My Michael Magee’s Susan Howe’s Emily Dickinson (’s Jen Bervin’s Billy Collins)

Today’s Reading: Michael Magee, My Angie Dickinson (click links to read some excerpts)

Reread this “classic of flarf”—in which Michael Magee cobbles together Google results into Dickinsonian hyphen-punctured hymn stanzas—and this time feel that I really “got it.” The secret is to relax your ear (mine has been overtrained to hear Dickinson’s characteristic cadences by attempting to write a dissertation chapter on her) so that the flashes of sing-song meter can get into a sexy wrestling match with the stretches of flarfy tumbling syllables. Like in this stanza, from one of the better poems, in which the final line delivers a nonsequitur both in content and in form:

    Nay — near superhuman said —
    Show me the Kournikova hate-mail —
    Show me the ways to button up buttons —
    That have forgotten they’re buttons —
    Show me the Buzz that was —
    Show me the way — to be — Squishy Can Man!

Forget Billy Collins’s creepy groping; this is the way to make (kinky, dirty, embarrassing) love to a fellow-poet and still show you’ll respect her in the morning.

That’s a metaphor that deserves some interrogation, I admit, but there’s a point behind it, and one that I think isn’t entirely alien to Magee’s book. Magee genuflects at the altar of Susan Howe’s Dickinson criticism in his acknowledgements and epigraph; but it’s hard not to believe that Howe is one target of his stated aim to “disrupt some of the pieties around Emily Dickinson’s work that I don’t believe have served her poems very well.” It’s especially tough when you consider that his title is a deliberate parody of Howe’s influential My Emily Dickinson, or that the visual and formal template of his Dickinson pastiches is clearly Ralph W. Franklin’s “domesticating” edition, so strenuously critiqued in the last essay in Howe’s The Birth-mark.

No woman—no person—Magee seems to suggest, could be well served by the kind of dehumanizing reverence that has led some of Howe’s inspirees to transform Dickinson’s most causal jottings into something approaching holy relics. While post-Howian interpreters like Marta Werner or Jen Bervin instill every paratextual mark with a kind of transcendental intentionality that paradoxically reduces Dickinson to the status of divine stenographer, Magee takes the opposite tack—dumping out the contents of Dickinson’s most inherited, least personal forms and refilling them with random junk, pure contingencies, in a way that grants Dickinson the vital human privilege of carelessness and accident. (Not to say that Werner’s and Bervin’s artistic readings don’t produce remarkable works of art in their own rights; it’s their readings, not their writings, that I’m arguing with.)

Bervin’s wordless canvases are, I think, still one layer of erasure shy of totally respecting Dickinson’s intentions—because Dickinson’s most likely intention, based on a lifetime of hoarding poems away in her fascicles, must surely have been that no one read the vast majority of her work at all. Once we admit that to read Dickinson in any presentation is to violate her authorial intent—indeed, to violate her privacy—then what good is there in denying that every edition is a compromise between the privacy of Dickinson’s drawers and the publicity of a Barnes & Noble shelf? Or in denying that every edition expresses the force of a desire as much the editor’s own as the poet’s—the editor’s desire for a certain version of the poet, the editor’s effort to shape that poet into being?

Billy Collins’s version of making love to Emily Dickinson is most unsettling because of the expressly objectifying way that it engages the poet’s person in the place of her poems. But it doesn’t help that Collins too wraps Dickinson up in a lot of depersonalizing pieties, a reverence that paradoxically demands her passivity in direct proportion to her transcendent presence (“the iceberg of her nakedness,” “like riding a swan into the night”)—sort of the way that Kevin Smith could only write a female God as mute. With the most appreciative and feminist of intentions, I want to argue, readers like Werner and Bervin try to write Dickinson as a mute God (less so Howe herself, whose critical work seems torn between humanizing Dickinson’s poetic process and sacrilizing the results of that process). Magee, by having the disrespect to talk back to Dickinson, shows respect enough to engage her work in a conversation—to let Dickinson step down from the pedestal and over to the podium, to acknowledge that the whole asynchronic conversation depends on her having written (written, with all the Derridean implications of the word, not spoken or drawn or channeled) in the first place.

In that spirit, I hope, I’ll give Dickinson the last word, but framed (inevitably) by my own interpretation. In poem #429 in Franklin’s edition, Dickinson eloquently asserts the muteness of the divine in terms that perfectly anticipate post-Howeian, visual readings of Dickinson’s own poems. It’s an inarticulate sort of divinity that, I’d argue, ought to be wished on no creature of language, much less of poetry:

    Omnipotence - had not a Tongue -
    His lisp - is Lightning - and the Sun -
    His Conversation - with the Sea -
    “How shall you know?”
    Consult your Eye!