by Cynthia Hogue

Page 1

I know of no more accurate representations of pain than are found in Emily Dickinson. In Poem 650 (Johnson Edition), for example, Dickinson writes of the self's infinitely narrowed horizons:
Pain - has an Element of Blank -
It cannot recollect
When it begun - or if there were
A time when it was not -

It has no Future - but itself -
It's Infinite contain
It's Past - enlightened to perceive
New Periods - of Pain.

(JP 650)

Any distinction we might want to draw between emotional and physical pain is rendered impossibly superfluous by that reifying pronoun, It. Pain is a thing having a life of its own: it is. Pain posits us in an infinity of present tense that has no future but itself, containing a past it cannot remember, and containing us in a body of pain.

Of physical pain (of both torture and illness) Elaine Scarry has said that "Physical suffering destroys language" (201). Suffering silences us. As Harold Schweizer asks in a recent study of suffering and art,

But if suffering is in the unbearable, silent body rather than in the sharable, disembodied language of its narratives, how then can suffering speak? How can one hear the unspeakable? How can one listen without assuming one has understood? Indeed, how can one begin to understand? (12-13)
The answer Schweizer suggests, that literature "might echo the mysterius occurrence of suffering" (13), is itself anticipated by Dickinson's poem. Adrienne Rich, suffering from an excruciatingly painful and often disfiguring chronic illness, rheumatoid arthritis, agrees: "For that is one property of poetic language: to engage with states that themselves would deprive us of language and reduce us to passive sufferers" (What Is Found There 10).

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