by Sandra Gilbert

Page 6

I do try to be upbeat in response to my mother's sort of complaint--"Why does she write poetry that's so morbid? She had such a happy childhood." The last two poems that I'll read will be poems that were very consciously written as tributes to Emily Dickinson. And again, one of them is darker than the other, reflecting my own changing sense of Dickinson. The first one that I'll read you is the title poem of my book, and it's called "Emily's Bread." And it was written at the time Susan Gubar and I were working on The Madwoman in the Attic, and when I thought a lot about Dickinson as being really trapped and imprisoned in her house and in domesticity. From the second and last poem that I'll read about Dickinson you'll see that I changed my mind, and I decided that, as Adrienne Rich put it, she decided to have it out on her own premises in a very powerful way. The first poem, "Emily's Bread," has two epigraphs--the first, 1857, is from a chronology of Dickinson's life, "1857 Emily's bread won a prize at the annual Cattle Show." I might note that her sister was one of the judges, but her bread was really supposed to be very good. It was rye bread, in case you're interested. "1858, Emily served as a judge in the bread division at the cattle show," and maybe Lavinia won a prize that year:

Inside the prize-winning blue-ribbon loaf of bread,
there is Emily, dressed in white,
veiled in unspeakable words,
not yet writing letters to the world.

No, now she is the bride of yeast,
the wife of the dark of the oven,
the alchemist of flour, poetess of butter,
stirring like a new metaphor in every bubble

as the loaf begins to grow.
Prosaic magic, how it swells,
like life, expanding, browning
at the edges, hardening.

Emily picks up her pen, begins to scribble.
Who'll ever know? "This is my letter
to the world, that never..."
Lavinia cracks an egg, polishes

the rising walls with light. Across
the hall the judges are making notes:
firmness, texture, size, flavor.
Emily scribbles, smiles. She knows it is

the white aroma of her baking skin
that makes the bread taste good.
Outside in the cattle pen the blue-ribbon heifers
bellow and squeal. Bread means nothing to them.

They want to lie in the egg-yellow sun.
They are tired of dry grain, tired of grooming and love.
They long to eat the green old meadow
where they used to live.

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