by Maxine Kumin

Page 1

I just want to start by saying what a great pleasure it is to be invited to a festival of this sort in the company of my peers, other women poets, and what a kind of sense of reunion it gives me to be here with Mary and with Ruth. Ruth, in particular, is an old friend. And later today I guess I'm going to get to see Denise, and then Adrienne is coming and tomorrow Carolyn, and I think, "What an incredible collection John Harrington has gathered for this." I told him earlier this year that I had been trying to write an Emily Dickinson poem. It's a kind of vengeful poem. Without naming names, there is an august critic whose book on American literature contains mention of exactly one female and of course you know who that one is. A well known male poet being asked to list the women poets, American poets, whose work he admires, could come up only with you know who. The facts in this poem, the biographical facts, are actual and I'm calling it "The Uses of Emily."

Oh, how they wrack
their seasoned attention,
the masculine critics,
to find one woman worth mention,
one woman who matches the list in their mind
and then they'll acclaim, they'll commend her.
No one alive will do
from the other gender,
but Emily, there's always you,
long and safely gone from here.
Emily the good,
wearing white and staying in
and little better understood
now than you were then.

While half Mount Holyoke College swooned,
converting on the spot, what to make of your behavior,
Emily the doomed,
refusing Christ as your personal savior?
No wonder Father snatched you out of algebra and astronomy,
and sat you down at home.
Anyone could clearly see
these intellectual wizardries
were weakening the womb.
Posthumouosly, you were disdained.
The Atlantic Monthly's best reviewer
said, "Miss Dickinson's versicles are queer and quaint,
and in emotional breasts have stirred
a momentary burst of curiousity,
but could predict that blear oblivion
lingers in the immediate neighborhood."
And what from this may we infer
except that fate is twisted?
Poet you are,
Poet you were,
and, Emily, you've lasted

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