A WORD MADE FLESH IS SELDOM:
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN CERTAIN POEMS OF
EMILY DICKINSON AND ANGELINA WELD GRIMKE
by Elaine Maria Upton
Page 2But here is where the most striking contrast between Dickinson and Grimke appears. Dickinson was a white woman, and as such, racially normal, while Grimke was doubly racially abnormal, because she was by blood bi-racial, and socially, in effect, black. Sooner or later, she and Dickinson, each in her own time, would come to be treated differently in a century during which at least one-half of the nation condoned enslavement of black people. Although Boston might be though of as a liberal city in the nineteenth century as compared to cities all over the South, it would not have been a perfect haven for Grimke, as it was not for Harriet Jacobs or Harriet Wilson or Frederick Douglass. On the other hand, whatever difficult challenges Dickinson faced in her hometown of Amherst, racially she was a member of the (consistently) privileged group.
Yet this very difference between Grimke and Dickinson can serve the comparison, and the lives/work of both women can be instructive today for us as women and poets, some of us lesbian, black and white. If we can say that both women had "buried lives," both were buried in similar and yet different ways, or we might say that there are similarities in the difference. Through recognition of this, we, their daughters, can find strategies for survival and creative fulfilled living.
In the matter of differences it seems to me that Dickinson's poetry might be thought of as, in the main, disembodied in terms of sex-gender, and brilliantly so. Grimke's poetry, on the other hand, reveals, with a few exceptions, a racial disembodiment. Given the places of women, black and white, in the nineteenth century, the occurrence of such disembodiments in the lives and/or the poetry of women does not seem surprising, yet what is still surprising is that these women wrote at all amid the severe limits of sex- gender and/or race that were their inheritances. They wrote, in the very challenge of disembodiment, for and against the particular deaths that threatened or lured them. Thanks to the research of Gloria Hull, we are encouraged to see that Grimke wrote, although in a veiled manner with neutral pronouns, love poems to women, poems of lovemaking in the body, whereas Dickinson, it seems, wrote very little that would reveal her or her persona's life/love in the physical or the private and personal domain. But then Grimke's writing (with a few notable exceptions in the poetry and in her play, Rachael) seems for the most part color-blind, racially disembodied.
In Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence, Joanne Dobson has convincingly argued that Dickinson's poetry shows a kind of reticent resistance to nineteenth-century conventions of the "female" as private and the "feminine" as public woman, where the public (societal) definition of woman is pitted against the private, so that the private all but disappears in the writing. This sounds very much like the ages-old (European, at least) notion that women are the unruly, irrational, sin-bearing daughters of Eve, and they must be kept in check by public systems of censure and censorship. The Victorian codes of decorum figure here.
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