Paul Legault: Cannibalizing Emily Dickinson

by on Sep.04, 2012

[Note: I should mention that I’ve moved this post/convo to MV after I originally posted it on my fb page, where there are oodles of interesting responses.]

In an interview at The Measure, Paul Legault discusses his new project, The Emily Dickinson Reader: An English-to-English Translation of Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems. In the interview, Paul describes Dickinson’s work as “extremely dry comedy—like a taxidermic clown left out in the sun,” which is completely lovely & awesome. Like Paul himself.

This passage troubles me, tho: “Why Emily Dickinson? For any American poet, Emily Dickinson is sort of a monolith… Why Dickinson? I guess she was asking for it.”

I want to read this generously. But. Our one (?) female monolith. Was “asking for it.” For me, this plugs into all kinds of cultural language about the humiliation, violation, & punishment of women.

Help me out. Montevidayans, you know my deep disorientation around these things. How I vomit out alarm bells. And also how fond I am of Paul & want to be a generous (not paranoid) reader.

If this project is supposed to be a performative act of violence, I’m conceptually ok with that in many ways (though I wonder, as ever, about the gender dynamics). But the book appears to be being passed off as homage or zany, occasional humor or contemporary remixing. It’s not exactly being marketed as a fucked-up compulsion to rewrite/erase ED–which would be ultra-fascinating indeed!

Help me wrap my brain around this! I find Paul a very generous & compelling person, poet, and presence in the poetry world, and I suspect there may be a lot of interesting things to unpack around his thinking/feelings around this project. And about translation in general. In particular, I’m thinking of translation as an act of cannibalism (Haraldo de Campos), with all of its radical connotations.

12 comments for this entry:
  1. drew

    I think the “she was asking for it” is in reference to the line he quotes from her above (“I wish I were simpler. I also wish I were more edible”). As in, in that line she was asking to be translated in the way he translated her (he means it literally: she was asking him). That gets all muddled by the extra rhetorical flourish (“Why Dickinson?”) bit there. That isn’t to say that “she was asking for it” isn’t entirely fraught with rape connotations, just that he almost definitely didn’t mean that.

  2. Mark

    What do you mean by “Our one female monolith.”? Do you mean you believe this is the case, or that you believe Legault is suggesting it?

  3. Lara Glenum

    Paul describes her as “a monolith.” He says, “There’s no way around/over/under—you have to go through it.” But this could also be said of Whitman, Eliot, Lowell, Ginsberg et al. So I guess I’m wondering, why ED? The only “properly” canonized American woman. Even Stein and Plath are only contentiously “canonized.” (Not to mention Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes, Alice Notley et al.) ED is the ONLY unshakeable female poet sliding around in everybody’s brainpan.

    I mean, I’m completely with Paul. ED is, like, totally my grandma. No avoiding her badass, goth self. But why did she alone cry out for “translation?” Fascinating stuff.

  4. JSA Lowe

    This project of Legault’s has been making me uncomfortable for weeks now, as much as it also at times amuses me, almost against my will. I need to write something more coherent about it, but for now—I took the “she was asking for it” protest much as two scuffling schoolboys who’ve been been separated, and one defending why he punched the other. Sort of a “he MADE me do it”—?

    As far as why ED—like you say, Ms. Glenum, she is the one female poet whom everybody winds up claiming as an influence, to whatever school they subscribe or pretend they don’t subscribe but secretly do. I won’t say SoQ or post-avant because I’m not supposed to; but they both think of ED as “theirs.” Poets from Lucie Brock-Broido to Mary Jo Salter [full disclaimer: both beloved former instructors] all wind up with a stake, as it were, in Emily. Or believing that her work is connected to theirs, that they are her descendents. E.g., not to be outdone by Susan Howe, now Mary Ruefle has her essay “*My* Emily Dickinson”—which title is very tongue-in-cheek, and funny; and the essay is also a well-written wrenching thing; I’m not saying she’s competing. I am trying to point out (badly) that in some sense everyone thinks Emily belongs to THEM. And Mr. Legault’s whimsically intended “translations” strike me no differently.

    As far as why NOT the male poets you mention—perhaps because they weren’t metaphysicals, not really, not in the sense that ED is? Her work is compressed, elliptical, elided, deeply abstracted (but of course with that jarring collision of Saxon and Latin, the intellectual juxtaposted with the palpable/sensual)—so there would be less pleasure or entertainment in a literalization of, say, Whitman or Ginsberg, both already nearly completely literal as it is. It wouldn’t be as funny, to the extent that it is.

    Anyway this is merely what I propose at 9:30 pm, having just gotten out of class and being way too caffeinated and undernourished. So grain of salt, 2¢, &c. But thank you for inducing me to write this much.

  5. adam strauss

    I like the distinction/dialectic going on with reading a la paranoia versus reading generously–tho I do like the idea of a reading which twines these two modes; perhaps Morrison’s amazing Playing in the Dark wld be an example. I completely think, Lara, that you ask a necessary question as per “asking for it.” Aside from the fact that it, at the denotative level, seems off because it’s a stock phrase which does not necessarily adequately get revamped and so the words end up vague/unclear–I assume that what’s meant is something like: when a poet’s production is so supernal, so kinetic, so awesome, it becomes inevitable that that work will become part of the fabric of future writings. I guess one cld, implictly, say that the phrase alludes to the position that despite being private for spans of her life, despite not being in print frequently, that she consciously did write to blow away the consciousnes of centuries after, that she intended to be a linguistic force-field which others emerging later wld have to/want to engage with.

    Too, I can’t help but wondering if this is a byproduct of interview discourse, which is often not fully developed as a fully worked essay, so that PL didnt mean to invoke the scary gender connotation but, nevertheless, did.

    Ugh I think I’ve been longwinded and unexciting but, well, maybe some of the words are happening.

  6. adam strauss

    OK–just read the facebook convo (This morning there was one response, and now there’s a wonderful heap and, ugh, I wrote the prior comment prior to reading the thirty new responses so–apolog
    ies for the dulldulls).

  7. Adam Atkinson

    I’m curious about how the history of men writing to and around ED factored into Paul’s process. It’s no secret that male poets have had myriad strange reactions or responses to ED (One need look no further than Billy Collins’ chap title “Undressing Emily Dickinson” for the evidence.)–is Paul writing into/through that history? If so, how?

  8. David B. Applegate


    I think it’s perfectly acceptable to read this book in a paranoid way. You mention the marketing of the book being “zany” rather than “compulsive.” As far as I can tell, the value of this book resides in being able to sell it to people who know Emily Dickinson but not necessary Paul, and people who might enjoy the “joke” of the content (re-writing Dickinson in clever Twitter format).

    In the header of the interview you link to, the book is “passed around our office by giggling editors, like how teenagers used to share pornography.” The giggling arises out of discomfort with Paul’s monolithic rape, his pornographic display. What he has done is “forbidden” (i.e. vandalizing canonized poetry) and the gigglers are giggling as much at their own voyeurism as the actual content of the work.

    But it doesn’t seem to matter to Paul that Dickinson is female; a monolith is not sexed (at least not in English). That said, when a man tries to fuck a monolith he can only succeed in getting his dick bent.


  9. Lara Glenum

    Thanks for all the smart, thoughtful comments! I should have mentioned that I moved this convo here off my fb page, where I originally posted it, and where there’s a deep stack of responses.

    Among the responses on my fb page, Ana Bozicevic smartly says, “It is interesting to consider the ways translation and research are emotionally violent — and to whom — which party.” This is exactly what I’m interested in here. How these questions have been (intentionally or unintentionally) left out of the discourse around this project. A project that seems to want to provoke exactly these kind of questions.

  10. Sarah Sarai

    The more I consider Lara’s original posting the greater my appreciation of it and her. David commented, “it doesn’t seem to matter” to Paul, that Emily is female. But she is. And gender always matters. Along with the rest of us, Paul has been collecting the unconscious, is as capable of being jerked around by cultural and gender immersion as anyone. Paul—as kind person—is exonerated, but Paul the writer, the parodist is not (entirely) and surely serves as historical/critical stand-in. ED and WW get equal billing in some odd need to mama/poppa-ize our roots—but WW is completely and vehemently protected by a tenured Greenpeace of male poets. The binary partly derives from discomfort with a woman at the helm–ED is the greater artist and, more to the point, has anyone undressed WALT (who I love dearly, as poet, public figure, American) in public. Or translated him? “Translated.”

  11. Ben Friedlander

    Walt, of course, undressed himself:

    And he’s been taken up–attacked, fondled, translated, what have you–by scores of writers around the world, beginning in his own time. See, for example, this:

    The thing about Dickinson is, she was intensely protective of her privacy, developing extraordinarily effective ways of protecting her secrets, which indicates that she was very aware of the possibility, if not likelihood, that her privacy would be violated one day, especially with the publication of her work. In this sense, the intellectual violation of Dickinson’s privacy is always at issue when we read her, and is perhaps most at issue when we read her perceptively–a respectful, perceptive reading is perhaps more violating than a disrespectful but stupid one that misses the mark by a wide margin.

    One of the interesting things about Legault’s book is that, as an act of aggression against Dickinson, it is not a violation but desecration. Metaphorically speaking, its crime is not “rape” but “blasphemy.” Which is, of course, a crime that Dickinson herself was capable of committing.

  12. David B. Applegate

    I meant it seems to matter more to Paul that Dickinson is famous than female.

    I agree there’s a note of sexual aggression present in this project and that we shouldn’t dismiss gender.

    Even though the “she was asking for it” comment has been dismissed as “sloppy diction” the comment that Dickinson is a monolith “you have to go through” is striking. For Paul, American poets have to not only penetrate Dickinson, but blow out the other side.

    That the result of this violent penetration is making Dickinson funny (“was Emily Dickinson as funny as you make her?”) seems the most puzzling aspect of the project.

    Finally, it’s odd to consider the body of Emily Dickinson in the present tense. She’s dead. Nothing has been done to the body of Emily Dickinson. Paul (& even more-so Collins in the poem Johannes troubles in his other post) seems to summon Dickinson like a succubus, a demonic excuse for a very particular type of masturbation.