- Fashioning the Female Subject: The Intertextual Networking of Dickinson, Moore, and Rich
Sabine Sielke’s Fashioning the Female Subject is an intertextual study of three paradigmatic American women poets — Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, and Adrienne Rich, and traces the historical transformations female subjectivity has undergone since the middle of the nineteenth century. Each of its three major chapters on Dickinson and Moore (Chapter 1), Moore and Rich (Chapter 2), and Rich and Dickinson (Chapter 3) puts these poets productively in dialogue with each other, as well as with other less representative but nevertheless significant poets, among them Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop. This study thus foregrounds and illuminates issues of representation of female subjectivity that recur, in different forms, for over a century, shaped by their particular cultural, historical contexts.
The study’s well-nuanced psychoanalytic approach is enhanced by Sielke’s having read Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, among others, in the original. Sielke’s dialogic analysis thoughtfully asserts that “the difference between deconstructive and reconstructive writing practices is a difference within rather than between texts” (10). Because of the depth of Sielke’s comprehension of Kristeva’s La révolution du langage poétique, and consequently the integration of theory and interpretation that she is able to achieve in her application of this theoretical approach, there is a sense of scope and renewed urgency to her poststructuralist readings (indeed, her re-vision, one might say). In addition, Sielke not only builds on the work of such foundational critics in the field as Roland Hagenbüchle, Jean Garrigue, Joanne Feit Diehl, and Cristanne Miller, among others, but grounds her argument in extensive — and in Moore’s case, original — archival research.
Although the book is strong overall, Chapter 1, “Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore: Select Defects — Disrupted Discourse and the Body,” is to my mind the most splendidly realized. Arguing that Dickinson and Moore share, in their language-conscious poetics, formal concerns not to conform to but to transgress linguistic boundaries and destabilize the speaking subject, Sielke explores the ways in which their radically gendered aesthetics put into signification the crisis of the male subject and question dominant representations of [End Page 118] the female as body. Both poets, Sielke asserts, project the female subject that emerges from this interrogation as a “third event” (Dickinson’s term): “a somewhat disengendered or in-between subject” (20).
Pursuing the trail opened up by the poet Jean Garrigue in the 1960s, Sielke superbly considers Moore’s own contemplation of Dickinson, based upon thorough analysis of both Moore’s published review of a centennial edition of Dickinson’s Selected Letters (ed. Todd) and her unpublished reading notes from the 1930s. One especially appreciates what Sielke makes of some of Moore’s most abbreviated notes. On the back of one page of the unpublished notes, for example, Moore copied out poem 303 (“The Soul Selects”) and noted in the margins, “cf. Mallarmé.” Sielke then fascinatingly discusses the relationship of both poets to Mallarmé’s aesthetic of extremes, a discussion cogently mediated through Kristeva’s reading of Mallarmé. For example, critics will find Sielke’s analysis of one of Moore’s most enigmatic published comments about Dickinson, that is, “the independence of the subjunctive, and many another select defect,” as useful and acute as the chapter as a whole.
Chapter 2, “Marianne Moore and Adrienne Rich: Daughters-in-Law or Outlaws?,” casts the dialogue between these two poets by way of Irigaray’s notion of mimicry, analyzing the destabilization of their poetic subjects by means of their employment of quotation and their valorization of the maternal. Sielke suggests that both poets use quotation and Irigarayan mimicry as a strategic acting out of the function that women historically have been assigned, reproduction, at the same time as they ironically undermine the very functions they expose. This chapter asserts both poets’ “subversive potential” through such textual travesties but also raises critical questions — “what exactly is being deconstructed, what is reinforced by Moore’s and Rich’s mimic performances?” (13...