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"Of Strangers is the Earth the Inn": Still life, Scale, and Deep Time in Emily Dickinson

This year's EDIS session at MLA, "Of Strangers is the Earth the Inn," will feature a cluster of papers sounding the intertwining motifs of still life, deep time, and scale for reading Dickinson in the shadow of the anthropocene.
Chair: Marta L. Werner, Professor of English, D'Youville College
Isabel Sobral Campos, Assistant Professor of Literature, Dept. of Liberal Studies, Montana Tech
Zachary Tavlin, PhD candidate, Dept. of English, University of Washington
Amy R. Nestor, Assistant Professor of Literature, Dept. of English, Georgetown University—Qatar
Keith M. Mikos, Lecturer, Dept. of English, DePaul University
For questions about this panel, please contact Marta Werner @

"just a Life I left": Still Life Painting, Emily Dickinson, and the Anthropocene

Isabel Sobral Campos, Assistant Professor of Literature, Dept. of Liberal Studies,
Montana Tech

Looking at objects has been the purview of still-life painting, an interest which has relegated the genre to a relatively marginal status within the field of art history. This marginality is connected to the humility of the subject matter and to the decidedly gendered nature of many scenes represented in such painting (the domestic being overwhelmingly the territory of the genre). I will examine Emily Dickinson's poetry through the lens of still-life. By this comparison, I seek to show the relevance of both the genre and Dickinson's poetry to environmental thinking in the era of the Anthropocene. My intention is not to graft onto Dickinson's poems twentieth-first century environmental discourse but rather to show her [End Page 103] poetry's potential for a new ecological awareness so urgently needed. On the other hand, by assuming that still life painting is a genre that reveals the environmental and ontological conundrums that characterize modernity and that still plague our epoch, I am suggesting that a comparison of Dickinson's poems with this genre will distill these preoccupations further.

There are two ways in which still life may inform us about Dickinson's poems. Firstly, her poetry shares with still life paintings commonly found topoi. In this sense, the content of the poems—their conceptual focus—corresponds to concerns found in the paintings, particular in those belonging to the vanitas subgenre. Secondly, approached as compositions of images, Dickinson's poems relate to the tableaux of still life for they reflect similar intimate domestic scenes: the interior, decontextualized spaces filled with things and without people. Although Dickinson's multiple poems about flowers rarely, if ever, depict them cut off from their natural environment to be placed on a vase, many flower poems replicate the "close up" detailed-oriented form of the still life. Without a doubt, many other poems concerned with flowers and broadly with nature approach the wide breath of landscape painting, rather than the humbleness of the detail. St. Armand, Farr, and others have examined this connection. The noteworthy link between the intimacy of still life and many of her poems remains unexamined, however. As I hope to show, its significance should not be overlooked. Ultimately, the connection between still life and Dickinson's poems serves to uncover the ecological thread existing in her poetry as much as reveal the ecological dimension of still life painting.

Still-life presents the compositional field freed from the aegis of the human subject's all-controlling gaze. It shows things (dead matter, debris, waste) left to themselves and no longer under the sway of function or purpose. Yet still-life painting also presents decomposing processes, for example, of flowers or food, as animated. Certain Dickinson poems, in their imagery and topoi, accomplish these same things. Ecology seeks to bring into the open these often snubbed relationships to the small. What we see better, we do not destroy as readily. Or at least philosophers from Adam Smith to Emmanuel Levinas have us believe that when face-to-face with the pain of others, empathy triumphs over self-interest. [End Page 104]

Plashless as She Sees: Dickinson's Glancing Stitch

Zachary Tavlin, PhD candidate, Dept. of English, University of Washington


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pp. 103-106
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