Sunday, November 29, 2009

A loaded gun

Of all American poets - Emerson, Whitman, Frost, Stevens, Auden, and all those who came after (Yes, teenaged girls, including Plath) - Emily Dickinson remains the greatest. Nobody else really comes close.

I first was attracted to the myth: recluse in white, etc. But then I started reading the poems. Pretty much half of the 1,700-plus poems are amazing! But the poem that really drives critics wild, that scholars cut their teeth on, that generations of folks interpret according to their time, is this one:

My life had stood - a loaded gun -
In corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
and carried me away -

And Now we roam in Sovreign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
Ane every time I speak for Him -
The mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the valley glow -
It is as if a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -

And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head -
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

To foe of His - I'm deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live -
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill
Without - the power to die -

A first reading goes: ah, the colorful yellow blast of a flint-lock, an echo off the mountains, a warrior-woman guarding her charge (content not to share his pillow), the irony of a man living longer than a rifle, simply because a man lives at all.

But there's a lot more going on here. And that's where the scholars start drooling. Is Dickinson talking about the "Vesuvian" power of art? The feminist yearning for equality? An embrace of violence caused by well-deserved rage?

Or is she just going, hey, sometimes a rifle is just a rifle, and I'm damn good at what I do! How, mister, does self-empowerment look from the barrel of a gun?

Don't know. But this poem is cool precisely because of its enigmatic brilliance.

Emily Dickinson was no weirdo-recluse. She chose a life that let her use her powers to the fullest. And we are so lucky that her younger sister, Lavinia, recognized her genius, and saved her poems.

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