Emily Dickinson: post-9/11 poet?

I began to consider this question after returning to Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, her kaleidoscopic, deeply researched, brilliantly written 1985 tour-de-force, which has been reissued with a new introduction by Eliot Weinberger.

Weinberger calls My Emily Dickinson a “classic” of “avant-gardist criticism,” and he invokes a lineage of poets’ criticism extending from William Carlos Williams (In the American Grain) to Charles Olson (Call Me Ishmael) to “Susan Howe herself, the most Americanist of American poets.”

Howe’s book is simultaneously a dazzling exploration of Dickinson’s power and an anatomy of the American cultural imaginary. “The vivid rhetoric of terror,” Howe writes, “was a first step in the slow process of American Democracy.” This rhetoric of terror—fueled by a double legacy of Calvinist predestinarianism and violent frontier experience—animates some of Dickinson’s best work.

Maybe alongside Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” much circulated in the weeks after September 11th, we might do equally well to return to a homegrown poet of terror, abjection, and difficulty:

What Terror would enthrall the Street
Could Countenance disclose

The Subterranean Freight
The Cellars of the Soul—
    (poem #1225)

Dust is the only Secret—
Death, the only One
You cannot find out all about
In his “native town”

One Anguish—in a Crowd—
A Minor thing—it sounds—
And yet, unto the single Doe
Attempted of the Hounds

’Tis Terror as consummate
As Legions of Alarm
Did leap . . .

Terror as perspectival experience. A “War on Terror” necessarily lodges itself within. Duct Tape. Code Red. Enriched Uranium. We are called to feel a general, perhaps fraudulent, fright, an ecstasy of alertness:

It sets the Fright at liberty—
And Terror’s free—
Gay, Ghastly, Holiday!

A focal point of Howe’s book is an extended examination of “My Life had Stood—A Loaded Gun—,” a poem which, after Howe’s exhaustive, inventive scrutiny, you will hear as internalizing a vast poetic tradition as well as a profound consciousness of historical trauma. “This is a frontier poem,” Howe asserts. Dickinson becomes both pioneer and weapon, maker and instrument.

Howe writes: “‘My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—’ explores the ambiguous terrain of dream, between power and execution, sensuality and sadism—here the poet would tread and draw blood. Trigger-happy with false meaning her poem is an ambiguity of progress, a descant on dissembling.”

To foe of His—I’m deadly foe—
None stir the second time—

How to reply to a shot? With a shot?

Howe gives us a Dickinson passionately reading, hearing, and counterhearing. She undertakes for Dickinson what she calls an “archaeology.” In a series of bravura readings, Howe evokes a complex heritage of captivity narratives, frontier experience, King Philip’s War (1675-76), the ideas of Puritan ministers Cotton and Increase Mather, and antinomian dissidence alongside Dickinson’s intense engagement with Shakespeare, Browning, George Eliot, the Brontës.

It is striking that in Susan Faludi’s recent book, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, she invokes a similar inheritance or template—a “phylogeny,” in her metaphor. Captivity narratives, frontier tropes, Calvinist fear and trembling, the annihilating violence of wars against the Indians—these inform Faludi’s analysis of our current cultural horizon just as they inform Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. Mary Rowlandson’s best-selling seventeenth-century captivity narrative, Hannah Dustin’s 1697 captivity and violent self-organized escape, the legend of Daniel Boone: for Faludi—as for Howe—these become crucial sites for exploring the ambiguities of American (self-)mythologizing. Thus Faludi analyzes the dynamics of “Saving Jessica Lynch.” Better to have a story about straight-up masculine rescue, about imperiled and possibly raped damsels stage-liberated for cameras than a messy account of injured soldiers, both male and female, cared for by Iraqi doctors. Captivity narratives—whether from Puritan writers or broadcast on TV—supposedly reauthorize patriarchal authority (God’s, the husband’s, the American army’s) in their accounts of trial and deliverance. Yet in Faludi’s telling, these stories also reveal the profound anxiety provoked by the specter of male failure and defenselessness, of women with agency, of women themselves willing to use violence (Hannah Dustin slew her Indian captors and, after escaping, returned to scalp them).

In Faludi’s book, King Philip’s War is only one episode in a long history of America’s terror-fixation, a dread of and longing for destruction. The witchcraft trials are another such episode. Dickinson:

What Terror would enthrall the Street
Could Countenance disclose

The Subterranean Freight
The Cellars of the Soul—

Sinners in the hands of an angry god. Apostate communities subjected to trials and tribulations. “We have insulted God at the highest levels of our government. And, then we say ‘why does this happen?’ It is happening because God Almighty is lifting his protection from us” (Pat Robertson). Or, and: Blowback. Boomerang. Why do they hate us? Unintended consequences. Unknown unknowns.

Every country has its origin myths, even if its myth is that is has no origin. A people under attack will ramp up its myth-making and myth-preserving energies. So it was during King Philip’s War in the late seventeenth century, and so it has been these past several years, as Faludi argues throughout “The Terror Dream.”

The Truth, is Bald, and Cold—

One thinks of the failure of representation since 9/11, the proliferation of novels, the media glut, the surfeit of images that somehow slide too easily into a banal repertoire, commodified shock. Here Dickinson’s ceaseless instinct for negation, distinction, refinement, annihilation, seems wholly relevant, when things are

most like Chaos—Stopless—cool—
Without a Chance, or Spar—
Or even a Report of Land—
To justify—Despair.

Her lines can seem uncannily, New Englandly, to anticipate some of the more controversial responses to 9/11. For example, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s infamous (and, when read in full, complex) meditation on the destruction of that day as infernal art, aesthetic cataclysm:

’Tis so appalling—it exhilarates—
So over Horror, it half Captivates—

Or Susan Sontag’s dissenting remarks published in The New Yorker, Sept. 24, 2001—

The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed super-power, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?

—remarks that launched—as Faludi reminds us—an ecstasy of righteous denunciation. Per Dickinson:

Assent—and you are sane—
Demur—you’re straightaway dangerous—
And handled with a Chain—

So, too, the politics of memorializing Ground Zero might be chastened by Dickinson’s astringency:

After a hundred years
Nobody knows the Place
Agony enacted there
Motionless as Peace

It is perhaps tiresome to return to these episodes, this ritualized, reified, inane diction of outrage and stasis, which perhaps Barack Obama’s change-machine will fully challenge. One can hope.

But one can also think. And this is what Dickinson arouses us to do, and what Howe on Dickinson challenges us to do: “Is Awe Nature; and destruction the beginning of every Foundation? Do words flee their meaning? Define definition.”

Sometime late in 2001 or early in 2002, I was in New York City and heard Susan Howe give a talk at The Drawing Center in SoHo (I think). There she spoke about flags, about Whitman’s pennant, about Melville’s, about her memories of being prohibited access to university libraries, about “official” exhibits of history (e.g., at Harvard’s Widener Library) versus rigorous, dialectical accounts. On that evening, and long after, and still at times, this most Americanist of American poets was the only one, it seemed, who had anything to say worth listening to. “Forcing, abbreviating, pushing, padding, subtracting, riddling, interrogating, re-writing, she pulled text from text.” Howe on Dickinson, applicable to Howe herself.

In My Emily Dickinson, Howe reports the following: “In her letter to Mabel Todd, the fifty-five year old Emily Dickinson quoted Emerson and signed herself ‘America.’”

In that letter of summer, 1885, Dickinson wrote:

‘Sweet Land of Liberty’ is a superfluous Carol till it concern ourselves—then it outrealms the Birds.
I saw the American Flag last Night in the shutting West, and I felt for every Exile.

I like to think of Emily Dickinson being read in other countries. Is she so provincial that she will not travel? Her metaphysic is mobile; “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—.” She seems ever primed for the strange, possibly annihilating encounter. She presents herself, mock-ingenuously, as transmitting

The simple News that Nature told—
With tender Majesty

Her message is committed
To Hands I cannot see—
For love of Her—Sweet—countrymen—
Judge tenderly—of Me

I used to think those lines encoded a double appeal: that they asked us, her “Sweet—countrymen” and –women, to judge tenderly of Dickinson, because of our regard for “Her,” that is, Nature; and/or that they asked us, future readers, countrymen or not, to judge Emily Dickinson tenderly “for love” of her sweet surrounding contemporaries. These lines call for a kind of compassion, a historical humility: Be kind to me, countrymen, and take me as one who aspired to transmit the message of “Nature.” Yet also: Be kind not only to me, but to us, to those who lived before.

These lines read to me now as an additional appeal, another kind of leap into an unknown futurity. Emily Dickinson’s messages are committed to hands I cannot see, hands elsewhere on this earth, or in the future; whether those unknown people to whom her message might be committed will judge her by her countrymen, whether if they do so they will be inclined thereby to judge “tenderly” of her, I cannot say. Some—both our countrymen, and those devoted to destroying our countrymen—will continue to do as George Oppen wrote in “Of Being Numerous”:

They carry nativeness
To a conclusion
In suicide.

But “This World is not Conclusion” (#501). We are not done with Dickinson, nor she with us. “A something overtakes the mind—we do not hear it coming,” Dickinson wrote. Yet, once it has come, the mind recovers or collapses or deforms, meeting what has come and what may yet come in better or worse ways. Faludi challenges us “to imagine a national identity grounded not on virile illusion but on the talents and vitality of all of us equally, men and women both.” Dickinson proposes a Nation within—

One—is the Population—
Numerous enough—
This ecstatic Nation
Seek—it is yourself.

—and imagines the irrepressible, insurgent heart outflanking the police:

The mob within the heart
Police cannot suppress
The riot given at the first
Is authorized as peace

Perhaps it is merely a higher, typically American narcissism to see in the events of 9/11 and their aftermath “opportunities,” as Faludi puts it, “to look at ourselves anew.” Yet Dickinson’s question hangs suspended, a perpetual address: “How is it Hearts, with Thee?”