A WORD MADE FLESH IS SELDOM:
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN CERTAIN POEMS OF
EMILY DICKINSON AND ANGELINA WELD GRIMKE
by Elaine Maria Upton
Page 3Feminist scholarship on white women has already done a lot to show the shapes and designs of the physical and metaphoric corsets that women have worn. If Dickinson were confined to these corsets through notions of the "weaker sex" who must be rigorously morally trained in order to serve as proper wife and mother to (white) sons, then Grimke's life is likely to have been all the more circumscribed, not only by notions of women's weaknesses and waywardness, but also by prevailing notions of the inferiority of the "negro" race, notions held in the North only if less obviously than in the south, as the situation of Grimke's parents' marriage suggests.
Grimke's mother, Sarah Stanley, was a white woman, who, from all reports, married a black man, Archibald Henry Grimke, under conditions of disapproval by her parents. Sarah Stanley eventually left her husband, taking the young Angelina with her at first. But she later sent Angelina back to live with her father and to be raised by him. Mother and daughter were apparently separated for the rest of their lives. What conflicts this rupture produced in Grimke, the daughter, can only be imagined, but it does seem that Grimke's youth was one of largely uncertain racial status.
This early experience of racial ambivalence seems to find its way into the condition of mainly a-racial poetry that Grimke was later to write when she moved to Washington, D.C. In this regard she was not unlike many of her contemporaries, and F.E.W. Harper and Phillis Wheatley before her. Yet Grimke's hunger for women, or for a particular woman, could not be erased from her poetry. Her poems show desire, in body and soul, although the desire is oftentimes unfulfilled and linked with death, as in "El Beso" or "A Mona Lisa."
Thus Dickinson's "A Word Made Flesh Is Seldom" might be seen as a multi-lensed index of both women's particular forms of disembodiment in poetry, sex-gender in the case of Dickinson, and race in the case of Grimke. Dickinson's poems can also serve as the starting point in a conversation between certain poems that paradoxically reveal disembodiments and also write the poem as body/text, so that art teases, confounds, fascinates and entertains reality.
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