by Martha Nell Smith

Page 9

To ponder that, I close by offering some commentary from Alicia Ostriker, and what she calls Dickinson's "hermeneutics [or the methodological principles] of indeterminacy." And I ask you to think with me about what Ostriker says, what is true for Dickinson, and how one might receive the next person who claims to know exactly what she meant, exactly what her motives were. Tracking Dickinson's interpretations of the bible, Ostriker writes:
. . .there is something else to Dickinson's method, which I will call a hermeneutics of indeterminacy. . . .What I mean is that we are aware, when reading any of Dickinson's readings of a biblical text, that an act of interpretation is occurring which may be immediately persuasive yet retains an irreducible element of the wilful, the made thing, the playful poetic fiction: interpretation never collapses itself back into text, never makes what the philosophers call 'truth claims'. Further, when we read Dickinson's poetry at large, we see something larger: that she never worries about contradicting herself, that terms such as 'God', 'Jesus', 'heaven', and so forth, have an abundant variety of meanings, some of them highly ambiguous, many of them mutually incompatible, yet all of them convincing within the local perimeters of the poem. To read Dickinson on God (etcetera), then, is to divest oneself of the desire for a fixed and unitary eternal truth and to accept a plurality of contingent truths. (66-67)

Among Dickinson's most famous poetic pronouncements is that Truth cannot be told straightforwardly. Sometimes truth appears to contradict itself--"Just so, Jesus raps," writes the Dickinson who writes "Of course I prayed, and did God care?"--and sometimes truth's straightforward unto embarrassing--"If I can stop one heart. . . ." Tell all of it, and you'd better tell it "slant," indirectly. Poems connected to the world, poems that are about something, and the truths they utter bulge with inconvenient knowledge.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes.
If that is the case, then after great happiness
Should a feeling come that is somehow informal?

Wisely, Dickinson's poem fails to say, a silence of considerable complexity. Besides urging us to turn to her words, these women poets also encourage knowing her silences. The next time you hear someone who knows what she means or exactly how she was or what motivated her, I urge you to consider, and urge myself to consider, whether the knowledge proffered by her silence, however inconvenient, is being refused.

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