Art and power (PoemTalk #32)

Emily Dickinson's 'My Life had stood…' and Susan Howe's 'My Emily Dickinson'

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Jennifer Scappettone, Marcella Durand and Jessica Lowenthal joined Al Filreis for a discussion of Susan Howe’s understanding of a crucial and extraordinarily complex poem by Emily Dickinson — the one that begins“My Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun.”

 

My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--
In Corners--till a Day
The Owner passed--identified--
And carried Me away--

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods--
And now We hunt the Doe--
And every time I speak for Him--
The Mountains straight reply--

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow--
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through--

And when at Night--Our good Day done--
I guard My Master's Head--
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow--to have shared--

To foe of His--I'm deadly foe--
None stir the second time--
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye--
Or an emphatic Thumb--

Though I than He--may longer live
He longer must--than I--
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--


Attempts to read and understand the poem form a central analytical narrative, or, one is tempted to say, a viscerum in and through Susan Howe’s book My Emily Dickinson. Our group not only took a cue from Howe’s sense of the poem’s centrality; we used the recording of Howe’s reading of the poe — and several passages from her book — as our basis and starting point. The recording comes from Charles Bernstein’s interview with Howe for his LineBreak series; the entire series is available through PennSound.

Jen Scappettone’s comments help us contemplate Howe’s working out Dickinson’s sense of the way war enters the details of domestic existence. Al presents the extended conceit (the woman is to the man as a gun is to its hunter-owner) and then the four proceed — immediately — to complicate it, aptly. The gendering, Marcella and Jessica remind us, is not at all straightforward. Among the many questions pondered here: How do we know for certain that the gun is gendered female?

Dickinson offered several variant words. One of these is “art,” which might have replaced “power.” “For ‘art’ you need an artist,” Marcella notes, “the creative power. Can the gun be the artist? Do artists extend power? What was the role of the artist or writer in America?” We listen to Howe (reading from her book) say, “When I love a thing, I want it and I try to get it.” Sounds to us, at least partly, like a predatory version of the subject-object dynamic. Jen adds: “Love brings the owner and the gun together, but also the predator and the prey.” Jessica speaks surely for all of us at PoemTalk when she says, in her final word, that she's glad to return to this crucial poem over and over.