- Inflections of the Pen: Dash and Voice in Emily Dickinson
Paul Crumbley prompts us to appreciate anew the writtenness of Dickinson. His discussion of her use of dashes as we apprehend them in the manuscripts not only adds to the ongoing discussion of her punctuation but augments our understanding of the multiple voices in Dickinson’s poems. He cues his title from a Dickinson letter that emphasizes the faculties of the penover the speaking voice. Dickinson observes that “a Pen has so many inflections and a Voice but one” (L559, #471), and Crumbley sees this conviction as [End Page 115] “one basis for Dickinson’s employment of so many voices” (115). The multivocality of Dickinson’s poems and letters allows her to present a personality’s many perspectives, vying with and caroming off each other, not so as to decide finally on a single, totalizing voice but rather to present a confluence of phases and characters, all of which inform any single utterance. In order to facilitate an understanding of multivocality Crumbley gracefully interweaves theoretical strands from Bakhtinian dialogics and Kristevan “revolutionary” poetics in which “the reader must observe the subject’s participation in multiple discourses” (Crumbley 18). The theoretical context works well to trace some of Dickinson’s most powerful expression without bruising the webbings of her poems.
One of the primary methods of Inflections of the Pen involves reading transcriptions of the manuscripts against different print editions of Dickinson’s work. Crumbley, most often considering entire poems, argues for multivocality or heteroglossia as indicated by the presence and character of dashes and other elements in the manuscript poems. For instance, in the poem, “Dare you see a Soul at the / ‘White Heat’?” (P365, Franklin 440–41), Crumbley notes that a particular line, when read in the fascicle version, expands to two lines and thus emphasizes a break in the compound word, “blacksmith.” The lines, “Least Village, boasts its Black - / smith - ,” draw attention to the opposition of black with the bright light of the forge, while “smith” on a line by itself “connotes the anonymity of a common profession and surname”(8). Such insights offer a new way of thinking about familiar poems.
Crumbley adds to scholarship concerning not only the poems but the letters. In a later chapter he discusses the dash and multivocality in Dickinson’s letters to good effect. I especially enjoyed his argument that Dickinson uses multivocal strategies in her letters to Higginson; after reading that chapter I was convinced that apprehending the polyvocal essences of Dickinson’s correspondence with Higginson is the way to read those letters. Many such readings of letters and poems prove scintillating, and the attention to the workings of the words as well as the workings between the words make Crumbley’s readings eminently worthy of study.
The perspective also serves to empower the reader — any reader — of Dickinson’s poems, and to reiterate the difficult, sensual, and utterly involving task of engaging with her work. In fact one of the biggest rewards of Inflections of the Pen is this renewed sense of reader involvement: “The dash liberates meaning from a syntax that would ordinarily narrow the field of reference for specific words; at the same time it alerts readers to the role they play in expanding these fields of reference” (29). The book is smart and expansive. As [End Page 116] with Sharon Cameron’s Choosing Not Choosing, I sensed all the openings-up of language, the essential role the reader plays in the texts of Dickinson.
This is clearly the look of the twenty-first-century Dickinson: differently sized dashes, ascending and descending, and tilts and crosses, and word variants exposed on the page. Crumbley draws heavily on the work of Cameron, Susan Howe, and Martha Nell Smith in order to present a print version of the manuscripts closer than ever before to Dickinson’s original. Bird claws of dashes walk across the lines, and the effect to the uninitiate may prove almost as startling as the 1955 Johnson edition looked to...