in Emily Dickinson's Fascicle 28
Emily Dickinson is often seen as a poet of death but almost never as a poet of birth. Her concern with death has been considered relentless and obsessive in its attempt to register experience after the grave, but her concern with gestation has gone largely unnoticed. More specifically, I think that Dickinson is more than a great poet of death--she is a poet of language after death--and commensurately, she is a poet of language before birth. Of course both are impossible, but she strains toward them, trains herself at the cleft between the signifier and the void. That cleft brackets existence, as it brackets a normative ontology. The other sides, after-death and before-birth, find the voids where signification breaks up and disintegrates. Dickinson plays on those nether sides. The site of death has been visited by various critics; the side of birth will concern us here, the realm of gestation. How does the state before birth figure in Dickinson's poetry and how can she say it; indeed, how sayable is it?
Representing motherhood is a high-stakes endeavor for a female poet. For a nineteenth-century female poet, the taboos involved in the writing of a motherhood that was anything but replete, fulfilling, and inevitable--not to mention post-delivery--are formidable. To enter into representation of pre-delivery motherhood, or a gestation with any but the most sentimental of images, defies the boundaries of Victorian decorum and prudence. Further, to represent a gestation that ended before full term is so risque as to be nearly unthought of. Even in the twentieth century, the representation of gestation and the unborn is relatively rare in canonized poetry.
If we take into account French language theorists such as Julia Kristeva, the representation of gestation by women is considered, in fact, the territory of male writers. Kristeva claims that the jouissance of gestation can only be experienced but not told by mothers; i.e., women can be but not have the rapture of gestation. Given the historical obstacles, Dickinson's courage in taking on such an endeavor is remarkable. Given the theoretical problems, her position as a writer is formidable. We have come to expect daring from Emily Dickinson in all her poetic endeavors, but the audacity of this project is staggering.
She not only wrote of gestation, she wrote of gestation not carried to full term. The pregnancies in her poems may have resulted in miscarriage or abortion. It is important to stress that the representation of gestation in no way implies that the poet herself necessarily experienced gestation. Such a claim would be tantamount to asserting that because Dickinson wrote of death that she died before the writing of each such poem, or that because she wrote of the sea that it is imperative she travelled there. One of the primary conditions of poetry entails the exploration of imagined experience; hence, Dickinson could write about being a wife when she was never actually a wife, about being a boy when of course she never was, and so on. Whether she was ever pregnant does not concern her poetry. That she was aware of miscarriages and abortions, however, does.
That awareness is made manifestly clear when we turn to studies of nineteenth-century motherhood, pregnancy, and abortion which suggest that contraception and abortion were widely advertised and available in Dickinson's time. Janet Farrell Brodie in her recent Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America states that when she began her study she expected information on the topic to be sparse but "it quickly became apparent that in the second quarter of the nineteenth century information on American reproductive control [including abortion, given Brodie's definition of contraception] was neither all that rare nor all that tabooed" (ix). Kristen Luker, too, reports that "contrary to our assumptions about 'Victorian morality' the available evidence suggests that abortions were frequent" (18). Carl Degler also affirms "the widespread practice of abortion, especially after 1830" (227) Many papers, medical journals, and broadsides carried advertisements for products designed to regulate the "courses" or menses. Medicines such as rue, tansy, savin, cotton root and ergot were mentioned in conjunction with "'ladies' relief' or promises to 'cure irregularities'" (Brodie 5). While we may not recognize in these euphemisms offers of medicines to induce abortion, nineteenth-century women would have, states Brodie, who further asserts that each "contraceptive method had its own synonym, many of them an obscure and transitory argot" (5). So available was information on abortion that women could even read about it, in some cases, in church newspapers:
. . . newspaper advertisements for patent medicines designed to bring on 'suppressed menses' were common during the era; according to a number of sources, such advertisements appeared even in church newspapers. Discreet advertisements for 'clinics for ladies' where menstrual irregularities 'from whatever cause' could be treated (and where confidentiality and even private off-street entrances were carefully noted in the advertisement itself) were common. (Luker 18-19)Dickinson, increasingly appreciated and understood as a poet immersed in her culture rather than an ahistorical recluse, couldn't help but be aware of such medical issues. Dickinson may have been very well informed about the ambivalent emotions caused by a terminated pregnancy, as her sister-in-law and intimate friend, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, may have experienced one or several such pregnancies. According to Mabel Loomis Todd's journal, Ned, the Dickinsons' first child had been born five years after Sue and Austin married, and "only after Sue had 'caused three or four to be artificially removed' and had failed in repeated attempts to prevent his birth" (cited in Sewall I; 189). In fact, Loomis Todd attributed Ned's epilepsy to Sue's attempted abortion. In a later journal Loomis Todd again recorded that Sue "'had four [children] killed before birth'" (Sewall I; 189). Sewall responds to these journal entries with partial caution: "These revelations may all be factual; they may not be; they may be partly so" (I; 189).
Even if Sue never terminated a pregnancy, though, Dickinson would have been fully aware of the subject of miscarriages and abortions. In her poetry she would have thought to disguise this awareness, just as the advetisements for women's health (remedying "suppressed menses," for instance) were disguised. Dickinson chose a variety of guises or euphemisms for the idea of gestation, but one of her major ones drew, understandably, upon the natural world. Consider, for example, the following poem from fascicle 28:
How many Flowers fail in Wood--In this concise poem (#404) that has received little critical attention, the speaker asks two seemingly rhetorical questions: How many "fail" in "wood" and--I think a different question-- "How many cast a nameless pod?" The first question asks about the unborn, while the second asks about the mother. The questions target the emotional difficulty of the topic and the reality that there are no easy answers. The poem, upon first reading an exploration of relative values and human potential, carries loaded words in the last two lines: "Scarlet Freight" and "bear." When we encounter these words, the poem twists on its axis to accomodate new meaning. "Scarlet Freight" offers a brilliant euphemism for pregnancy, prompting connotations of blood and carrying. Equally admirable for its duplicity is the pun on "bear," here functioning both as a word of perception and parturition. Given that a nineteenth-century poet could not speak directly of miscarriage and abortion, could a more effective means of indirect speaking have been devised?
"How many Flowers fail in Wood--" appears tenth in the twenty-three poems of fascicle 28. Emily Dickinson uses the strange word, "pod," four times (poems 6, 8, 10, and 18) in the course of fascicle 28. She uses "pod" only nine times (ten times, including the plural instance, "pods") in her entire oeuvre, including once in the preceding fascicle, fascicle 27, in the opening poem. This fascicle 27 poem, "There's been a Death" (#389), occupies a significant place so as to alert us to the multiple usages of the word "pod" in fascicle 28. There are numerous reasons for reading Dickinson by the fascicle rather than by the poem, and identifying the importance of an image through the repetition of a word such as "pod" provides only one of them. In Choosing Not Choosing Sharon Cameron, one of the most eloquent exponents of reading the fascicles, asserts that in the Thomas Johnson edition, "the unit of sense is the individual poem," whereas in the R. W. Franklin manuscript books the unit of sense is the fascicle (15). My perspective on understanding Dickinson as a poet of gestation and the signifier is dependent upon the fascicle as a unit of sense. Fascicle 28 offers a forum for Dickinson's poems of signification that address the signifier by recourse to the image of gestation. Poems about prayer--the nature of the signifier in the public vs. the private realm--bookend the fascicle. "My period had come" opens the fascicle with the speaker attempting to locate a balance between signifier and signified, and "I prayed, at first, a little" concludes the fascicle with the speaker again attempting to locate that balance, but shifting to find a slightly different denouement. Within the fascicle we can see a marked alternation between poems of language and poems of gestation--not that the poems are so easily divided into singly determinate themes, nor that any one poem is "about" any one concern--but we can see that certain concerns are visited and revisited throughout the fascicle. Strangely, reading the fascicle offers a kind of containment of Dickinson, but a containment, it should be added quickly, that makes the unit all the more explodable. These oppositional tendencies pull at each other and circle back on each other in the manner, I think, that Cameron describes as "choosing not choosing." We might call it containing not containing, or even carrying not carrying, expecting not expecting.
If it seems anachronistic to speak about Emily Dickinson's fascicle 28 in Kristevan and Lacanian terms, still it is worthwhile to attempt to understand the dilemma faced by women writers who both must be and have in relation to symbolic language. It must have been especially frustrating for the woman writer to face the phallic term from the 1800s, when she didn't know exactly what paradigm was enacting such restraint upon the process of signification. Fascicle 28 offers a glimpse into that dilemma as we see the image of the pod operating as a kind of nineteenth-century chora. Surely Dickinson, of all poets, would have been interested in pushing language to its limits, not only on the side of death--after death--but also on the side of birth--before birth--too. The poem from fascicle 28 that we started with, "How many Flowers fail in Wood--," states the dilemma most succinctly: as the pod is formed by both the outer and inner components, not only is the inside of the pod nameless, so is the womb-like casing of the pod. Women write from a position of namelessness in the phallic culture: "How many Cast a nameless Pod/ Upon the nearest Breeze--/ Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight--/ It bear to Other Eyes--." Dickinson out-others the other in this poem. She understands the workings of the unconscious and how things can be borne differently for different people. Dickinson examines the namelessness of women in this poem, and she does it by suggesting the chora. She gets near it, where it's hard enough for the male poet to go but the female poet paradoxically cannot go because she is it. Dickinson is it and has it, to the extent that she can. Dickinson plays against the patronymic, against the Name of the Father that generates language. Iterations abound that we need the Name of the Father, the phallus as signifier, in order to enter the symbolic order. And perhaps we do. But if there were ever any beyond to the pahllus, any alternative to the father, any parasignifiance to the patronym, then Dickinson supplies it--or she gets awfully close. It's a project of recursion, to try, as Nicodemus did, to reenter the womb with language and to come back still speaking.
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