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The Luminescence of All Things Emily Paperback – March 1, 2009
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Such a cold light, such luminescence, may seem an odd thing to associate with Emily Dickinson, who asked "Dare you see a soul at the white heat?"
In The Luminescence of All Things Emily (Wind Publications, 2009), Elizabeth Oakes looks at Emily Dickinson's life but she looks at it slant, mostly from the perspective of the supporting players: Emily's sister Vinnie, her brother Austin who lived next door and supported the sisters after their father died. Austin's lover Mabel (who edited Emily's poems) and his wife Sue (for whom many of the poems were written). Tom Kelly and Maggie Maher, the hired help.
The Dickinson household was an odd mix of cold and heat. The distant parents, the two unmarried sisters, the sexually estranged Sue balanced over against the affair between Austin and Mabel, who sometimes trysted in the parlor of The Homestead, with, one has to assume, the collusion of Emily and Vinnie. The once-popular notion of Emily Dickinson living a cloistered sort of life vanishes with any kind of close reading of her poems. Oakes, by shining the light a little wider, illuminates just what white heat lurked "Beneath the Amherst Calm:"
Austin wrote to Mabel,
is for those not strong
enough to be laws
Oakes is obviously steeped in the Dickinson papers and she knows her stuff. She also knows how to find the poetry in the stuff. She writes a plain free verse style of poetry, no pyrotechnics of technique, but her way with an image is masterful, from the first poem, which defines agoraphobia as a snow globe:
There's a medical name for it now,
but a snow globe will do as well.
Tell us how you know so much
in your quiet world . . .
We shake and shake that snow
globe, and the snow just falls
to the antepenultimate, "Emily's Room"
Emily's niece tells this story.
Emily stood before her bedroom
door, mimicked turning a key,
and said, "Freedom, Mattie."
Going up the stairs was like leaving
the eye of a storm. . . .
In between, nuggets of delight, as in the ending lines of "Mabel in the 1920's: from a Photograph:"
Only the memory
of Austin's hands holds
her waist in now.
Or these lines from "Standing before a Copy of Emily's white Dress"
Sometimes words are enough. Sometimes
they rub against each other like a hired
man warming his hands before a fire or
the thighs of a woman gone plump.
There's a quatrain I wish I'd written.
One of the most arresting poems in the collection is the portrait of "Emily's Hands." Her hands "meant to . . . scrub clothes on a washboard, to shuck / corn in a cold barn" send my mind to Melverina Peppercorn and the other tough farm women of the 19the century. Of course, that was not the life Emily led, but still
. . . the pens they used in those
days must have looked
so small in Emily's hands
How that stands our mental picture of Emily on its head.
The cover is one of the most beautiful and artistic I have ever encountered. These poems will be exciting to those who know and love our Emily, and to those who have yet to discover her infinite variety. These latter will be intrigued enough to hasten to the nearest library or bookstore to read more of her life and her poetry.
Oakes has captured the enigmatic nature of E.D., starting with the first poem, Agoraphobia. "There's a medical name for it now," she says, and the metaphor of thickly falling snow obscuring our view works well.
I love the homey images (E.D. had "big hands, working hands") that bring her down to earth and make her human. Oakes enters her world and empathizes in a way I have seldom seen happen, and I've been teaching literature (mostly poetry) and creative writing (mostly poetry) on the university level for a very long time. Empathy is essential for good poetry.
See if you don't feel "a tighter breathing" when you read Oakes's words concerning E.D. in the act of writing:
"slowing her breathing,
almost stopping it, even,
as other women had to do
lacing their corsets."
That last line illustrates Oakes's descriptive skill and the appropriateness of her word choice, the lacing of the corset a "breath-taking" part of every nineteenth-century woman's life. The phrase also describes the way I have always felt when reading the poetry of E.D.
E.D.'s extreme sensitivity is recorded in the words of her sister Vinnie, how they both had lived without touch (their parents distant) so that "Even the cats were / too electric for her. Some / armor the rest of us have / was missing, more so as / years went by." Beautifully done! And so much more! In the back, references to the poems, copious notes that tell us all we need to know. Thank you for these poem, Elizabeth Oakes. I invite the whole world to enjoy!