A Recommendation: The Emily Dickinson Reader by Paul Legault
Like a Broadway play, Emily Dickinson has been revived (and remixed, restated, reconstituted). For some of us, she was never gone. Some of us have lived with her nonsense inside of us since we were eight years old, drawn to her simple speech and rhythms if not to her obliqueness. Some of us like to dress as Emily for Halloween—and now we have more inspirational fodder as “all of the current evidence is in favour” of the woman on the left of this 1859 daguerrotype being Dickinson.
Meanwhile, in New York, Paul Legault carried around his Poems of Emily Dickinson until the book fell apart and, with phenomenal dedication, wrote 1,789 English-to-English translations of Dickinson’s oeuvre. Readers unfamiliar with Legault’s adoration of the original poet (“I’m in love with her,” he says. “Love absolves most radical acts.”) may read the translated poems as too light, too near mocking, when compared when the originals. But translation into our modern speech does not reduce the weight of Dickinson’s words—Legault honors the humor and obsessive thoughtfulness buried in Dickinson’s poems and adds to them the heft of a century of Dickinson studies (a poet who never pursued publication, Dickinson would be shocked by the piles of literature and research devoted to her). Legault condenses her work into Twitter-like nuggets that weave between the iconic Dickinson themes—Death, flowers, sex, anonymity—and that take us on a journey of context and identity. Because every Dickinson fanboy or fangirl has found something different to love in her dashes (precisely why the title of Susan Howe’s book and Mary Ruefle’s essay share the possessive claim, My Emily Dickinson), and this untraditional translation tells not what Emily Dickinson meant but what she has meant to her translator.
The (slant) truth is that there’s as much Legault in this collection as Dickinson; he’s inserted his own fears, a young lifetime of experience that insists: to honor our heroes, we must not worship them.
The collection can be enjoyed without a Dickinson companion, but, as one of those people who has lived long with the pale poet’s words, I valued reading the translations and the originals side-by-side. Here are a few for your pleasure.
I read my sentence - steadily -
Reviewed it with my eyes,
To see that I made no mistake
In it’s extremest clause -
The Date, and manner, of the shame -
And then the Pious Form
That “God have mercy” on the Soul
The Jury voted Him -
I made my soul familiar - with her extremity -
That at the last it should not be a novel Agony -
But she, and Death, acquainted -
Meet tranquilly, as friends -
Salute, and pass, without a Hint -
And there, the Matter Ends -
I cannot write people back to life. As hard as I might try. And I do.
Furiously. Like a wizard. Or a grammarian.
The only Ghost I ever saw
Was dressed in Mechlin - so -
He had no sandal on his foot -
And stepped like flakes of snow -
His Mien, was soundless, like the Bird -
But rapid - like the Roe -
His fashions, quaint, Mosaic -
Or, haply, Mistletoe -
His conversation - seldom -
His laughter, like the Breeze
That dies away in Dimples
Among the pensive Trees -
Our interview - was transient -
Of me, himself was shy -
And God forbid I look behind -
Since that appalling Day!
This one time I saw a ghost. It wasn’t really a big deal.
He was kind of shy. For some reason he was wearing a lace dress.
He looked okay in it.
Much Madness is divinest Sense -
To a discerning Eye -
Much Sense - the starkest Madness -
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail -
Assent - and you are sane -
Demur - you’re straightway dangerous -
And handled with a Chain -
Logic is a trap from which only crazy people can escape.
The Black Berry - wears a Thorn in his side -
But no Man heard Him cry -
He offers His Berry, just the same
To Partridge - and to Boy -
He sometimes holds upon the Fence -
Or struggles to a Tree -
Or clasps a Rock, with both His Hands -
But not for sympathy -
We - tell a Hurt - to cool it -
This Mourner - to the Sky
A little further reaches - instead -
Brave Black Berry -
Blackberries are better than Jesus because they don’t complain when you eat them.
Why should we hurry - Why indeed?
When every way we fly
We are molested equally
No respite from the inference
That this which is begun
Though where it’s labors lie
A bland uncertainty
Besets the sight
This mighty night
It doesn’t matter where you go or what you do. Something
probably matters, but I don’t know what it is.
Dominion lasts until obtained -
Possession just as long -
But these - endowing as they flit
How everlasting are the Lips
Known only to the Dew -
These are the Brides of permanence
Supplanting me and you.
I hope your lips last forever.
* * *
The Emily Dickinson Reader by Paul Legault
McSweeney’s, August 2012
ISBN: 9781936365982. 247 pp.