Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Susan Howe and Emily Dickinson

I've never liked the idea (obtained from critics) of Susan Howe's poetry and so have never read it, but I am interested in Emily Dickinson (at present) and so acquired Howe's My Emily Dickinson.  My inclination to skim stuff I'm not certain I need often works against me.  In this case I didn't immediately get a very clever juxtaposition.  On page 15 she presents a poem of John Milton in which he dreams of his wife who died in child birth.  On the next page Howe presents a poem by Emily Dickinson who writes of a pregnant wife who anticipates dying in childbirth.  I had to go back and read it again and see that Howe (who uses history in many of her writings) had prefaced these two poems by referring to the high risk of death during child birth (in Milton's and Dickinson's times), and if the mother survived, the child most likely wouldn't survive its first year.

After figuring it out, I found Milton distasteful (unfairly so, for the poem is a 14-line sonnet) for not representing his wife's point of view, using a classical reference to Jove, emphasizing his own sense of loss when on the next page in Dickinson's poem we can hear the wife (Milton's wife presumably was unable to articulate her thoughts and fears -- or if she did Milton ignores them) anguishing over the dangers of childbirth.  "I'm tempted half to stitch it up" Dickinson writes, and concludes her poem with "And so I bear it big about / My Burial -- before / A Life quite ready to depart / Can harass me no more --"  This last stanza isn't crystal clear, and Howe doesn't offer an exegesis, but it is clear enough I suppose.  She can't very well "stitch it up" and so must bear it.  The "About My burial" must mean thinking or worrying about the upcoming childbirth and anticipating a bad end, her death.  Then if we think about the timing, the anticipating she is doing (which Dickinson's words don't clearly convey) we can see that she is doing this anticipating "before" the baby is "ready to depart," for when it does depart it can "harass" her no more.  People who read this poem must get something like that although a quick check of the internet doesn't back that up.  Several people quote it but without any attempt at interpretation.

This is Emily Dickinson's poem:

This Chasm, Sweet, upon my life
I mention it to you
When Sunrise through a fissure drop
The Day must follow too

If we demur, its gaping sides
Disclose as 'twere a Tomb
Ourself am lying straight wherein
The Favorite of Doom

When it has just contained a Life
Then, Darling, it will close
And yet so bolder every Day
So turbulent it grows

I'm tempted half to stitch it up
With a remaining Breath
I should not miss in yielding, though
To Him, it would be Death

And so I bear it big about
My Burial—before
A Life quite ready to depart
Can harass me no more

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