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  • Wider than the Sky: Essays and Meditations on the Healing Power of Emily Dickinson
  • Heather Harrison Thomas (bio)
MacKenzie Cindy Barbara Dana, eds. Wider than the Sky: Essays and Meditations on the Healing Power of Emily Dickinson. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 2007. Cloth: $30. Paper: $18.

This is a richly varied collection featuring work by scholars, poets, psychologists, writers, actors, a minister, musician, weaver, and others drawn together by their recognition—often achieved during illness, injury or loss—that Emily Dickinson’s poetry has a compelling power to heal. Many of the contributors combine scholarly and personal perspectives with a brilliance that burnishes hardwon knowledge into wisdom. Wider than the Sky offers the reader the intellectual rigor of fresh scholarship along with an emotional touchstone and a spiritual guide.

The title comes, of course, from a Dickinson poem, “The Brain - is wider than the Sky - ” (Fr598), in which the infinite power of the mind approximates, or perhaps even creates, the power of God. Yet despite the sponges and buckets of its metaphors, this poem concerns itself largely with mind as an abstraction. Cindy MacKenzie and Barbara Dana’s book, however, posits the body and its wounds, physical and mental, as “wider than the sky.” Many of the contributors explore the causal relations between physical and psychic pain, both emotional and spiritual. Given that physical pain often prompts mental suffering, and that afflictions of the spirit can manifest themselves in the body, pain can be all-consuming. For many contributors, however, the healing process opens possibilities that are also “wider than the sky.” “The wound we experience opens up a place where boundaries are dissolved, where the oppositions we normally see as separate become intermingled,” writes Dickinson scholar Cindy MacKenzie in her essay “It ceased to hurt me: Emily Dickinson’s Language of Consolation.” “In fact, we [End Page 113] enter a spiritual dimension that, as disorienting and painful as it might be, has the capacity to bring us enlightenment and peace” (57).

Essays by Dickinson scholars Ellen Louise Hart, Cynthia Hogue, Joan Kirkby, Joy Ladin, Polly Longsworth, and Martha Nell Smith excavate the trials of divorce, illness, injury, and grief within a variety of critical frameworks from phenomenological and psychoanalytic to sociopolitical and epistolary. Poet Gregory Orr meditates on Dickinson’s poetry as an act of survival with redemptive value for his own work: “The writing of her poems is how she survived” (13). Orr argues that the act of writing allows poets and readers to “create a symbolic, linguistic model of a volatile subjectivity, be it suffering or joy, not with the aim of abolishing it but of dramatizing it and giving it shape.” This process transforms one from passive victim to “active, ordering agent” (13). It is a transformation that many of the book’s contributors experience as readers and writers, thanks in part to their interactions with Dickinson’s poems.

Co-editor Barbara Dana, an author and actor, joins writers from outside academe, including Mell McDonnell, who writes of reciting “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers - ” (Fr314) during the descent of United Airlines Flight 232. Authorlecturer Marion Woodman overcame a childhood depression with Dickinson’s help; weaver Susan Hess breaks through a lifelong silence in a display of tapestries that interpret Dickinson’s poems; freelance writer Linda Richard voices grief over the loss of her son through a poem inspired by Dickinson; minister Bruce Bode presents a sermon based on a Dickinson poem; and pianist Ellen Bacon, widow of composer Ernst Bacon, writes of his work inspired by Dickinson. The book also includes brief testimonials from scholar Roland Hagenbüchle, author Joyce Carol Oates, illustrator Maurice Sendak, actors Julie Harris and Ann Jackson, poet Richard Wilbur, and others.

The meditations on the consoling and inspiring effects of Dickinson’s poetry on diverse readers are unfailingly poignant. But Wider than the Sky extends its reach beyond the suffering of the singular body to that of the body politic, inscribing a connection between them. As Cynthia Hogue argues, “the ill body takes us out of ourselves, points us to larger ills than those of any individual” (111). Ellen Louise Hart’s essay, “May the Circle Be...


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pp. 113-116
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