- Fair Copy by Hazelton, Rebecca, and: The Emily Dickinson Reader: An English-to-English Translation of Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems by Legault, Paul
Taking her work as their inspiration, Fair Copy and The Emily Dickinson Reader show both the rewards and risks of contemporary poets’ sustained engagement with Dickinson’s poetry. In Fair Copy, Rebecca Hazelton adapts a series of Dickinson’s first lines as acrostics for her own poems. These acrostics offer form and limit to a collection whose tone tends to be both whimsical and evasive, whose handling of line is often astonishingly virtuosic, and whose material is only “personal” in the coyest and most mercurial of ways. Some of these claims can characterize notes in Dickinson’s oeuvre itself; it is unsurprising, then, that Hazelton describes the book as “a conversation” with Dickinson’s poetry. Hazelton’s choice of acrostic lines also depended on an element of chance: “On my 29th birthday, I began a formal experiment with Emily Dickinson’s work. I took my copy of The Complete Works of Emily Dickinson and selected the first line of every 29th poem” (56).
Such a method does not have the urgency of, for example, Anna Rabinowitz’s Darkling (2001), a book-length poem that acrostically spelled out the entirety of Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” throughout a family narrative involving the Holocaust: in the peripheral visitation that acrostics provide, Hardy’s melancholic scene becomes eerily prescient of genocide during the Second World War. In contrast, Hazelton’s counting may initially seem an under-theorized or even self-indulgent approach to gathering lines for acrostic use. But the poems in Fair Copy can often feel satisfying in an almost subterranean way, as if this poet’s [End Page 100] interrogation of Dickinson were taking place along pre-verbal or even arterial channels. Take, for example, the opening of “[I gave myself to Him—]”:
I thought it something small. Everything was. Girling from one party to another—I was the prettiest abbess, my wimple crisply folded, my cocktail habit vaccinating me against all thought. Amor vincit omnia engraved the length of my thigh(5)
What compels here is the tonal estrangement between Dickinson’s inaugural line and the weird scene narrated in Hazelton’s stanza—which goes on to uncover, letter by acrostic letter, some previously inchoate textures in Dickinson’s declarative itself. The enjambment separating “prettiest” from the surprise “abbess,” with its wink of near-rhyme, is a snapshot of Hazelton’s lyric deftness and density, qualities that she uses to strong and sometimes even thrilling effect in the collection. The microscopically plotted shape-shifting of the tattooed, “girling” monastic is also typical of the book as a whole—which, in Dickinsonian manner, turns on shocks of identity that are inhabited and lost by speakers both contemporary and anachronistic: some women, some men.
Hazelton’s linguistic agility is a distinct pleasure in the collection, yet the passage also shows one of her rhetorical temptations: a strong proclivity for anthimeria, or the substitution of one part of speech for another (for example, “girling”), which comes across as too much manner after a while. Also, a yen for repetition culminates in the word “pretty” being repeated six times in a poem near the end of the book, an entire section of which leans too heavily on the word and concept of “world.” This knee-jerk abstraction looks like a grasping at gravitas, which the collection has no need to do.
To Hazelton’s credit, however—and perhaps ultimately to Dickinson’s— these impulses do not take over the work. Dickinson’s hand seems nearly “living” here, in the Keatsian sense: it functions as a curbing limit that, in the guise of acrostics, constrains an ever-hovering specter of excess as rhyme and meter might do in other contexts.
Dead people’s startlingly “living” hands—and sexy nuns, for that matter...