- Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference by Vivian R. Pollak
The title of Vivian R. Pollak’s intriguing, expansive, and innovative book inevitably echoes Susan Howe’s ground-breaking publication from 1985, My Emily Dickinson. However, both the change in the possessive pronoun and the pluralisation of the subject are crucial. If Howe’s Dickinson reaches heroically, by means of poetry, beyond “worldly chronology” and lives her life primarily through language, Pollak’s Dickinson is a more regressive poetic figure, impossible to separate from the myths of her life and her gender, from the fearful and perhaps even “shameful” legacy of her isolation.1 Indeed, for Pollak, being curious about Dickinson’s life and being unable to separate her life and work has distinguished many of the most important twentieth-century women poets, who have interpreted her in markedly different ways. There is no single tradition that can be assimilated and handed on; instead there are different associations and versions that suit the different poets’ own psychological and professional needs. It is in Pollak’s words a “‘spasmodic’ literary history,” its lack of continuity also following, of course, the peculiar publishing history of Dickinson’s poetry itself (p. 3).
One of Pollak’s great strengths in Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference is her capacity to find different angles or “slants” to tell her story; the other is the depth of her historical [End Page 503] and archival research. Hence, the introduction foregrounds Muriel Rukeyser, whose changing response to Dickinson is little documented but whose intermittent comments in both The Life of Poetry (1949) and her biography of J. Willard Gibbs help Pollak establish important themes and anxieties. Rukeyser asks whether it is possible to overdo separateness and self-sufficiency as a poet and what happens if we return Dickinson to the historical and social context of her life. Pollak picks up this line of inquiry. Instead of eschewing biography, Pollak wants to use it—so long as it is historically accurate—to help establish connections between women poets and their critics and probe the extent of Dickinson’s own, often muffled, associations.
The focus in the first two chapters on nineteenth-century literary figures is surprising given the book’s orientation to the twentieth century; however, they explore the importance of Dickinson’s own associations and provide us with much original insight through the exploration of an almost forgotten contemporary and writer, Helen Hunt Jackson, who battled with Dickinson about the publication of her work, and Mabel Loomis Todd, who succeeded in bringing Dickinson posthumously into print in the 1890s and whose story is intimately bound up with Dickinson’s. History may have reviled Todd’s editing practices, but the fact that this first shaping of Dickinson’s life and reputation takes place within an entangled web of familial and other attachments adds a density and complexity to our knowledge of Dickinson and her work. Pollak asks repeatedly what the role of biographical detail is and what happens when we place it beside the myths and versions that get created through others’ needs. She questions, is there ever any life that is unconnected to others’ lives or that can be told without the interventions and constructions of others?
The ability to follow threads, whether they belong to life or writing, and let the details themselves call up associations and trace a story is a key feature of this book. Telling the story of one poet’s connection with Dickinson often cannot be done without invoking other poets nor can it be done without thinking about the nature of the complex patterning of intimacy and identity in any particular poet’s life. For Marianne Moore, for instance, who never pretended she was not curious about others’ lives, Dickinson could help justify her own “peculiar” life choices. Both in discussing Moore and in her chapter on Elizabeth Bishop, Pollak incorporates new research and writes with sensitivity about the complex...