Welcome to another installment to our year-long program of inquiry (that’s been on hiatus): 40×40@40.
As part of looking back and mapping what the amazing contributions to experimental literature in the past forty years, we asked 40 writers to contribute one short text each celebrating—describing, anatomizing, remembering an encounter with, meditating on, shouting out to—a single book published by a small press between 1974 and 2014.
The 40×40@40 list will, hopefully, sketch a 40-part haphazard history of independent publishing and ardent reading across these four decades.
Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1985.
In August of 1985, my partner Clay and I drove across country, towing a homemade trailer, from New Hampshire to San Francisco so I could go to graduate school in English and Creative Writing at San Francisco State. There I would take classes with Bob Glück, Kathleen Fraser, Peter Weltner, and others. That same year, as of yet unbeknownst to me, North Atlantic Books would publish Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. While studying poetry with Charles Simic at the University of New Hampshire, I’m sure we read a Dickinson poem or two. However, it was through Kathleen Fraser’s classes, the groundbreaking journal HOW(ever), and Susan Howe (whose work Fraser introduced her students to) that I came to Dickinson anew. Fraser encouraged her students to attend the Emily Dickinson/H.D. Dual Centennial Colloquium at San Jose State in October of 1986 where Howe was presenting her revolutionary, erudite and activist scholarship on Dickinson’s work and the history of its presentation and violation by male editors. I was intimidated and awe-struck by the wiry energy and intellectual and imaginative force of Howe—in person and on the page.
My Emily Dickinson begins with an epigraph from William Carlos Williams: “Never a woman: never a poet. That’s an axiom. Never a poet saw sun here.” While Howe informs us she loves In the American Grain, she makes clear her book is “a contradiction of its epigraph.”
Rarely has scholarship about literature become poetry as it does in Howe’s book:
Through a forest of mystic meaning, Religion hunts for Poetry’s freedom, while Poetry roams Divinity’s sovereign source (55).
The lure-dark Tower, blind as the fool’s heart was a squat mirage too late. At the edge of unknown, the sacred inaccessible unseen-Lyric “I” is both guard and hunter. We and We prey on each other. Absence is the admired presence of each poem. Death roams the division—World’s november (70).
Conversion is a sort of Death, a falling into Love’s powerful attraction. Power is pitiless once you have put it on. The poetry is an intermediary hunting form beyond form, truth beyond theme through woods of words tangled and tremendous. Who owns the woods? Freedom to roam poetically means freedom to hunt (79-80).
From first word to the last MY Life my art my power DIEs into rhymed order. Rhyme and meaning are one, death completes my life and makes it mine. Master is still sleeping, Gun still soliloquizing (129).
My Emily Dickinson is fueled by Howe’s passions for reading, scholarship’s thick description, poetry’s sonic and linguistic densities. Howe reads Dickinson’s radical and enigmatic writing by travelling with George Eliot, Emerson, Browning, Tennyson, Spencer, Jonathan Edwards, Mary Rowlandson, Emily Brontë, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Shakespeare, numerous others, and Dickinson herself.
When I reread Howe’s book, I am still stunned by her accomplishment, caught again in the thicket of words, reading’s resonances. It is ironic I needed to cross the country to discover the complexities of two New England women writing (through reading) on the edge of probability. Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson provides a model for what an activist and poet’s scholarship might imagine and make possible.
Poetry is the great stimulation of life. Poetry leads past possession of self to transfiguration beyond gender. Poetry is redemption from pessimism. Poetry is affirmation in negation, ammunition in the yellow eye of a gun that an allegorical pilgrim will shoot straight into the quiet of Night’s frame. Childe Roland at the moment of sinking down with the sun, like Phaeton in a ball of flame, sees his visionary precursor peers ringed round him waiting
To Edward (Ned) Dickinson mid-may 1880
Phoebus– “I’ll take the Reigns.”
(L642) (Howe 138).