As it is, I can barely crawl. The book, manifestly superb, defies my attempts to crown it; any reaching toward grand transcendent pronouncements on my part will be flattened by obvious ignorance. I don’t begin to know enough about Emily Dickinson’s poetry to tell you how wonderful Helen Vendler’s new book is, or why it is wonderful. Attempting to praise the book would be, for me, essaying a swan dive into an empty pool: the risk of disaster followed by the certainty of it. I can barely summon the mettle to urge you to buy a copy, as soon as possible, of Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. But do — oh! — do. In Helen Vendler, Emily Dickinson has a reader who takes her with complete, exhaustive seriousness, unafraid to state the obvious if it throws (as it does here) Dickinson’s vision into “relief.”
To crawl, then. Before dinner — a chicken was roasting; water was coming to the boil for spaghetti; the table was set, and Kathleen was on her way home — I opened Dickinson and read two poems, together with the commentaries. The first choice was absolutely random, the first poem that i encountered. Entitled “Indian Summer” by Dickinson’s first publishers, it contains this amazing tercet:
These are the days when skies resume
The old – old sophistries of June -
A blue and gold mistake.
Here’s what Vendler has to say about these lines.
But she cannot remain fixed in her “objective” critique of what she initially calls “The old – old sophistries of June – ” (as if June, seeming to promise eternal skies of blue and gold, were a philosopher manipulating the truth) and secondly names as “a mistake” (as though June were a prophet in error).
As if, as though: it’s wonderful. The final line, “A blue and gold mistake,” has thrown a shard into my heart, not least because blue and gold used to be the Notre Dame colors, before that nasty leprechaun inspired a change to green and gold, a detestable combination of two colors that I love. Yes, yes; Dickinson doesn’t say “green and gold mistake.” In poetry this well put-together, opposites are found to have been smoothly compressed into the barest phrases.
The second poem was chosen after some riffling of pages, probably because it’s quite short — eight lines in all. “This is my letter to the World.” I’m so ignorant that I didn’t know that it is a “justly famous poem.”
The sticky line for me:
The simple News that Nature told -
Vendler unpacks it magnificently:
Yet almost everything about both this Nature and this messenger puts into relief the maleness of God’s authoritative messengers, from Moses and the prophets to Jesus and his disciples. Jehovah is masculine, but Nature is feminine (by virtue not only of her Latin gender, but also of her ability to bear fruit). God’s “Majesty” is intimidating; Natures is “tender.” God gives a Decalogue; Nature gives “simple News.”
Everything that Vendler says is obvious — the moment you’ve read it. But the shock of the last sentence persists, as if it were the very opposite of common knowledge. There are big, important things that, until now, at least, men really haven’t bothered to think or talk about. Sometimes, understanding the world is a matter of listening to “simple news,” not interpreting codes.
I hope that I’ve kept it simple.