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  • Reading the Fascicles of Emily Dickinson: Dwelling in Possibilities
  • Paul Crumbley
Reading the Fascicles of Emily Dickinson: Dwelling in Possibilities. By Eleanor Elson Heginbotham. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2003. 185 pp. $47.95.

Between 1858 and 1864 , Emily Dickinson gathered almost nine hundred of her holograph poems into forty hand-stitched booklets known as the fascicles, each averaging between sixteen and twenty-four pages in length. In Reading the Fascicles of Emily Dickinson, Eleanor Heginbotham approaches these manuscript books with the assumption that Dickinson was the editor of her own work and that the deliberate groupings of poems can suggest new ways of reading and interpreting them. Acknowledging her interest in Dickinson's "artistic" rather than her "biographical presence" (ix), Heginbotham negotiates the difficult problem of authorial intent by concentrating on "various possibilities for interpretation" rather than a single narrative thread; in this manner, she dedicates herself to illuminating "the playful and inventive mind of Emily Dickinson at her workshop." The outcome is an enthusiastic seven-chapter study of the interpretive possibilities that arise from reading the poems in their fascicle contexts. "Whatever else we do with the poems," Heginbotham urges, "we must also read and teach Dickinson through her own context" (141).

One of the guiding principles informing Heginbotham's work is her conviction that Dickinson's arrangement of poems within fascicles sets in motion dialogic relationships that illuminate the poet's process of poetic creation. Accepting the fact that the precise meanings Dickinson juggled in this most private form of publication remain forever lost to today's readers, Heginbotham strenuously argues that repetitions of key words and images, as well as line breaks and poem sequences, can clarify the artistic vision that structured the fascicles. To demonstrate this point, Heginbotham opens her book by explaining that the placement of "They shut me up in Prose" and "This was a Poet" on facing pages of Fascicle 21 constitutes an important declaration of the "subversive and affective possibilities of poetry" (18). Specifically, the escape from entrapment detailed in the first poem is reflected in the second when the poet "de/stills" "amazing sense ... From the familiar species / That perished by the Door" (1 7). Similarly, the location of "God permits industrious Angels" on the page opposing "The Sun just touched the / Morning" in Fascicle 10 magnifies the role the sun assumes in both poems as a masculine authority whose austere prescriptions stand in tension with a feminine "angel ... who entices the speaker to ... play a queen" in one poem and a feminine "Morning ... on Holiday" in the other (76-77). Here, as in the preceding pair of facing poems, Heginbotham presents Dickinson's delineation of oppositions as central to an aesthetic that understands poetic creation as a dynamic balancing act.

The strength of this study lies in Heginbotham's demonstration that reading poems in fascicle contexts encourages interpretations that are either not apparent or not as vivid when the poems are read in isolation. Such is the case with her analysis of "The Lamp burns sure—within," a poem appearing in Fascicle 10 that has excited a great deal of critical interest because of its references to "Serfs" and a "Slave." According to Heginbotham, "Slave and serf ... may seem exotically out of place in Amherst, but in this fascicle's depiction of crowned heads and doges, perhaps they are not. Moreover, they may serve as only somewhat hyperbolic representatives of women, even privileged nineteenth-century women in lawyers' homes" (78). Less striking, perhaps, but equally revealing of the interpretive possibilities inherent in Heginbotham's approach is her reading of "Safe in their Alabaster / Chambers," also in Fascicle [End Page 251] 10. In this instance, Heginbotham reads the poem as a line-by-line conversation with "You're right—the way is / narrow," the poem that faces it on the previous page. "So we see," Heginbotham observes, "the 'narrow' road of the poem on the left poised against the sterile 'Alabaster Chambers' of the darkly dead; we see the gate that is difficult to 'Enter in—thereat—' poised against the Rafter and Roof of the Alabaster Chambers..." (84). Heginbotham's point, ultimately, is that her reading intensifies...


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