Excerpt from My Emily Dickenson

April 2, 2009

posted by Caroline Picard

What follows is an excerpt from a book by Susan Howe entitled, “My Emily Dickinson.” In it, Howechews on Dickinson’s words with such openness as to create an accessible dialogue around the poems themselves. Howe’s book opens with this crazy quote by William Carlos Williams, “It is the women above all–there never have been woman, save pioneer Katies; not one in flower save some moonflower Poe that may have seen, or an unripe child. Poets? Where? They are the test. But a true woman in flower, never. Emily Dickinson, starving of passion in her father’s garden, is the very nearest we have ever been–starving. / Never a woman: never a poet. That’s an axiom. Never a poet saw sun here.” (from “In the American Grain'”)What then follows is 138 pages of rumination on the poetess herself.

While I can’t help be curious about the context of Williams’ quote, I think the endeavor of answering to that in a direct and exploratory way is brilliant. And of course, I muddle through poetry with such awkwardness that I appreciate any and all conversations about it.


Identity & Memory

by Susan Howe

excerpt from My Emily Dickenson,

pub. 1985 by New Diections Books

That sacred Closet when you sweep–

Entitled “Memory” —

Select a reverential Broom–

And do it silently.

‘Twill be a Labor of surprise–

Besides Identity

Of other Interlocutors

A probability–

August the Dust of that Domain —

Unchallenged–let it lie–

You cannot supersede itself

But it can silence you–


Is this a poem about Memory or is it about the identity of an American woman writing English poetry? So many of Dickenson’s poems are about the process of writing, yet even David Porter, one of her most thoughtful critical interpreters, faults her for being without and “ars poetica.” Identity and memory are crucial for anyone writing poetry. For women the field is still dauntingtly empty. How do I, choosing messages from the code of others in order to participate in the universal theme of Language, pull SHE from all the myriad symbols and sightings of HE. Emily Dickenson constantly asked this question in her poems.

In lands I never saw–they say

Immortal Alps look down–

Whose Bonnets touch the firmament–

Whose Sandals touch the town–

Meek at whose everlasting feet

A Myriad Daisy play —

Which, Sir, Are you and which am I

Upon an August day?


Is this a poem about writing a poem or cosmic speculation? Is the space of time constantly changing?

Staking our entire Possession

On a Hair’s result–

Then–Seesaing–cooly–on it–

Trying if it split–

(971, v.4)

Spenser made Mutability a woman. Staking and seesawing. To balance on a precipice of falling into foolishness was often the danger of opening your mouth to speak if you were an intellectually ambitious person with a femail education. Emily Dickenson chose to stay at home when Ralph Waldo Emerson visited her brother’s house next doow. One unchosen American woman alone at home and choosing. American authors reverently swept the dust of England’s intellecutal doan. meek at whose feet did this myriad American Daisy play? August sun above, below the searing heat of a New England summer. “Salad days when I was green in judgement…”silent judgement of the august past might callenge you if you challenged it. Might and might…wandering throughzones of tropes, World filtered through books–And I and Silence some strange race–Wrecked solitary here–I, CODE and SHELTER might say one thing to mean another. An American woman with Promethean ambition might know better than anyone how to let the august traces (domain of dust) lie.


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