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  • Emily Degree Zero
  • Steve McCaffery (bio)

A poem with extensive footnotes that meditates on Dickinson's poetry in relation to Tennyson's dramatic use of parallel double lines (a super dash?) in "In Memoriam."

She writes—"under"—the murky name— Scott Precipice—leaps then— limps and—sips— an efficacious syntagma—sutured by dashing: 1 the Stitch—and always—the stretched chocolate—Falcon—now Owl—bitter— counterpart—anodynes lost— at Night—she is the bedroom of— cold Kinsmen 2 —a fly 3 —surprised by daylight and always— among incidents—final rooms 4 —recorded in—the Ledger— of the sweet—and sour—among— the "Frogs"—of "last Week"—5

Steve McCaffery

Poet, theoretician, critic and performance artist Steve McCaffery is author of more than twenty volumes of poetry and author or co-author of four critical books. A founding member of the Toronto Research Group, he was for two decades a member of the sound text ensemble Four Horsemen. His next two books of poetry will appear next Spring: Paradigm of the Tinctures (with illustrations by Alan Halsey) from Granary Books, and Slightly Left of Thinking (Chax P). He lives in Buffalo where he is David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters at the University at Buffalo.


1. The scandal of Todd-Higginson's 1890 bowdlerized version of Dickinson's quatrains is now exposed and uniformly lamented. (It is surely a scandal to rival Walter Skeat's modernization of Chatterton's language in the Rowley poems.) Her trademark dashes and capitals are removed; articles replaced by possessive pronouns. Restored to the author's original fascicle-versions we have the true material complexities of Dickinson's texts for engagement: an idiosyncratic poetics of suspension? What is the effect of those parasemantic sigla, those dashes covering the silence between the words as much as overcoding the syntax? The suggestion is clearly one of ambivalence: a simultaneous connecting, an anticipatory gesture toward articulation, and at the same time a difference, arrest, a separation. She is not the first to adopt this practice. Dashes proliferate in Keats' letters, for instance, and appear to a lesser extent in the poetry. (Keats's idiosyncratic spelling is also worth remarking, a stylistic oddity deriving from the fact that he used

2. Alison Brackenbury sees Dickinson as "the spider not the fly": an apt observation. Where Whitman famously extends the line symbolically into vast, unchartered topographies, Dickinson contracts, restrains, thereby torqueing and crystallizing the semantic of her verse lines into corymbs and convolutes. They shock as well as trap. (My quote of Brackenbury, a contemporary British poet, is taken from Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets. New York: Knopf, 1999: 473.)

3. Dickinson's spiritual link is not to Whitman but to a different Emily, the Emily of Gondal and bleak moors. Also more surrealistically to Virgil, the other Virgil of Biggorre, whose most memorable insight that "the wise man sucks the blood of wisdom…leech of the veins" Emily Dickinson would no doubt have admired.

4. How best to read those 1775 quatrains? The Johnson 1955 two-volume edition restores the original idiosyncrasies of the fascicles, but the poet Bob Grenier offers a splendid alternative to the two Harvard volumes in his Sentences (Cambridge, MA: Whale Cloth Press, 1978). Here's the recipe: inscribe each quatrain on a separate index card, then shuffle and lay out on the largest surface you can find. A new collected Dickinson will emerge that offers randomness an opportunity to organize a multiplicity of reading paths. Grenier's text comprises 500 sentences on individual index cards 5" x 8" and housed in a Chinese cloth box.

5. The final line quotes (from memory) Dickinson's amazing quatrain beginning "The Frogs got Home last Week -" (Fr983) a line that instantly puts me in mind of Gilbert White's immensely readable journals. Compare his entry for July 10 1796: "Young frogs migrate, & spread around the ponds for more than a furlong: they march about all day long, separating in pursuit of food; & get to the top of the hill, & into the N. field" (Gilbert White's Journals, ed. Walter Johnson. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1970: 126). Like Dickinson's poems, White's Journals...


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