On Loaded Guns 1: Emily Dickinson, Bomb of Amherst

by on Nov.09, 2012

A Loaded Gun, 1863


In the past year I’ve found my thoughts returning & returning to Dickinson’s Loaded Gun (Poem 754).  How is the body (and the body of the poem) a vessel of violence, but not of agency, a site from which violence returns and goes, is doubled up, masked, wears the mask of another, shines its face everywhere? The loaded gun is an amplifier, a medium. It sounds the landscape through its roar and glare. It replaces the sun and,  part camera flash and part nuclear bomb, develops the landscape like the bomb at Hiroshima which burnt shadows permanently into sidewalk.

And every time I speak for Him –
The Mountains straight reply –

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through –

What’s scary about this set of images is a tide of reversals: the would-be human is converted to a gun, which then conducts a would-be ‘human’ circuit of communication, complete with speaking, replying, smiling, and showing one’s pleasure on the face. This circuit of communication transfers human duplicity to the landscape; anthromorphized, the landscape now is capable of  inflicting the violence with a human-like duplicity—the “Valley glow” shed by the “Vesuvian face” being the destructive expression of a volcano which, like human bombs, freezes human time.

The poem is a series of transpositions, transfers, embodiments and re-embodiments—human and machinic, human and landscape, “I” and “he”. These entites saturate, split, take the place of each other, reflect on each other in the solipsism of violence. So oscillating is this solipsism that time can’t quite conduct itself through the thick material. In the final two stanzas:

To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –

Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without–the power to die–

In the first stanza we see the anachronistic properties of this violence. The first two lines are a kind of boast, yet the second two lines work backwards—we get the ‘yellow eye’—the flash from the gun’s report—and THEN the thumb on the trigger. It’s as if the film runs backwards as in a 90’s style britpunk movie, violence (and the poem) stores itself back up in the gun’s trigger again. “None stir the second time”, but the first time reverses itself and is ready to repeat.

The final stanza piles anachronism upon anachronism and ultimately sends this reader’s eye rooting backwards up the poem, thus enacting its own recoil and repeat. The difference between “may” and “must” seems critical here. If our speaker is fully converted to machine here, a kind of immortality, this immortality converts backwards; may becomes “must” and forces “he” into immortality along with her, through her undeadness. The violence is permanent (tho also an instability) and gathers every party up into its shock—shooter, target, and gun.

This powerful assemblage reverberates all the way up the body of the poem, crushing and reforming its polarities with its undead, undying shock. If the poem is the textual body of the speaker, the vessel of its “I’, then this poem now becomes the field of its machinic unions, its becoming, its undead deadly-ness, its spasming emphaticness. The speaker cannot die because, though deadly, dead-ish, full of death, she can ever complete this moment of becoming dead; the poem cannot die because it never completes its moment of assembling all it touches into the expanding field of its exploding body.

In this sense, the iconic poem performs as a suicide bomber– “the power to kill/without the power to die”- that is, to complete the dying.

The candidate for martyrdom transforms his or her body into a mask that hides the soon-to-be-detonated weapon. Unlike the tank or the missile that is clearly visible, the weapon carried in the shape of the body is invisible. Thus concealed, it forms part of the body. It is so intimately part of the body that at the time of its detonation it annihilates the body of its bearer, who carries with it the bodies of others when it does not reverse them to pieces. The body does not simply conceal a weapon. The body is transformed into a weapon, not in a metaphorical sense but in a truly ballistic sense. – Achille Mbebe, quoted in Jasbir Puar, “Queer Times, Queer Assemblages”.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    Sorry– in Mbebe quote, read ‘reduce’ for ‘reverse’

  2. Diana

    What do you make of this line, Joyelle? The missing article and/or punctuation obscure meaning at first but then violence or deadliness begins to slide back and forth across the space of the hyphen.

    To foe of His – I’m deadly foe

  3. Lenore Riegel

    Happy to see this rumination on Emily Dickinson’s poem. We’ll surely share this with the 9,000 members of my Emily Dickinson FB page: http://www.facebook.com/SecretLifeOfEmilyDickinson I found your take fascinating, but I have long said that this poem could be studied one’s whole life and never fully understood. And that goes for each line. The genius of Emily Dickinson is reflected in this one poem in the same way that one snowflake is a blizzard.