FORESTS, TREES AND PURPLE COWS:
AN EMILY DICKINSON CONVERSION OF THE MIND
by Wendy Barker
Page 3I didn't discover Dickinson right away. It was after a couple of years in graduate school that I read Richard Sewall's biography on Dickinson. Those two corn-colored volumes led me to the letters, which I read straight through, and finally, all the poems in Johnson's one-volume edition. Quite simply, I haven't been the same since. It was, to quote the Amherst genius herself, a "Conversion of the Mind" (P 593). Shortly afterward, I met Sandra Gilbert, in the first "Madwoman in the Attic" course she taught at U.C. Davis, showed her some of my poems, and decided on the dissertation. It would be, of course, on Dickinson.
What I had begun to see was that this poet was writing very clearly about what I now realized had been the central conflict of my own life, a conflict so overwhelming that I had almostgotten lost, become invisible, gone under. What had happened, ever so subtly, was that from childhood the world had pushed the round pegs of my intellect, originality, creativity, and energy into the square holes of societal expectations for women. Had manipulated me into saying Yes to what Dickinson called "Life's little duties," like the "smaller bundles" in "Perhaps I asked too large - " (P 352) that the speaker complains "cram" her basket, the basket that she knows can hold "Firmaments."
As I began to work in earnest with Dickinson's poems, I began to realize how divinely sane, how blindingly courageous she must have been. I was convinced that she knew her genius, as Adrienne Rich has argued she did, and constructed her life so that she could say yes to her Art ("Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson," Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essay on Women Poets, eds. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1979). That's why she said "No" to everything else, to dressmakers, to church socials, Wordsworth's world of "getting and spending." Rather than "lay waste" her "means," she could concentrate her energies, choose her own "society," structure her life so that every detail, every gesture, every act, fed the Art. Much of the power of Dickinson's poetry stems from the brilliant manner by which the poet finds way (often metaphoric, as I argue in Lunacy of Light) to subvert the cultural roadblocks that would have kept her from poetry, from intellectual and creative "Possibility" (P 657). As her speaker says, "They" may have "shut [her] up in Prose" (P 613), but they couldn't stop her mind, her ability to "Abolish Captivity" as "easy as a Star."
But I knew from reading the poems and letters that it wasn't always easy. Just as I had grown up worrying about trying to be pretty, I had also grown up knowing it was essential (especially if one wasn't pretty) to be nice. I excelled at niceness. That I learned to do. In fact, in our family of three girls, of which one of my sisters was the smart one, and another the pretty one, I was the nice one. A good girl, helpful, nice to have around. But when I began to let the volcano pour forth its lava, began openly to write, all that niceness got in the way. I had to strip away layers of niceness in order to write, and in the stripping down, found that much of what lay underneath all that pleasantness and cooperativeness and sunshiny-ness was scary as a real volcano. And what I found in Dickinson's poems were many of the same fears I had. If you uttered, regularly and firmly, the "wildest word in the English language," said "No" in blood- colored lava to half the world who would have you serving them dessert and nodding in approval at the boring, tedious observations, then did that mean you were a bad girl? Dickinson's goblins and haunted chambers, her rats and snakes, all testify to her own fear that she might be a devil girl, an evil one to pursue so relentlessly her own ideas, her own voice, rather than simply enabling others to sound their words, their dreams.
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