THE DARKEST GUSH: EMILY DICKINSON AND THE TEXTUAL MARK
by Rachel Blau DuPlessis
The controlled moments of textual plurality in her work have their thematic analogue in plurisignification. For even in the poems which have "only one" choice of a word for any "one" spot, Dickinson still works language by fecund tactics of duplicity. Like her multiple word choices, her polyvalent poems perform an astonishing critical feat for and in poetic language. Plurisignification comes in the enormous doubled and duplicitous metaphors of her work. Is this poem mainly about God or a love? Is it spoken as a male or a female? Is it about marriage or death? Is it a poem of teensy-weensy minority or a poem of gargantuan and dionysiac authority? Is it a poem of romantic thralldom or a poem of ecstatic poetic power? Is it hungry or is it full? When one considers Dickinson's poem at any length, the word or is always called into question.
A lyric poem has been critically treated as an icon, not as a praxis. An icon usually is taken as a whole, a unit (or postulated as unitary). Dickinson's textual tactic breaks the iconicity of the lyric poem, troubles it, with these textual practices, destablilizing its wholeness. Therefore it also breaks the iconicity of the beautiful object. For her poems as beautiful objects have deliberately placed "flaws," these double words. Why do I say "flaws"? I say it ironically, laughing at beauty. Her offering two times as much goodness and beauty as normal poetry demands will camp up "normal poetry." Such a tactic is a subtle but intense critique of poetry-as-usual.
So I think that Dickinson was altering the poem as icon by making competing words enter the poem and mutually challenge each other. The "master narrative" of textual choices by whose light we study poetry renders invisible the physical or material aspects of a text, and swallows and digests the marks of its choices. By physical or material aspects one might mean--the long "y" tails and sprouting surfaces of letters in some of Blake's plates, and the placement of the poem amid illustration (see Thomas Vogler, "'Now We Live in Kit's House'," Sulfur27 [Fall 1990]: 156-172). One might mean the crease of white between the gloss and the ballad in S.T. Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." One might mean the notes in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. These observations of the feel, look and image of the visual text cut against a ruling assumption of "immateriality" for the text of the poem. This critical assumption itself corresponds to the New Critical tenets of "immateriality" for the biography, historical circumstances, gender, race, and social markings of or on the writer. "Immateriality" meant that one was supposed not to notice how poems might look in anthologies, all squinched together on the page with martinet-metronome line numbers further pacing one's pleasure. "Immateriality" meant that one took T.S. Eliot's footnotes to The Waste Land at face value, as a kind of exalted information about the text, and not as one genre of this heterogeneric work. "Immateriality" meant that one was supposed not to notice how the writer's origin in a patriarchal family or as a doubter in a religious time, might have affected her work. The only biographical bytes that were not immaterial for women writers were their marital and sexual status and their sanity (especially if suicide was in question)--curious gendered exceptions to the rule of immateriality.
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