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Kitchen Table Poetics: Maid Margaret Maher and Her Poet Emily Dickinson

From: The Emily Dickinson Journal
Volume 5, Number 2, Fall 1996
pp. 285-296 | 10.1353/edj.0.0176

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

For Michael Radetsky and Daniel Radetsky, as source

Informal Comments Preceding My Paper:

I am going to break a tradition of not explaining my art work. I don't usually do this—already a poet or artist is a filter—and I resist mediating between the viewer and the object created. However, I am doing so because of a plenary held yesterday on "Editing Dickinson." As I listened to Martha Nell Smith—whose work always stimulates my thinking—I was excited by the visual dimensions of the hypermedia archive and how it could translate the page as canvas, disseminate it to so many people, make visible the poem's variations and their nuanced gestures. For the poet, those variations are frequently simultaneously alive, photographs of a moment in time.

My work has split open. The flat plane, or pure notation of letters and words on a page can no longer capture its lyric gesture. From the outset, the Kitchen Table Poetics project has been multi-dimensional. A book cannot contain it. Like Dickinson's work, it has life beyond the confines of two hard covers.

On the table, you see displayed some examples of wearable art—language as object; writing on the body—and a spiral xerox book that does homage to the 'zine movement, a particularly vibrant aspect of the current American poetry scene that makes poetry accessible through the simple use of a copy machine and stapler. This is not unlike the fascicles or graffiti that bypass the publishing world that canonizes only a few and shuts most of the rest of us out. In the white binder are a variety of examples of my work, or photographic facsimiles (silkscreen, painting, xerox art, poetry, poessay). You will notice that the writing has a visual dimension, visual chorus, an overt materiality. This stems from the fact that my subject or purpose of my work is to reconstitute something that has been silenced, erased, covered over. [Each member of the audience received a piece of original xerox art: "The Margaret Maher and Kelley Family Walking Tour of Amherst." The following paper was illustrated with slides.]

Voice is born in silence; the two are of necessity entwined. Going between silence and voice allows the writer to experience the ebb and flow of language, key to discovering her text. In the intertwining lives of maid Margaret Maher and her poet Emily Dickinson is a story of silence and voice. One woman wiped away soot, dust, leaving no trace, while the other made an enduring mark, left the products of her imagination. Emily Dickinson found her silent text in baking work for her family and through the presence of her maid. If one kind of work is visible, one invisible, what is the interplay between the two? What is the relationship, the debt, between the "silence" of one woman and the "voice" of another?

My interdisciplinary work in progress—expressed in essay, poetry, prose, visual art and, eventually, book form—foregrounds the background of the Dickinson story, highlighting the life of domestic servant Margaret Maher who shared the Homestead kitchen with Emily Dickinson for the last seventeen years of the poet's life. Nearly erased by circumstance of class and occupation, Margaret Maher's story becomes an emblem for the many unnamed others who labor as she did.1 At the intimacy of kitchen hearth, at the intersections of silence and voice, context and text, where working class meets elite, Irish Catholic immigrant maid meets Yankee poet, my work examines the role of ethnic voices in the formation of a newly emerging American literature. In the social production of American art, what makes the text possible and with what is it made.

Seven to eight years after her father placed the want ad for a maid—on International Women's Day in 1850—and a few years into the steady employment of maid-of-all-work Margaret O'Brien, Maher's predecessor, scholars believe the poet's vocation was clear to her. The years 1858-1862 have been considered a crucial period when Dickinson began grouping her poems to create books or the "bound" fascicles. Also, through her cousins, she was ordering highly...