by Sandra Gilbert

Page 7

I really did see Dickinson as being trapped in domesticity and longing to eat the green old meadow where she used to live like the mystic green that she writes about in the poem about the different dawn. But the last poem that I'll read reflects, as I said, my changing sense of her. Of course, the wonderful thing about her is that she is so compelling and so various that one's sense of her is continually changing. This is a poem about Emily Dickinson's black cake. Some of you may know, that Emily Dickinson was very famous for baking black cake, and some of you may indeed know that you can find the recipe for her black cake in her letters. Indeed, there's also a little book called Emily Dickinson Cook and Poet, which gives all her recipes, in case you're interested in trying others. I myself decided at a certain point, as one of my many tributes to her which take lots of different forms, to try to bake her black cake. So I looked up the recipe in the letters, and I was a little bit daunted when it began, "Take a milk pail." More than a little daunted. So I quartered it, quartered the recipe, and I made a lot of black cake which I served to a graduate seminar in feminist criticism that I was teaching; and then I put away the rest of the black cake in my freezer, and I served it to five more seminars over the years. But you could try it; maybe you should tenth it. It's very good; it has a whole bottle of brandy in it even when you quarter it. You probably wouldn't have to put it in the freezer. This last poem that I'm going to read is called "The Emily Dickinson Black Cake Walk." It has two epigraphs, both from Dickinson's letters, and each intended to explain one or another strange aspect of the poem. In 1866, Dickinson wrote to somebody about her nephew, the very nephew Ned, in whose pocket she was putting raisins and cracked nuts, and for whom she was writing these wonderful little emblems and mottoes. And she obviously had made quite an effect on him because she said, "1866: Ned...inherits his Uncle Emily's ardor for the lie. My flowers are near and foreign, and I have but to cross the floor to stand in the Spice Isles...." Notice that she calls herself "Uncle Emily." The fluidity of her identity is part of her magic and part of the way in which she mythologizes herself. She signed herself, "Brother Emily," sometimes "Uncle Emily Dickinson." And then also she was "Emilie," sometimes, when she wanted to be particularly flirtatious and feminine. And then just plain old "Emily," at other times. My second epigraph is written in 1883: "Your sweet beneficence of Bulbs I return as Flowers, with a bit of the swarthy Cake baked only in Domingo...." Notice that she is the one who completes the metamorphosis of the bulbs into the flowers, and that she has become a kind of goddess. And Domingo, where the swarthy cake is baked, is really her own kitchen. So this is "The Emily Dickinson Black Cake Walk":

Black cake, black night cake, black
thick cake out of which Emily
leaps in bubbles of bitter sweetness--
lucid or dark balloons of Emily,
Emilie, Uncle Emily,
Dickinson, Nobody--
black Emily Dickinson cake,

how does your sugar grow?
What is the garden, where
is the furrow, whose
are the pods of heat and shadow?
How did the black bulbs dissolve their iron,
leaves their silence, bees their drone of sunset honey
into the oven that cooked you firm?

Black cake, black Uncle Emily cake,
I tunnel among your grains of darkness
fierce as a mouse: your riches
are all my purpose, your currants and death's eye raisins
wrinkling and thickening blackness,
and the single almond of light she buried
somewhere under layers of shadow....

One day I too will be Uncle Sandra:
iambic and terse. I'll hobble the tough sidewalks,
the alleys that moan go on, go on.
O when I reach those late-night streets,
when acorns and twigs
litter my path like sentences
the oaks no longer choose to say,

I want that cake in my wallet.
I want to nibble as I hobble.
I want to smile and nibble
that infinite black cake,

                     and lean
on Uncle Emily's salt-white
ice-bright sugar cane.

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