That single tiny portrait remaining. A heap of inscrutable letters and a white dress. The envelopes already torn. What’s left has been stitched together, piece by piece. Now the needlework is all we can see.
Long years apart—
can make no breach
a second cannot fill…
Recent months have seen a (re)emergence of Emily Dickinson’s work, and the mythology surrounding her, in contemporary women’s writing. But why are writers and scholars alike so intrigued by these fragments and the elaborate narratives woven around them?
Jen Bervin describes Dickinson’s poems as small, but quickly qualifies this statement: When we say small, we often mean less. When Dickinson says small, she means fabric, Atoms, the North Star.
I find myself fascinated by Bervin’s use of the North Star as a metaphor for Dickinson’s work. In much the same way that we try unsuccessfully to navigate, and inevitably fail to gain mastery over the landscape, Dickinson’s poems have led writers all over the world, taking them from Amherst to the Far East, yet her work remains as enigmatic as it was before.
The ghost unfastens her white gloves. She climbs the staircase, then disappears into a darkened room.
I dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Prose—
More numerous of Windows—
Superior—for Doors —
Several recent books by women eschew the all-too-common desire to gain mastery over Dickinson’s work, to uncover the truth by counting syllables, tracking letters, and examining postmarks.
Rebecca Hazelton’s Vow and Fair Copy imagine the act of reading Dickinson’s work not as an attempt to excavate the truth, or to finally uncover a single definitive meaning, but rather, these poems envision Dickinson’s fragmentary verse as an exercise in creative reading.
Emily Dickinson’s work becomes not a source of truth or insight, but rather, a point of entry to questions about culture, narrative, the vast, unwieldy literary tradition we have inherited. The relationship is no longer that of a scholar studying a great master, but rather, it is a relationship between collaborators, who both participate equally in the process of creating meaning.
Lest there be confusion, understand: only
envy of your tabula rasa
made me doubt
your sincerity, not your quiet….
The poems in Rebecca Hazelton’s Fair Copy situate Dickinson’s work in new syntactic, thematic, and formal contexts. Presented as a series of acrostics, which invoke the first line of every twenty-ninth poem in The Complete Works of Emily Dickinson, Hazelton’s work skillfully uses these formal constraints to argue for Dickinson’s contemporary relevance. For Hazelton, it’s not just the subject matter of her predecessor’s poems that resonate with contemporary culture. What’s most compelling about the poems in Fair Copy is the way that Hazelton situates Dickinson’s work within a contemporary literary landscape populated by formal experiments, appropriation, and constraint-based writing. Through her subtle stylistic choices, Hazelton presents neither Dickinson’s formalism nor contemporary avant-garde practices in isolation, but rather, offers a poetics of integration.
What’s fascinating about Hazelton’s collection is the way she utilizes constraints to personalize the tradition she’s inherited. For example, she writes in a section called “Notes on Process,” “On my twenty-ninth birthday, I began [this] formal experiment with Emily Dickinson.” I’m intrigued by Hazelton’s use of her own lived experience as a source of inspiration for the form her experiment would take. With that in mind, one might think of her “formal experiment” as more of a collaboration, one that takes place across time and history, and allows Hazelton’s voice to inhabit Dickinson’s poems. Thus Fair Copy presents readers with a graceful matching of tradition and modernity, but also form and content. In much the same way that these acrostics wed contemporary experimental writing and Dickinson’s earlier work, they situate Dickinson’s language alongside “U-turns,” “cellophane,” and an “old LP.” Consider this passage,
Then we set up a sort of camp beneath the sea,
hung shells stuffed with phosphorus plankton,
emitting a cool green light—by which to read.
Nothing from the radio, and we stopped listening
eventually, finding it was easier to forget
a world above….
What’s interesting about this poem is Hazelton’s presentation of thoroughly modern imagery (which includes phosphorus plankton and a broken radio) with Dickinsonian syntax. For me, these syntactical shifts come through in such phrases as “by which to read,” which reads in perfect iambic rhythm. I’m fascinated by Hazelton’s beautifully crafted and skillful efforts to situate Dickinson’s work in new contexts. The fact that this rhythmic iambic phrase is buried in colloquial, and very lyrical language, suggests that Dickinson’s voice still haunts much of contemporary poetry. By presenting this iambic line within the context of an acrostic, Hazelton also suggests the relevance of traditional forms to emerging, experimental, and invented forms. I find Hazelton’s use of subtle stylistic choices to convey ambitious arguments about literary tradition to be as artfully executed as they are engaging.
Along these lines, Hazelton places Dickinson’s words, syntax, and formal choices in new thematic contexts, situating her predecessor’s prescient treatment of gender and femininity in a contemporary cultural landscape. And just as the poems are constrained by the words Hazelton has inherited, so too she reveals contemporary ideas about gender as being circumscribed by history. It is this use of constraint based writing to argue for (and with) Dickinson-as-feminist that I find especially compelling. A contemporary experimental form becomes a way of redirecting the focus of scholarly attention, offering insight about histories and feminisms that have been overlooked. I find Hazelton’s use of constraint to make an argument that proves archival in nature to be altogether refreshing, as usually such practices are used as a means to create distance from inherited forms and texts. Hazelton writes in “[A darting fear—a pomp—a tear],”
There I am, still. It’s the body above that’s a lie.
Eating, defecating, allowing fear to lap up
all the air in the room. I hate how it wears my face
remembering the house where we were to live.
For me, the interesting thing about this passage is the way that Hazelton again pairs Dickinsonian syntax and the same estrangement from the physical body that we see in her bride poems with a thoroughly contemporary depiction of romance. She situates a discussion of loneliness in this modern relationship (which includes premarital sex and a silent cell phone) alongside Dickinson’s rhythmic patterns and her own words, calling into question the commonly accepted idea of marriage as a source of fulfillment. I admire Hazelton’s use of formal constraints to mirror the speaker’s confinement in her this relationship, while at the same time modernizing and contemporizing the nature of this critique. In Hazelton’s work, Dickinson’s work is no longer the bearer of transcendental truths, but rather, a confidante, a collaborator.
They were not traditionalists.
They could bear the innovations
In Vow, Rebecca Hazelton explores the many ways a marriage can be haunted. Presented as an extended sequence of linked lyric pieces, the poems in Vow situate their newly married speaker in a psychic landscape filled with the artifacts of courtships—which include “jukebox jewels,” “small fires” and “a torrent of women.” One might easily read this project as an extension of Dickinson’s bride poems, which frequently interrogate received ideas about romantic love: A Wife—at daybreak I shall be—/Sunrise—Hast thou a Flag for me?
As Hazelton’s book unfolds, recollections of friends, ex-husbands, ex-lovers, and many others serve as a point of entry to larger questions about the nature of romantic relationships: Is courtship merely the creation of narrative? As we create these narratives, are we complicit in reproducing deeply problematic assumptions about gender, femininity, and beauty? How can we expand what is possible within the representations of romantic love that we’ve inherited? As Hazelton teases out possible answers to these questions, she presents us with a graceful synthesis of fairy tales, popular culture, and domestic imagery, allowing these vastly different discourses to illuminate and complicate one another.
In many ways, Vow reads as a modernization, or an extension, of Dickinson’s original gesture, her efforts to show us that domestic life is not a separate sphere, but rather, a confluence of competing values, discourses, and desires. She writes,
What right have I—to be a Bride—
So late a Dowerless Girl—
Nowhere to hide my dazzled Face—
No one to teach me that new Grace—
Nor introduce—my Soul—
Marriage and domesticity do not appear as a separate sphere of influence, but rather, as an extension of the world of commerce. Brides appear as commodities, less desirable when “Dowerless,” and only the economically privileged may participate in this marketplace. Indeed, Dickinson strips away the elaborate cultural narratives that we create around marriage, seeking instead to interrogate its function as a financial and legal institution, which allow some to profit while disenfranchising others.
With that in mind, I’m intrigued by the way that Hazelton uses fairy tales as a point of entry to a discussion of these kinds of shared cultural narratives, particularly the way that they shape our expectations (and experience of) romantic relationships. Throughout the book, fairy tales serve as a locus where mythologies accumulate and eventually problematize one another. Indeed, Hazelton reveals the narratives surrounding love, romance, and courtship as being fraught with conflict, which is almost always housed within the individual subject. The speakers of these lush, lyrical poems seek fulfillment while questioning the paths that culture provides to such gratification, an ambitious social critique that is enacted skillfully on the level of the language itself. Consider “Book of Absence,”
Darling, the forest is disappearing. Not the
one you remember, with the little girl and
her basket and the wolf astride, but the one
that surrounded your small house as a child
and was smaller than you realized: the forest
you planned to run into and never out of if
someone didn’t understand you, and soon.
I’m fascinated by Hazelton’s use of fairy tales to question shared histories and values. In much the same way that story shifts between familiar and unfamiliar narratives, the language of the poem itself begins with an intimate form of address (“Darling”) and ends in introspection and isolation. Through both form and content, Hazelton prompts us to ask whether these outdated myths of romance, relationships, and connection lead us to loneliness.
Much like her work in Fair Copy, Hazelton’s Vow interrogates the mythologies surrounding romance, femininity, and even Emily Dickinson, asking us to consider the ways these shared cultural narratives permutate and proliferate over time. With that in mind, Hazelton’s presentation of a mysterious female figure named “Elise” is especially intriguing. She appears throughout the collection in wildly different contexts—which range from Marie Antoinette’s dressing table to the Japan! Culture + Hyperculture Festival—serving as an embodiment of femininity. What’s most interesting about this character is the way that feminine values she embodies constantly metamorphose. Early in the collection, she appears with her “lips parted, Marilyning like the rest of them,” evoking a fairly traditional definition of beauty, one shaped by Hollywood, glossy magazines, and mass culture (8). Yet as the book unfolds, Elise appears in much more contemporary (and often unexpected) contexts, suggesting the fluidity of these ideas about gender that circulate within culture. In other words, the master narratives surrounding romantic love, and the role that women are expected to play in this pre-constructed storyline, are subject to constant revision. Hazelton writes, for example, in “Revision: Elise,”
Or maybe you are covered in gold leaf
your bottom shining like a good idea,
because we breathe
through the skin, or no,
we live because our skin
might one day be accessed
by a spy’s methodical hand.
Here Hazelton parodies the ongoing ornamentation of the female form, finding humor in a woman “covered in gold leaf” who “shines like a good idea.” What’s most interesting about this passage, though, is the problem that Hazelton presents to the reader. The adornment of this particular woman may easily be stripped away, but what inevitably remains is the desire to be glimpsed, perceived, and finally understood, an experience, which, for Hazelton, is an experience that is as embodied as it is emotional, spiritual, and intellectual. In other words, beauty will always play some role in relationships, but the way we define it may be transformed in much the same way that the speaker’s relationship to her own “skin” shifts throughout the poem. I’m fascinated by the way that Hazelton suggests both the allure and the impossibility of a fixed solution to the problem of female beauty. The book is filled with poems like this one, in which Hazelton, like Dicksinon herself, inhabits and interrogates these received ideas about femininity, suggesting that it is this act of questioning that expands what is possible within relationships and within the individual consciousness.