Constructing and Residing in the Paradox of Dickinson's Prismatic Space
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The Emily Dickinson Journal 9.1 (2000) 49-70

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Constructing and Residing in the Paradox of Dickinson's Prismatic Space

Gary Hawkins

The poems of Emily Dickinson are difficult poems, difficult in part because of their refusal to be parsed in strictly logical terms. In place of the logic of direct, binary relations, Dickinson creates a space which is more prismatic, in which elements set in equation or opposition do not exactly relate, items made to sum are not entirely replaced by any superior claim, and objects on a plane can be both isolate and adjoining. The poems may intend an accumulation of elements to "comprise a soul" -- "Poets," "Sun," "Summer," "Heaven" -- or attempt some other comprehensive listing of a poetic "Whole." The set of these elements defines a space where separate parts might collect, but this space is alternately of limited and infinite capacity. It is a space where perimeters do not bind the exact, where a "Whole" may be shown to have its expected interior, and, through a series of mirrors, next hold an interior within that interior.

Space in Dickinson is often validly read as actual or dramatic space: a house where separate fears like assassins hide or a stage where two lovers lament a specific gap. If in such a drama fear or loss are external forces which exist outside as ghost or absent lover and afflict a central self, this drama portrays space by means of distinction between parts. Each separate character plays upon the other. Although reading a poem as a scene in this way follows the themes of Dickinson's subject matter, the poems also present a stage filled with a syntactic uncertainty that hinders distinct separations. In this refraction of language nothing in Dickinson can be held to be intact; once a single self holds within it another self, the terms of internal space may encompass expanses. The body of a self may then be the site where the simultaneities of attraction and repulsion, traditionally witnessed between [End Page 49] two discrete beings, find a more complex, fractured home within one. Here, a poem's "I" -- present yet incomplete, lacking not a lover but some portion of itself -- is mirrored by a provisional alternative, what that "I" cannot do and yet strives to do. But Dickinson does not settle on the mere fact of multiple aspects, she constructs the paradoxical space of their relation. If it is prismatic with facets of possibility, this space is a land of desperation, where no self can settle in bonded unity. Always behind a self is another self. There is no sole comfort in this infinity.

Dickinson's poetic space fractures into facets when the poet defies exact relation even as she employs equation. A presumption of addition is plainly at work in "One and One - are One" (J769/Fr4971), but we also face that presumed mathematic's confusion when the poet proclaims:

One and One - are One -
Two - be finished using -
Well enough for Schools -
But for +minor Choosing -
Life - just - Or Death -
Or the Everlasting -
+More - would be too vast
For the Soul's Comprising -

+inner      +Two


The tenets of arithmetic dictate that the sum be something greater than each element alone, but if that final "One" is implied to be a superior integer, it is also indistinguishable from its additives which are themselves "One." Inscribed in the poet's flourished capitals in the fair copy, each element suggests its potential beyond a single digit (one) toward an inclusive whole (One, an Individual, Self).

The next line provides the expected answer to the poem's radical equation -- Two -- and an immediate proclamation of obsolescence:

Two - be finished using -


Between the available solutions ("One" or "Two") the uninflected verb is both a refusal to privilege either choice with its number and an imperative [End Page 50] for termination of the common sum. When the exception of "But for minor Choosing - " allows "Two" only for the lesser purpose of binary choice, it reaffirms the exile of this common...