinson's wary niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, later noted:
[P]robably the last word Aunt Emily ever wrote was her reply to a message from my Mother, 'My answer is an unmitigated Yes, Sue.'
In a 1977 article, “Emily Dickinson’s Letters to Sue Gilbert,” Lillian Faderman underscores that "approximately forty" of Dickinson’s poems “appear to be love lyrics written to or about women.” While she notes that Dickinson sometimes distanced herself from her poems in letters (“When I state myself as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean me—but a supposed person”), Faderman points out that it’s hard to explain lines like “Her breast is fit for pearls,/But I was not a ‘Diver’” as other than erotic.
In her well-known 1985 feminist study My Emily Dickinson, poet Susan Howe ably takes on William Carlos Williams’s 1956 sexist dismissal of Dickinson. Williams stated that no woman “in flower” had been a real poet, adding that “Emily Dickinson, starving of passion in her father’s garden, is the very nearest we have ever been—starving.”
Howe’s riposte: "A poet is never just a woman or a man. Every poet is salted with fire. A poet is a mirror, a transcriber.”
Her poetic riff on Williams riffing on Dickinson exemplifies the way the original artist inspires loops of creative interpretation—reflections of reflections. These interpretations often overlay the original words, altering how we read them.
So, here comes Legault, with a translation of Dickinson’s “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun,” highlighting the interpretive head and tail of this snake:
See My Emily Dickinson, by Susan Howe (pp. 76-120).
With his nod to Howe’s earlier levitation of Dickinson’s spirit, Legault makes explicit the ongoing conversation with Dickinson’s work. It’s a conversation that’s been going on since she first wrote the poems—and rewrote them, in conversation with herself.
Working Without a Ouija Board
She wrote for decades, from her mid-teens until her death in 1886, at age 55. She wrote poems in letters, on scraps of waste paper, on envelopes. She published very little work in her lifetime, but she edited multiple drafts on her own, playing with different word choices and line breaks, binding up “fair copies” in booklets known as fascicles.
A series of editors have posthumously pored over different variations of Dickinson’s poems and, in some cases, deliberately meddled with the manuscripts she left behind. While there are “definitive editions,” there’s no way to know for sure how the poet would have wanted her work arranged and edited (short of holding a séance, that is).
The hands-on involvement of editors began just after Dickinson died, when her sister Lavinia found a box among her older sister’s effects that held more than a thousand poems. Lavinia asked Mabel Loomis Todd (that Mabel) to transcribe them for publication.
Todd then worked with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, one of Dickinson’s main literary correspondents, to create a book of 115 poems. In his introduction to The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, editor Thomas Johnson notes:
Colonel Higginson was apprehensive about the willingness of the public to accept the poems as they stood. Therefore in preparing copy for the printer he undertook to smooth rhymes, regularize the meter, delete provincialisms, and substitute ‘sensible’ metaphors.
This first volume was a hit in 1890. More books followed, with more poems. In 1914, Martha Dickinson Bianchi published The Single Hound, the first of six volumes she edited of her aunt’s work. Bianchi returned some of the original rhyme schemes and wording, and removed the earlier titles that had been imposed.
Later editors made their own efforts to be true to Dickinson’s intent. By the time of Johnson’s “complete” reader’s edition in 1960, he’d arranged the poems in rough chronological order and “silently corrected obvious misspelling,” he says, but retained Dickinson’s original punctuation and capitalization. Franklin’s 1999 edition takes it a step farther, reinstating misspellings like “Ancle” (for “Ankle”) or “opon” for “upon.”
Yet, early edits that altered Dickinson’s meaning have persisted in many collections. I first encountered her work as a young teen in the 1961 Treasury of the World’s Best Loved Poems, a gift from my father. The old-fashioned Treasury includes this outdated version of one favorite:
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.
Compare this with Franklin’s version of number 800, now considered definitive:
I never saw a Moor.
I never saw the Sea -
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be -
I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven -
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given -
The “Chartless” title of the early version skews its sense, especially given that “chart” replaced “Checks.” Dickinson’s use of “Billow” rather than wave is certainly brilliant.
Nonetheless, I loved that poem, so much so that I later used it in a needlework sampler for my mother. I’m not fond of Franklin’s use of hyphens rather than dashes. And Legault’s version, particularly if viewed in sequence, has a sparky wit of its own:
God owes me a lot, but I know he’s good for it.
I believe in fairies. Though they only come out
during fairy season.
I have an errand to run: I have to go light myself on fire.
I have to find out about myself by myself.
Aren’t you tempted to read on—at least a bit?
Legault doesn't call himself Dickinson’s editor—this is “my attempt to rewrite her poems," he quips, "in ‘Standard English’”—but Todd and Higginson, far more earnestly, thought they were doing the same thing. Legault even quotes Franklin to emphasize the point: “There can be many manifestations of a literary work.”
Dickinson’s biographers have also interpreted the gaps in her life story—was she an incest survivor? a “psycho-genius”? a wannabe pop star?—through the lens of their own biases, as poet Amy Pence demonstrates. In her recent essay “Many White Dresses,” Pence celebrates the “seeking 'I'” of the artist in Dickinson’s work.
Ironically, though, it’s Legault’s prosaic and profane Emily who seems most human.
The Skel of Amherst
Any writing that passes through an editor’s or a critic’s or a reader’s hands is an adaptation, really. We editors, for example, chomp the best ideas and insights off an author's bones, then rearrange those bones.
We’re all creative cannibals, consuming what we love, ripping off the old skin to find the new. That zombie spirit is what’s brilliant about The Emily Dickinson Reader. It’s also why such a “slant” adaptation conjures my Emily—her intensity, her odd-duck words, her tactless honesty, her own writing and editing process—more vividly than a respectful scholarly compendium does. Of those poems locked away in a box, Legault writes:
After escaping their Pandoran chamber, Dickinson’s works emerged into the twentieth century like an apocalyptic army of angels made entirely of paper.
So they did, and that army is us. Emily Dickinson is our “Zombie Mother,” as Legault invokes her: an undead goth girl. Or my middle-aged contemporary, facing mortality yet lifted by a sardonic desire to dish with God. She’s forever herself, inside my head—and I can’t think of a better reason to keep translating and adapting and ripping off her words.
- The Emily Dickinson Reader: An English-to-English Translation of Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems by Paul Legault (McSweeney’s, 2012).
- The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, edited by R.W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999).
- “The World Is Not Acquainted With Us” (on the unauthenticated daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson and Kate Scott Turner) by M.R. Dakin, Amherst College Library, Archives and Special Collections.
- “Emily Dickinson's Letters to Sue Gilbert” by Lillian Faderman, The Massachusetts Review, Summer 1977.
- My Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe (North Atlantic Books, 1985).
- In the American Grain by William Carlos Williams. (New Directions, 1956).
- “The Posthumous Discovery of Dickinson’s Poems,” Emily Dickinson Museum website, Amherst, Massachusetts.
- The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (Little, Brown, 1960).
- The Single Hound: Poems of a Lifetime, edited and with an introduction by Martha Dickinson Bianchi (Little, Brown, 1914).
- A Treasury of the World’s Best Loved Poems (Avenel/Crown, 1961).
- “Many White Dresses: Emily Dickinson and Her Biographers” by Amy Pence, The Writer’s Chronicle, December 2012.
- Paul Legault’s website.
- Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dickinson, circa 1848, from the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection and Family Papers, Yale University Manuscripts and Archives Digital Images Database, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut; public domain
- Daguerreotype purported to show 30-year-old Emily Dickinson with her friend Kate Scott Turner, circa 1859; released to the public in September 2012 by Amherst College Archives and Special Collectionsand the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts
More Emily Dickinson: Two Translations
Each of these poems—numbers 466 and 1478—appears first as it does in Franklin's edition. It's followed in bold by Legault's translation.
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
I’m homeless. Anything can happen when you’re homeless!
One note from One Bird
Is better than a Million Word –
A scabbard has – but one sword
Martha Nichols is editor in chief of Talking Writing. Of her many favorites in The Emily Dickinson Reader, 1268 has special resonance: "The only thing bad writers are good for is spreading disease."
As a fellow sufferer of mood swings in New England, she's also partial to "The weather is terrible. Girl, you gotta dress that shit up" (1144).
"Too often, I’ve suppressed my creative fire. For too long, I’ve ridden my anger like a beautiful tiger, running, running—on the attack, until I panic and swerve in the other direction, locking away all that glorious strength." — "Wrath: The Tiger Inside"