Paula Bennett: On 754 ("My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--")

No poem written by a woman poet more perfectly captures the nature, the difficulties, and the risks involved in this task of self-redefinition and self-empowerment than the poem that stands at the center of this book, Emily Dickinson's brilliant and enigmatic "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun":

[. . . .]

Composed during the period when Dickinson had reached the height of her poetic prowess, "My Life had stood" represents the poet's most extreme attempt to characterize the Vesuvian nature of the power or art which she believed was hers. Speaking through the voice of a gun, Dickinson presents herself in this poem as everything "woman" is not: cruel not pleasant, hard not soft, emphatic not weak, one who kills not one who nurtures. just as significant, she is proud of it, so proud that the temptation is to echo Robert Lowell's notorious description of Sylvia Plath, and say that in "My Life had stood," Emily Dickinson is "hardly a person at all, or a woman, certainly not another 'poetess.’"

Like the persona in Plath's Ariel poems, in "My Life had stood," Dickinson's speaker has deliberately shed the self-protective layers of conventional femininity, symbolized in the poem by the doe and the deep pillow of the "masochistic" eider duck. In the process the poet uncovers the true self within, in all its hardness and rage, in its desire for revenge and aggressive, even masculine, sexuality (for this is, after all, one interpretation of the gun in the poem). The picture of Dickinson that emerges, like the picture of Plath that emerges from the "big strip tease" of "Lady Lazarus" (CP245) and other Ariel poems, is not an attractive one. But, again like Plath, Dickinson is prepared to embrace it nevertheless--together with all other aspects of her unacceptable self. Indeed, embracing the true or unacceptable self appears to be the poem's raison d'etre, just as it is the raison d'etre of Plath's last poems.

In writing "My Life had stood," Dickinson clearly transgresses limits no woman, indeed no human being, could lightly afford to break. And to judge by the poem's final riddling stanza, a conundrum that critics have yet to solve satisfactorily, she knew this better than anyone. As Adrienne Rich has observed, Dickinson's underlying ambivalence toward the powers her speaker claims to exercise through her art (the powers to "hunt," "speak, " "smile," "guard," and "kill") appears to be extreme. Of this ambivalence and its effect on women poets, Rich has written most poignantly, perhaps, because of her own position as poet. For Rich there is no easy way to resolve the conflict entangling Dickinson in the poem. "If there is a female consciousness in this poem," she writes,

it is buried deeper than the images: it exists in the ambivalence toward power, which is extreme. Active willing and creation in women are forms of aggression, and aggression is both "the power to kill" and punishable by death. The union of gun with hunter embodies the danger of identifying and taking hold of her forces, not least that in so doing she risks defining herself--and being defined--as aggressive, as unwomanly ("and now We hunt the Doe"), and as potentially lethal.

Yet despite these dangers and despite her recognition of the apparent dehumanization her persona courts, in "My Life had stood" Emily Dickinson does take precisely the risks that Rich describes. In the poem's terms, she is murderous. She is a gun. Her rage is part of her being. Indeed, insofar as it permits her to explode and hence to speak, rage defines her, unwomanly and inhuman though it is. Whatever constraints existed in her daily life (the breathless and excessive femininity so well described by her preceptor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson), inwardly it would seem Emily Dickinson was not to be denied. In her art she was master of herself, whatever that self was, however aggressive, unwomanly, or even inhuman society might judge it to be.

Given Dickinson's time and upbringing, it would, of course, have been unlikely that she, any more than we today, would have been comfortable with the high degree of anger and alienation which she exhibits in this extraordinary poem. But the anger and the alienation are there and, whether we are comfortable or not, like Dickinson we must deal with them. If, as Adrienne Rich asserts, "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun" is a "central poem in understanding Emily Dickinson, and ourselves, and the condition of the woman artist, particularly in the nineteenth century," it is so precisely because Dickinson was prepared to grapple in it with so many unacceptable feelings within herself. Whatever else "My Life had stood" may be about, it is about the woman as artist, the woman who must deny her femininity, even perhaps her humanity, if she is to achieve the fullness of her self and the fullness of her power in her verse.

From My Life a Loaded Gun: Dickinson, Plath, Rich, and Female Creativity. Copyright © 1986 by Paula Bennett. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Robert Faggen: On "The Witch of Coös"

. . . Though the whole story appears to be a show the mother and son have developed for gullible visitors, the mother takes her spiritualism seriously and becomes troubled by some of its contradictions, particularly its failure to account for the material reality of the body as well as its desire to accommodate itself to the standards of proof of modern science. Inspired by "Ralle the Sioux Control," an Indian spiritualist who made her ponder the question of whether the dead "have souls" or are souls, she posits the persistence of a bodily, visceral presence, evoking the old religious controversy about what happens to the dead between the time of death and the resurrection. Caught between the Pauline view that in the resurrection we shall be given new bodies and the Neoplatonic view of purely spiritual resurrection, she fears the possibility of remaining in an earthly limbo. Christian and pagan intersect in her mind in a terrifying way, and she does reveal herself to be an old believer, despite the put-on way she appeals to the evidence of pieces of bone to accommodate modern skepticism:

[lines 1-20]

The story about the bones, however, exposes her desire to reanimate lost power, and the skeleton becomes a metaphor for her self. Like the dead, she too is "keeping something back," which makes her more compelling, threatening. Behind her story about the resurrected bones—a skeleton in the closet—is her deeper psychological fear and, above all, guilt about her past.

The story about the skeleton tells a great deal about her attempts to overcome the coldness in her marriage and the cruelty of men. Her husband, Toffile, faults her for going "to sleep before [she goes] to bed," but one senses that the conditions he has created for her are equally cool, and that he feared her sexuality as much as she feared his control, leaving "an open door to cool the room off / So as to sort of turn me out of it":

[lines 36-43]

As she presents the resurrected skeleton, she creates a fantasy of control over its passion, "balancing with emotion," and fear of its desire, fire emanating from its mouth and smoke from its sockets. And she reminds herself and the narrator that "in life once" the man used to come at her with hand outstretched, perhaps with some violence. Both fond of what she has provoked and fearing it, she exerts ultimate control by knocking its bones to pieces on the floor and keeping them for proof (or so she would like the narrator to believe!).

[lines 65-81]

More important is the way she uses her sorcery to seduce her indifferent husband, reducing his egregiousness, and demanding a display of sexual prowess:

[lines 90-103]

Toffile, her husband, never saw the skeleton, and she told him that she had trapped it in the attic, pushing the bed against the door, nailing it shut. The imagined proximity of the skeleton to the bed keeps excitement—through threat of intrusion and her fantasy—in the marriage.

As much as she is fascinated by the skeleton and uses it to torment Toffile it also becomes a taboo by which she remains faithful to Toffile and his memory. She will be "cruel" to the bones for the cruelty she once inflicted on her husband by her infidelity:

[lines 125-134]

We finally learn the deeper tragedy behind her storytelling: Toffile had killed the man who had an affair with her and buried him in the cellar. This was more than enough for both of them to be tormented by the idea of the skeleton, for their guilt in a crime, for the inadequate burial of the dead:

[lines 135-151]

What we find out or can infer about the "witch"'s life is more horrible than the story she might be concocting to sell to visitors. Sexual jealousy, murder, loneliness, and fear are the memorable aspects of her domestic experience. She refuses to become spiritually buried by her past, but her spiritualism cannot hide her dependence on the memory of the passion she inspired in her lover and in her husband and of the guilt over the tragedy that it created. Only at the end is there an exasperated disavowal of her attempt to hide her life behind the mask of spiritualism: "But tonight I don't care enough to lie— / I don't remember why I ever cared." If this is just another mask for the narrator, it is a doubt overcome when he sees her husband's name, Toffile Lajway, still on the mailbox.

From Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Copyright © 1997 by The University of Michigan

Richard Poirier: On "The Witch of Coös"

Frost's sense of the plight of women who have nothing but a home to keep - with too little work if childless, too much if there are boarders or workers on the farm - is responsible for a series of remarkable poems about the frustrations of imagination and its consequent expression in the distorted forms of obsession, lies, or madness. Very often "home" is the prison of madness, recognized as such by the keepers and so acknowledged by the victims. . . .

A pattern seems to emerge from these poems. In "The Witch of Coös". . .we have a woman imagining a figure of insane, frustrated, and obscene sexuality caged in a house with a married couple. And this married couple, too, is ever so subtly characterized as possibly sexless, possibly frigid, and therefore potentially obscene. On the night of her vision

The bulkhead double doors were double-locked

And swollen tight and buried under snow.

The cellar windows were banked up with sawdust

And swollen tight and buried under snow.

The repetitions give an emotional intensity that might be expected from a woman who wants to interpret the always unsteady movements of a skeleton, reputed to be her former lover, as a "balancing with emotion." This is the same women who, before she offers her images of something "swollen tight and buried under snow," admits that

                The only fault my husband found with me --

I went to sleep before I went to bed,

Especially in winter when the bed

Might just as well be ice and the clothes snow.

The night the bones came up the cellar stairs

Toffile had gone to bed alone and left me,

But left an open door to cool the room off

So as to sort of turn me out of it.

A widow now, with a son who seems surprised at her willingness to tell a stranger that the skeleton was of a man who once had his way with her, she at least has the pleasure, having also put her husband in the grave, of a bed to herself and some distraught bones that at night sometimes come down from the attic to "stand perplexed / Behind the door and headboard of the bed / Brushing their chalky skull with chalky fingers."

. . . .

The story is of a skeleton who, in the words of the son,

left the cellar forty years ago

And carried itself like a pile of dishes

Up one flight from the cellar to the kitchen,

Another from the kitchen to the bedroom,

Another from the bedroom to the attic,

Right past both father and mother, and neither stopped it.

Father had gone upstairs; mother was downstairs.

I was a baby: I don't know where I was.

Once more we have an account of something by somebody who did not see it and who, perhaps for that reason, extemporizes in vivid and show-off metaphors, such as the memorable skeleton that, according to the son, "carried itself like a pile of dishes." Understandably, the mother, in her account, chooses a metaphor no less inventive but somewhat more romantic - the bones are put together "like a chandelier":

I had a vision of them put together

Not like a man, but like a chandelier.

So suddenly I flung the door wide on him.

A moment he stood balancing with emotion,

And all but lost himself. (A tongue of fire

Flashed out and licked along his upper teeth.

Smoke rolled inside the sockets of his eyes.)

Then he came at me with one hand outstretched,

The way he did in life once; but this time

I struck the hand off brittle on the floor,

And fell back from him on the floor myself.

The finger-pieces slid in all directions.

The telltale keepsake bone cannot be found in the button box, and even if it could it would not prove that the skeleton was a former lover killed by her husband, Toffile. All Toffile does, even by her account, is act like an unusually indulgent mate, willing to believe his wife's claim that a skeleton has come up from the basement, though he cannot see it or hear it. He is then willing to bolt the attic, never to open it again, as if to support her further claim, never more substantiated than any of the others, that the skeleton has chosen to go there.

. . . .

In a peculiar way, his treatment of women recalls a nineteenth-century novelistic convention in which the repression of women, and the restriction on their active participation in the outdoor world, force them into exercises of free imagination and fancy.

From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright © 1977 by Oxford University Press.

Grace Akers on

Robert Dale Parker (1988)

Much depends on how we take the ending. When I first read it, I laughed out loud at the final line, and felt delighted at what I took for a trivial and charming little appreciation of motherhood. I mention that response because it may be a common one, and surely there is some truth to it. Bishop is a poet of great charm. But as we ponder the ending it gets more and more suggestive. "Somebody loves us all" – unless the poem’s evidence, namely a doily, a taboret, a begonia, and some neatly arranged cans of motor oil, doesn’t justify such an all-inclusiveness, so that the final line becomes ironic. We can read it with a sarcastic accent on somebody, as if to admit wryly that maybe somebody is fool enough to love even this oil-soaked father and his greasy sons.

… Indeed, Bishop’s work is preoccupied with motherhood, sometimes in the most unlikely places. … The unseen but much pointed to mother of "Filling station" thus seems part of a private obsession, perhaps unacknowledged, but still urgently felt as central to Bishop’s world.

For the final line of "Filling Station" turns to herself and turns to us all. The unexpected cropping up of first person plural at the end is part of what so greatly expands the poem’s final import, but in a way so gentle we can almost spoil it by pointing it out. She sustains the subtlety of what could have been a bravura pulling in of her readers by mixing it with that mysterious word somebody. The charmingly coy vagueness of that climactic reference monopolizes our attention, so that we take the effect of being brought in ourselves with hardly any notice. Which is partly the point, for the poem is about taking thins for granted. We take the work of women for granted, and that work, especially when it is the work of art, turns surreptitious in response. It gains something distinctive in that way, but loses much as well. It loses, in Bishop, some species of confidence, or else provides a specially feminine outlet for the crisis of confidence that any poet suffers. For no poet knows for sure where the next poem will come from, or whether it will come at all.

from Robert Dale Parker, "Bishop and the Weed of Poetic Invention," Chapter 1 in The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 25, 27

Cary Nelson: On "Portrait d'une Femme"

For some poets an attack on women became a kind of set piece of their early careers, almost a necessary apprentice undertaking, one of the decorously validated component of an appropriately marketed literary career. The two most famous instances are no doubt Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady" (1911) and Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme" (1912), poems that embody attitudes quite characteristic of their authors' work at that time. In both cases the poets have apparently come to believe that Western civilization, in a period of decline, has erroneously given over to women the authority to maintain its threatened traditions. Yet women's essential being itself either threatens or diminishes everyone who becomes entangled with them. For Eliot, women's precious triviality makes for a life of empty, gestural anxiety. Pound admits these creatures have their allure; one alas repeatedly turns to them in fascination to see glittering "trophies fished up," bright riches that distract but have no substance. Indeed that is the core of female being -- gaudy found objects masking an inner emptiness: "In the whole and all," the speaker in Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme" concludes, there is "Nothing that's quite your own. / Yet this is you."

Yet neither of these two poems is quite uniformly or simplistically misogynistic. Eliot's is a historically specific engagement with the early twentieth-century culture of female patronage, salons, and hostessing and thus partly a class- rather than gender-based critique. Nevertheless, its picture of a certain time and class is clearly gender differentiated, and the structural maintenance of this fragile world of empty forms seems to fall distinctly to women. What Eliot implies in his style of partly self-reflexive revulsion Pound explicitly projects and personifies. Thus the two poems are written in quite divergent voices. Eliot, whose quintessential male protagonist at this time was Prufrock, adopts the voice of self-incriminating critique; he returns to sample the very social world he savages. Pound, on the other hand, casts out and castigates the alluring if vacant sirens whose voices would drown him. Pound's prototypical male figure at the time was Mauberley, and unlike Eliot he saw himself as a man of action. Eliot to some degree shows us both men and women implicated in the world of fallen social relations women have come to oversee; Pound here is Odysseus trying to get past the sirens. Both, however, can be seen as revising and reversing James's map of gender relations in Portrait of a Lady (1881), which offers us a woman who in some ways is the one uncorrupted, if assimilated, figure in a corrupted world. Thus Eliot in his much looser, more meditative and dialogic "Portrait of a Lady" and Pound in his rhetorically focused and almost univocal "Portrait d'une Femme" both show us women of baubles and bric-a-brac who lead men and their civilization to its collective doom.

That is not to say that there is nothing to admire in these poems. Eliot presents a world in which no position external to social life exists from which we might securely critique it, a stance many contemporary theorists would endorse. And there is unquestionably pleasure to be had in the layering and counterpointing of elegance, exhaustion, and wit in his rhetoric. Pound on the other hand offers a bravura performance that elevates complex metaphoricity to something approaching declamatory public speech: "For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things, / Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff." Yet both poems are also instances, whether deliberate or not, of the backlash discourses that swept across America in the wake of nineteenth-century feminism's gains and that would intensify in response to early twentieth-century feminism. It is not anachronistic, then, to question what sort of cultural work these poems do; there would have been good reason for a reader sensitized to feminism to have found them offensive when they were first published in journals or later reprinted in books by Eliot and Pound. In tracking grounds for both approval and disapproval, in recognizing that both textual and socio-historical complexities are at stake in any full evaluation of the poems, I am of course undermining and purely aesthetic response to them. Marketed for decades by academic readers as unproblematically aesthetic objects, the poems in their own time were arguably efforts to reach out to audiences troubled by women's changing roles and identities. Indeed, the poems are clear enough in their distaste for women that some readers of this essay have found anything other than their unqualified rejection unacceptable. On the other hand, a more conservative reader thought my criticism of them seriously misguided. Such are the politics of contemporary criticism; it may be that I can please neither of these camps. It is the conservative reader, however, whose position seems to me to be the least defensible.

In case such a reader were inclined to underread the attitudes toward women unhesitatingly put forward in these and other poems, or to find some exculpatory explanation for them -- note, for example, Pound's "Canto II" and his gendered offer to breathe a soul into New York ("a maid with no breasts") in his poem "N.Y." -- one could turn to Pound's most remarkable programmatic statement of his misogyny, his substantially more than half mad introduction to his translation of Remy de Gourmount's The Natural Philosophy of Love. In putting forth the notion that the human brain is basically "a great clot of genital fluid held in suspense or reserve (p. vii)," Pound allows that this is so obvious and reasonable a hypothesis that it needs little proof. In human creativity and on the evolutionary scale, of course, men predominate. The brain is, after all, essentially male seminal fluid. Insects, on the other hand, are inherently female: "the insect chooses to solve the problem by hibernation, i.e., a sort of negation of action (p. ix)." Men act, "the phallus or spermatozoid charging, head-on, the female chaos . . . . Even oneself has felt it, driving any new idea into the great passive vulva of London (p. viii)." It takes Pound eleven pages to lay all this out in detail and by the end it is quite impossible to take it as Swiftian satire. By now, of course, the effect is partly comic, at least in part because Pound mixes his overwrought paeans to phallic creativity with a clubby, chatty style that implies he is casually gathering representative anecdotes from the limitless evidence available to all of us. But make no mistake about the bottom line: Pound believes all of this, and the arguments here underwrite his poetry.