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Fascicle One: The Gambler's Recollection

In her first fascicle, Emily Dickinson establishes the intricate relationship between memory and identity that is a central preoccupation of her letters and poems. Of particular concern to her is the way speakers who convey a powerful sense of personal authority independent of social convention so often seem incapable of retaining awareness of that independence once they assume specific identities. In an effort to ward off this squandering of potential, Dickinson introduces stylistic devices that interrupt syntactic closure as a way of suspending the loss of memory figured through linguistic resolutions of self that result in harmonious and hence "natural" seeming embodiments of dominant cultural values. Dashes, strategic manipulations of voice and a careful ordering of poems are among the primary techniques she combines to define speakers capable of consenting to historically grounded identities while retaining a clear recollection of the self that consented to identity in the first place. By this means, Dickinson gives special prominence to the way imaginative power that can positively enliven the details of daily life also invests those details with a particularity so compelling that they threaten to become sources of entrapment. In order to sustain contact with the consenting self while allowing for the delight that comes from historical engagement, Dickinson creates an unsteady balance between the two that is largely dependent on memory.

The pivotal function of memory becomes clear early in the first fascicle. In the final three lines of what is probably the third poem (J21), Dickinson describes the consensual self's relationship to identity as resembling the relationship a gambler maintains with the rules that govern games of chance. In her arrangement of the poem, she makes it extremely clear that recollection is absolutely essential to the gambler's status as gambler:

We lose - because we win -
Gamblers - recollecting which -
Toss their dice again! (MBED 5)
By opening with the first person plural, the poem tells us that reader and speaker participate in a much broader category of game players than that constituted by the subset designated gamblers; though speaker, reader and gambler all experience triumph and defeat according to rules, gamblers are special because they remember that the rules affording them status as winners or losers are rules they have assented to and can conceivably reject. It is worth noting here that the easily overlooked short dash that follows "which" at the end of the second of these lines is left out of the variorum edition of the poems. The manuscript, however, clearly contains this short mark, indicating that its absence from the standard edition is the product of editorial discretion. For the present reading, the dash is important as it visually projects the poem's exploration of conventional values precisely because its diminutive size raises the possibility that it is incidental and hence unimportant. It reminds us that we are often tempted to overlook aspects of experience not obviously linked to the hierarchic demands that govern identity formation. In this sense, the smallness of the dash that visually pushes it in the direction of invisibility metaphorically expresses the ease with which the consensual self is dismissed through immersion in the binary exclusivity of unified identity. And the placement of the dash in apposition to the word "which" further illuminates the visual metaphor linking it to the rules that define a transient and incommensurate locus for the self.

As punctuation within the speaker's commentary, it tells us that the gambler's recollection is to some degree distinct from the assertion that the gambler tosses the dice. Read this way, the dash further accentuates the way tossing the dice follows a conscious choice made by a self capable of consenting once again to the terms of the game. Thus the exclamation mark that concludes the poem may signal either the astonishment with which this the speaker greets this observation or the emphatic quality with which the speaker repeats a familiar but all too easily forgotten truism. The point is that the speaker wants to be a gambler and knows all too well how easy it is to dismiss the self so crucial in making identity a gamble and not a surrender. The twenty poems that make up the first fascicle trace three cycles, each of which shows speakers moving into or away from the memory of consensual selfhood epitomized by the gambler. These speakers then communicate degrees of freedom or entrapment that may be generalized as three sequentially related speaker categories: that of the child, the bride and the Queen. The loss of personal power that marks the child's entry into history leads to the bride's wish for fulfillment through social conformity; the bride's confinement within the rules of unified selfhood then provokes the Queen's discovery that she can withhold the voices of conformity. One of the most intriguing features of this structure is the way it allows Dickinson to introduce simultaneously voices that both resist and welcome historical engagement. Put another way, the speakers of the poems can so powerfully register the attraction of discrete moments that the poems appear to stand independently even while participating in ordered sequences. The tension this creates between the demands of the moment and the apprehension of timeless processes becomes a central feature of the poems as well as a primary source of their enigmatic character. As a consequence, the movement observable in these poems is not one that advances according to a linear or narrative model; it is instead a cycle that moves from limitation to omnipotence and back again.

One of the most tantalizing features of this fascicle is the democratic partnership Dickinson offers readers through her demand that we self-consciously participate in the construction of meaning. This happens materially when she confronts readers with anomalous visual innovations that readers must encode for themselves by entering the process of poetic composition and in a sense collaborating in the creation of the text. A different kind of leveling takes place with her focus on maintaining a balance between identity and the consenting self. Because this balancing act militates against the totalizing logic of ideology, it offers an alternative to the reification of self by unsettling such primary binary oppositions as those that hold between subject and object, reader and author. Readers must for this reason resist the impulse to resolve the tensions built into poems by assimilating them within closed narratives. The very act of striving for balance serves as an impediment to closure through its implicit assertion that awareness of the other makes consensual selfhood possible. As a consequence, the self Dickinson points to grows out of responsiveness and hence dialogue that affirms the authority of the other as a necessary precondition for any gambling with memory.

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