by Sandra Gilbert

Page 4

Well, the transition from Dickinson's poems to my own is very painful for me. I can't think exactly what to do except say that I think I was and am enchanted when I read the poetry of Emily Dickinson and I suppose it's out of the desire to express and explain my own enchantment that I did entitle my last volume Emily's Bread. I'll explain that later on, but I bet a lot of you know that she was a famous bread-baker, as was Emily Bronte. Cooking and poetry seem to go together in some interesting ways. The poems of my own that I've chosen to read are poems that do try to respond to the themes that I've tried to locate in the Dickinson poems. The first two that I'll read to you are about the question of a female muse. As I said, feminist critics and women poets, too, have recently begun to speculate a lot on the issue of the muse. The muse is poet's inspiration; the poet's inspiration, his muse, has traditionally been metaphorized--because the poet was male--as a beautiful, seductive woman. So what happens when the poet is a woman? What kind of muse does the woman poet have, and if she has a muse, what is its sex? I think that Dickinson answers that question in several ways in the poems that I've read you, and I find that I myself have inexorably and inevitably also answered the question in several ways. The first way is the way that we saw in "I have a King, who does not speak." This is a poem called "The Return of the Muse":

You always knew you wrote for him, you said
He is the father of my art, the one who watches all night,
chainsmoking, never smiling, never satisfied.
You liked him because he was carved from glaciers,
because you had to give him strong wine to make him human,
because he flushed once, like a November sunset,
when you pleased him.

But you didn't love him.
You thought that was part of the bargain.
He'd always be there like a blood relative,
a taciturn uncle or cousin,
if you didn't love him. You'd hand him poems,
he'd inspect them, smoke, sip a business deal,
and that would be that.

Then he went away and you hardly noticed.
Except you were happy, you danced on the lawn,
swelled like a melon, lay naked long mornings,
brushed your hair more than you needed.
Your breasts grew pink and silky,
you hummed, sucked the pulp of oranges, you forgot
all about words.

      And when you were
absolutely ignorant,
      he came back,
his jacket of ice flashed white light,
his cap of pallor bent toward you, genteel, unsmiling.
He lit a cigarette, crossed his legs,
told you how clumsy you were.

Ah, then, love seized you like a cramp,
you doubled over in the twist of love.
You shrieked. You gave birth to enormous poems.

He looked embarrassed and said how bad they were.
They became beasts, they grew fangs and beards.
You sent them against him like an army.
He said they were all right
but added that he found you, personally,

     You howled with love,
you spun like a dervish with rage, you
kept on writing.

  previous page
next page
table of contents
search the archives

  Titanic Operas Main Page
Copyright 1999 by Martha Nell Smith, all rights reserved
Maintained by Rebecca Mooney  <rnmooney@umd.edu>
Last updated on March 10, 2008
Dickinson Electronic Archives