TOWARD A POETRY THAT MATTERS:
EMILY DICKINSON AS ACTIVIST/ACTIVATOR
by Frances Payne Adler
Page 2To begin, Dickinson's legacy to me was not solely her poems. It was the method she passed down of developing her voice, of retrieving what Carol Gilligan is now calling, "the voice gone underground." Now, I'm not talking some mythic woman in white here. I'm talking flesh and blood sister-woman locked out of a system she didn't have a voice in designing. I can look at Dickinson's white dress floating in the closet in the upstairs bedroom on Amherst's Main Street, and make much of the romantic goddess writer from the nineteenth century. Or I can thank the, alas unnamed, graduate student I heard about when I visited Dickinson's room, who had culled years and years of records at the local Amherst pharmacy to find a standing prescription for one Emily Dickinson. It was for skin balm, along with the written advice of her physician to wear white muslin. Dickinson had sensitive skin and was allergic to fabric dyes. This was no mythic goddess clothed in white, this was a woman with a skin problem, knowing what she needed and taking care of her health.
Look, if I were a painter, I would paint the vision I carry of Emily Dickinson in my head--sitting in her room at her eighteen-inch cherrywood desk--in white--with her skin rash, writing her poems with the door shut, telling her truth and telling it slant--floating Magritte-like--like bread floating in the sky. She gave me her legacy: say no to a world that doesn't include you, that you didn't participate in designing, that doesn't value you, that denies your voice. And yes to being bold, developing your voice, empowering yourself, and creating a world in which difference is richness.
I'd like to take you along the path I experienced Dickinson traveling from silence to voice. Her roadmap had six identifiable turning points:
And years after that, reading Adrienne Rich's story about Dickinson: "Her niece Martha told of visiting her in her corner bedroom on the second floor at 280 Main Street, Amherst, and of how Emily Dickinson made as if to lock the door with an imaginary key, turned, and said: 'Matty, here's freedom'" ("Vesuvius at Home," On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, Norton 1979). The image of her shutting her door, and more than a hundred years later, I'm shutting my door. Dickinson--from a time that wasn't mine, from a class that wasn't mine, from a religion that wasn't mine--gave me, in the years I've spent reading and studying her with the help of such feminist critics as Rich, Ostriker, Juhasz, Gubar, Gilbert, Gilligan, Walker--Dickinson gave me the roadmap to voice.
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Last updated on March 10, 2008