THE DARKEST GUSH: EMILY DICKINSON AND THE TEXTUAL MARK
by Rachel Blau DuPlessis
I was a little tentative about the double ending and remember talking to my friend, Frances Jaffer, who, when faced with my delicate query about the two endings I proposed, cut through my fear, reflected my risk back to me, and agreed "to use both." With the dual ending, I got a text which did two equally authoritative things, and which therefore ruptured a unitary telos, or end, and refused single-minded ending. It charms me now to remember that this was about the time that I was constructing the thesis for Writing Beyond the Ending (Indiana UP 1985), with its interest in how specific cultural mechanisms like narrative sequence, telos, gender ideology, and heterosexual assumptions produce and fabricate hegemonic plot. Further, the double ending of the Dickinson poem made (a) poem(s) that isn't/aren't either "one" (unified) or "two" (separate) poems--thus oscillating between and across one and two, creating partial tones and new integers. Because of the powerful structural and cultural ideas foregrounded by the poem, when I completed it, I felt as if a whole ton of coal had been poured noisily down my basement chute. There was a lot to "burn," and, as it turned out, for a long time.
I began to question why I thought Dickinson made such texts, and to follow the logic of Dickinson's textual critique in my own poems. This work was joined with and implicated in my own feminism. The poems I wrote with both disturbance of the culture and the page in mind are not indebted solely or totally to Dickinson: William Carlos Williams, George Oppen, H.D., other modernist writers, and contemporary innovative writers are all sources. But I considered my page space practices as a feminism of the text because of their disturbance of poetry-as-usual, because the struggle for the page is made visible, because conflicting and parallel alternatives try to exist on the same page space. For this, Dickinson is indeed a palpable source.
In Dickinson's oeuvre, there are a number of texts which destabilize the idea of final or master text and, by virtue of the textual practices, foreground the materiality of the visual text. Some (though in fact hardly all) of Emily Dickinson's poems, as we learned from the Thomas Johnson edition, propose variant words, sometimes variant lines, and, I think only once, a variant stanza. At certain key moments, she seemed fascinated to note a different word. Some are virtually synonymous; some are definitely not; some seem more radical; and some, more nice alternatives, perhaps projected with different readers in mind. In Emily Dickinson: A Poet's Grammar (Harvard UP 1987), Cristanne Miller notes that some variants offer contrastive, even contradictory information. And in My Emily Dickinson (North Atlantic Books 1985), "Women and Their Effect in the Distance" (Ironwood 28 : 58-91), and "These Flames and Generosities of the Heart: Emily Dickinson and the Illogic of Sumptuary Values" (Sulfur 28 : 134-155), Susan Howe has stated that the list of alternative words at the end of the poems make a strange shadow text, poetic in its mysterious import.
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