Emily Dickinson’s best zingers

A new book distills all of the 19th century poet's work to a collection of snarky one-liners. Amazingly, it works

Topics: literature, LA Review of Books, Emily Dickinson, Paul Legault, The Emily Dickinson Reader,

Emily Dickinson's best zingers
This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Los
Angeles Review of Books FIRST THINGS FIRST: It’s a joke. If you don’t get that — that it’s a joke — then you are going to be enraged, or disgruntled, or just downright annoyed by The Emily Dickinson Reader. Take the Amazon reviewer who writes that Paul Legault’s book of Dickinson translations is “insulting” to both Dickinson and her readers. That particular reader didn’t get that it was a joke. Or if he did, he forgot it momentarily, rushing to Dickinson’s defense against a twenty-first century poet who takes all 1,789 of her poems and turns them into mostly pithy one-liners written in contemporary vernacular.

That being said, Legault’s is not a simple joke, and, like all complicated jokes, it addresses much more than we recognize at first. In fact, by the time I got about 50 “translations” in, I had moved past my initial impression — that Legault was simply trying to paraphrase Dickinson’s dense and enigmatic poems in a witty, and sometimes snarky, way. He does do that some of the time, but he also understands Dickinson well enough to capitalize on her poems’ greatest strengths: their linguistic complexity, their indeterminate subjects and referents, their ability (and downright invitation) to be read “slant.” In this way, Legault couldn’t have picked a better writer to work with, and Dickinson meets him more than halfway.

The complexity of Legault’s project begins on the cover of The Emily Dickinson Reader. Upon first glance it is a very stately book, printed in hardback with a royal blue cover and gold-edged paper. The title, subtitle, and author’s name appear in a font that connotes both seriousness and precision; a delicate yellow ribbon that hangs between the pages marks it as a book in which one will want to keep his or her place. Readers familiar with Dickinson’s publication history will notice that the image on the cover of Legault’s book is the same image of Indian Pipes (one of Dickinson’s favorite flowers) that adorned her very first book of poems, which was published in 1890. But upon closer inspection, Legault’s book doctors the image, inserting the arm of a skeleton that is reaching out of the grassy ground on which the Indian Pipes have long resided.



In the same way that the cover allows a reader to experience both Dickinson and Legault, the 1,789 poems, phrases, sentences, quips, and comments that make up this book almost always work on multiple levels. As I see it, there are at least six ways one can read these entries, and most readers will toggle back and forth between several of these:

You like Legault’s lines just as they are.

Legault is a poet — his first book of poems, The Madeleine Poems, was published by Omnidawn in 2010, and his second, The Other Poems, by Fence in 2011 — and he knows how to write sharp lines. Take the opening entry, for instance: “Everything has to love something.” Or 73: “There are angels everywhere. Everywhere. / There’s one on your face.” Legault has a knack for short, romantic lines, and I like them regardless of their reference to or inspiration from certain Dickinson poems — even if there is no way, in the context of this book, to ever forget their source.

Legault sends you back to Dickinson.

You are a casual reader of Dickinson, and Legault’s lines send you to your bookshelf to, once again, heave down Ralph Franklin’s edition of her poems. (You have to be using Franklin’s edition, and not Thomas Johnson’s 1955 one, if you want the numbers to match up, and that’s important because nowhere does Legault provide the corresponding Dickinson poems, even though he does provide her first lines in the Index.) In my experience, I took down Dickinson at these moments out of curiosity.What in the world could she have written to make him write that? I often asked myself. This happened, for example, with 282: “By practicing with inexpensive media one learns how to handle expensive media.” Media? Where did Dickinson write about media? It’s something of a game. And then I turn to her poem and have a good old laugh as I encounter a poem that I know well, one that she sent Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the early days of their correspondence:

We play at Paste –
Till qualified for Pearl —
The, drop the Paste –
And deem Ourself a fool –
The Shapes, tho’, were similar,
And our new Hands
Learned Gem Tactics
Practising Sands —

This happened again with 1039: “I love you so much I want you to eat my organs. Forks and knives are in the top drawer, Sue.” The sentiment is so strange that I can’t help but want to know what Dickinson could have possibly written to provoke such a “translation.” In this case, it was:

My Heart upon a little Plate
Her Palate to delight
A Berry or a Bun, would be,
Might it an Apricot!

You immediately recognize the connection between Legault’s line and Dickinson’s poem and you are amused by it.

This is going to happen more often to those of us who already know Dickinson well. Readers may actually find themselves waiting to see what Legault will do with the poems they love most. While this is how many people will approach the book, surprisingly, I think reading all the way through from beginning to end is the least interesting way to read it. It’s not that I didn’t laugh at, say, 57 (“Someone just robbed the forest. Who the hell would do something like that?” for “Who robbed the Woods —”) or 225 (“It’s really ‘great’ being a wife” for “I’m ‘wife’ — I’ve finished that —”), or that I wasn’t impressed by his 138 (“My suffering is greater than the suffering of entire armies” for “To fight aloud, is very brave —”) or 236 (“I don’t go to church. I am the church” for “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —”), but the poems are hit or miss. I found myself just as often disappointed as I did impressed by what Legault did with the better-known poems. When I came upon 445 (“My parents used to lock me in a closet when I was annoying them. I think that’s called child abuse” for “They shut me up in Prose —”) or 788 (“All published poets are whores” for “Publication — is the Auction”), I wanted more from Legault, especially because I knew he had it in him. This is, after all, the same writer who took Dickinson’s poem 325 “There came a Day — at Summer’s full — / Entirely for me —” and wrote “This one day I had sex all day. That day, words were as useful to me as clothes are to Jesus. Which is to say: useless.”

You like the idea, regardless of the corresponding poem, that Dickinson might be expressing such strange and bold ideas.

Sometimes I like Legault’s versions because they are simple, direct, honest statements, like “It is autumn, and I’m going to put on some earrings” (32) or “I want to be so famous it physically crushes me” (919). At other times I like them because they are explicit where Dickinson was often not: “This is my flower. You can borrow it, but you better damn well give it back. There is something sexual about this exchange” (92). And at other times I like them because it is downright funny to imagine Dickinson writing (or even thinking) such a thought as “You know I’m all in when I say that I’ll bet my biggest bobolink on it. Trust me” (266). These lines make me think of Dickinson’s poems differently — as more forthright than I normally consider them to be. So that when Legault writes, “Without you, Sue, I am nothing. Scratch that. Without you, I am some things but not enough things to make up a human being” (393), I realize that, of course, Dickinson has been saying this all along.

You recognize that some of Legault’s lines are so Dickinsonian that you wish Dickinson had written them herself.

For instance, “I tried to think of what the saddest thing in the world was so long that I became it” (570). Or, maybe even better is 695: “I cannot access what I need to survive, and I like it that way.” It is in these lines that Legault fully captures Dickinson’s strange and seemingly contradictory emotional inclinations, proving that he knows this writer inside out.

Every now and then, you feel that Legault actually writes something that, for whatever reason, Dickinson could not articulate herself.

For instance, 165: “I’m passive-aggressive. I hold my emotions in, so when they do come out, they destroy everything in their path, and they will destroy you, and you should probably run, or I will destroy you.” This is a characterization of herself that Dickinson would never have made. Instead she wrote, “I have a little shape — it would not crowd your Desk” and “I am small, like the Wren.” So when the future poet, Legault, writes such a bald characterization of Dickinson and puts it in her voice, it is powerful because it reminds us of Dickinson’s often disingenuous poses.

When I first heard of Legault’s book, I was skeptical, both of the impulse behind the project and the format. I wondered why he hadn’t included Dickinson’s poems along with his texts and I rolled my eyes at the idea that he did all 1,789 of them; the joke would surely wear thin. Even if you liked a few, why would you ever read the entire book? I emerged from my reading, however, with the realization that while this project may have started as a joke and may occasionally border on gimmick — reproducing the famous image of Dickinson several times throughout the book, each with a cheeky caption — it turns out to be a complex appropriation of this already very complicated writer. I ultimately understood that the book works better without the inclusion of Dickinson’s actual poems, which would have forced readers to approach Legault’s lines only in a one-to-one relation to the originals. To be honest, the only point at which I was frustrated with this book was when reading the “Translator’s Note,” where Legault doesn’t do justice to how interesting his project is. Here he seems unsure whether he is justifying his project (he quotes Dickinson’s editor, Franklin, on the idea that “a literary work is separable from its artifact”) or excusing the more extravagant aspects (Dickinson as zombie!) of his joke.

It should be clear by this point that I got a tremendous amount out of Legault’s “translations,” partially because they taught me about Dickinson, the nature of paraphrase, and contemporary verse, but maybe more importantly because they taught me something about reading. There are so many ways into and out of this book. If you want to put it on your coffee table and pick it up at random to have a good laugh, then that’s fine, but you can also read it all the way through (as I did), letting yourself be pulled between diverse ways of reading. When you read this way and allow the poems to accumulate, you feel just how obsessive Dickinson was in her topics and tone. There is a tremendous amount about Dickinson’s passion for Sue, her fixations with flowers, birds, sex, boats, and dead people, and her loaded relationship with Christianity. In the end, through this structure of repetition, Legault’s Dickinson emerges just as bold, queer, crass, hungry, sexual, demanding, and repetitive as I always knew she was.

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