by Johannes Goransson on Sep.05, 2012
I think in her post about Paul Legault, Lara raises some interesting points about Emily Dickinson and the act of translation, the act of homage, the reading act, the writing act. I would like to reach back to my previous post on the “Parapornographic” to read not just Dickinson but also her many suitors, including Legault (and Lara!).
First of all: what set Lara off on considering the violence and gender dynamics was Paul’s statement that ED was “asking for it,” which certainly evokes all kinds of rape-ish associations. On Facebook Paul said he was beign sloppy and even I rejected the association. But I think we should keep it – even if we have to say that Lara (and I, now) are as much “authors” of that statement as Paul.
I want to know: What is Emily Dickison “asking for”? What is this obscenely obscure “IT”?
I think Adam Atkinson (in comment field) is right to invoke a long line of poems about Emily Dickinson by male poets – usually those are sexual. The act of writing about her is a kind of breaking into the so powerful myth of Dickinson’s virginity, and even her ultra-virginity of the “attic myth” (doubly virginal).
Adam mentions Billy Collins, whose Emily Dickinson poem “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes”, can be seen as paradigmatic. This whole poem is basically a list of clothing that ED wears: tippet, tulle, white dress, mother-of-pearl. Artifice gets in the way of orgasm. It takes him forever to part her clothes “like a swimmer” and “slip inside.”
By which he of course means “slip *it* inside.”
But once he gets to slip it inside, he is suddenly distanced from her. Instead of dealing very closely, materially with her outfit, he sees her a ways off:
You will want to know
that she was standing
by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
motionless, a little wide-eyed,
looking out at the orchard below,
the white dress puddled at her feet
on the wide-board, hardwood floor.
He has not only undressed her, but he’s entered into that fabled attic room and she is strange and unsettling. “Motionless” and staring as if dead.
He then goes back to listing clothing and the complexity of undergarments before finally getting to the slipping it in:
Later, I wrote in a notebook
it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything –
the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
how there were sudden dashes
whenever we spoke.
The key here is that the sex act does not take place in the present of the poem – the way the undressing, the listing of all that artifice does. Instead it quickly goes forward in time to narrate backwards, and to compare it to riding a swan, a “swan” that emblem of Art. I can’t help but feel that Billy gets a little unnerved by his own poem at this point, wants to make it about art, but then he immediately goes back to the physical (her hair etc). Throughout there is this tension between artifice and nudity, the inhuman and the human, the deathy and the sexy.
But when he finally gets to ride her swan, instead of orgasm, he notices how deadly silent everything is. He even hears a fly buzz (the poem of course appropriates tons of Dickinson lines and words) and then we get to the final deathy stanza:
and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that reason is a plank,
that life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.
Emily Dickinson seems to “ask for it”, seems to want to be undressed, but When you undress Emily Dickinson you first encounter countless garments and artifice, leaps in time and space, and ultimately a kind of violence – against you, the reader, the perpetrator. She may take the top of your head! But she doesn’t quite! (She just looks “right at you with a yellow eye.”)
This constant frustration of orgasm/death might be what is Emily Dickinson’s “obscene virginity” and it might also be why she is constantly asking for “it.” We can never get to know the *real* her, the pornographic her, her interiority, her secret. Simon and Garfunkel will never “find” “Emily.” (Can you imagine Paul Simon writing a sequel called “When I Found Emily”?)
It should also be noted how closely Collins’ poem resembles Collins’ poem about reader beating his poem with a hose in a kind of Abu Ghraib situation, comparing trying to make meaning out of his poems to a kind of violence. (He is in Edenborg’s words both anti- and pro-porn. In both models, art is pornographic: something is hidden, and has to either be protected or found.)
This model of penetrating Emily Dickinson’s virginity only to encounter a kind of violent obscurity, can in Carl-Michael Edenborg’s words be considered “pornographic”: Trying to find what is concealed, or to hide what is there.
When Lara interpreted Paul’s statement about ED “asking for it” so literally, she basically does what Edenborg describes Andrea Dworkin as doing: literalizing the connection between violence and art, making the act of translating Dickinson into an act of violence against Dickinson. Collins depends on the idea that metaphors are not “real,” but “metaphoric” or at least “wink-wink” jokey (which seems to be one of Lara’s objections to the Legault “framing”).
Like Dworkin, Lara’s stance is a stance so extremely anti-pornographic that it becomes parapornographic.
Art is violence.
[NOTE: To be perfectly clear, I am not saying Lara’s an anti-pornography activist or in any way like Dworkin except in the way she treats art as violence. That’s how I’m drawing this issue to the Edenborg manifesto.]
Legault commits his act of violence through translation. Poetry is of course what’s lost in translation. Translation makes kitsch of monoliths, generates excess. Translation may ruin the inside/outside, true/unfaithful, secret/public divisions with its undulating outfits. Translation is not fucking the way Collins’ wants to fuck: it’s fucking with the clothes, or the “peels” as Walter Benjamin put it.