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130 Shorter Book Reviews Christianne Miller. Emily Dickinson: A Poet's Grammar. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.212 pp. Moving outward from "unrestricted play with language to play within the overlapping and clarifying spheres of interpretive linguistic, structural, historical, and biographical analysis" (2), Christianne Miller's Emily Dickinson: A Poet's Grammar speaks to a variety of interests to show how Dickinson's "transformations or disruptions of what is normally expected in language work toward creating multiplicity of meaning and an indeterminate reference, two characteristics that open questions of meaning" (4-5), including the "gendered possibilities" (17) of "a language as meaningful and as free of determined meaning as any English can be" (19). Besides identifying these general concerns, the opening chapter, "Letters to the World," uses the well-known consonance between Dickinson's poetry and her letters to propose the overall poetic stance which the specifics of Dickinson's "grammar" maintain. For the most part, Miller uses a critical language free of jargon and often eloquent, even epigrammatic, as in the following: "In her poems Dickinson uses both the strategy of the weak, in her attempt to win over the world as lover, and the strategy of the strong, in her attempt to win against it as rival. The narratives of most poems adopt some version of the former strategy; the language of all her poetry reveals the latter" (18). Throughout her book, above all in its final chapter, Miller manages, as Elaine Showalter has put it, "to bring together some of the categories of French feminist thought about the "feminine" v.ith the empirical energies of American historical and critical research: to yoke French theory and Yankee know-how."1 Avoiding, but never wholly ignoring, matters of Dickinson's vocabulary and metaphor that others have already looked into, Miller's long second chapter (of nearly a hundred pages) analyzes "how structure and syntax affect meaning in her poems" (20) under six headings: texts, compression, disjunction, repetition, syntax and speech. Miller concentrates on five examples: "Essential Oils--are wrong--" (#675), "He fumbles at your Soul" (#315), "This was a Poet" (#448), "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--" (#754), and "To pile like Thunder" (#1247), chosen for illustrative fullness and variety, but she includes enough other poems (many more than in her "Index of First Lines") to support her analyses. For all its categories and subcategories , this long analytic chapter, along with the next, "Reading the Poems," carries us well into Dickinson's poetry. It considers not only the forms, but the interrelations and effects of that poetry's various Shorter Book Reviews 131 ''grammatical" features, first taken up separately and then recombined for four of the five exam pies ("Essential Oils" having been explicated in the opening chapter). For all its explicatory aid, however, and for all the ease of its presentations, this critical analysis does push to challenging extremes hoth the amount of interpretive weight and the degree of ambiguity which even Dickinson's most complex or indeterminate lyricscan bear. The final chapters take us out from the poems themselves to larger matters, backward and forward in time. "Names and Verbs: Influences on the Poet's Language" gathers the obvious, well-known contemporary and earlier influences, linking them closely but briefly to Dickinson's own poetic "grammar." More controversially, even now, "The Consent of Language and the Woman Poet" ends the book by proposing, with disarming care and tact-disarming , at least, to those who still need to be disarmed--how "Dickinson's language could almost have been designed as a model for several twentiethcentury theories of what a woman's language might be" (161). Miller sets Dickinson's "model," especially her "grammar," against such theories: "The thematic key points in Dickinson's world are the speaker's opposition to, yet desire for, some other figure or thing, and the lack of a just and reliable law. These are the very points that feminist theories help to explain, especially in the context of stylistic disjunction and instability" (177). Having made this argument, and granting that "the relation of Dickinson's language to her gender is complex" (184), Miller feels ready to claim that "gender is the cohering...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 130-131
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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