The Emily Dickinson legend is well known: a recluse and a genius, she left nearly 1800 poems, a trove discovered by her sister after the poet’s death in 1886. From that moment, many things could have happened. The poems could have been destroyed with many of Dickinson’s other papers. Or looked at and dismissed. That they were treated as something “full of power” is the result of luck, planning, adultery, and the tireless work of Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham. While scholars are still divided about the role these women played in editing the manuscripts and developing Dickinson’s popular image, Julie Dobrow’s detailed study of their lives and work, After Emily (W.W. Norton, $27.95), shows that they both made diligent efforts to present the poems accurately. A little like these first editors, struggling to decipher handwriting and make order from a chaos of papers, Dobrow went through seven hundred boxes of journals, diaries, letters, and other documents that Mabel and Millicent accumulated. As a result, this book is a vivid, realistic double portrait of two remarkable women.
Limón’s extraordinary poems often start with deceptive casualness: she’s driving somewhere. She’s going out to weed the tomatoes. She’s musing over something in the news. From such everydayness, she spins complicated, beautiful, troubling, and inspiring lyrics. The book opens with a version of Genesis: Limón imagines Eve begging the animals to return the favor and “name” her. This short, brilliant lyric sets the stage for all that follows, from Limón’s encounters with birds and other creatures, both dreamed and real, to her long period of adjustment to life in Kentucky and, most of all, her frustrated longing to have a child. The world she lives in, of course, is no Eden. Loved ones die. Her father-in-law has Alzheimer’s. She suffers vertigo, insomnia, and panic attacks. She can’t get pregnant and the signs are ominous: “on my way to the fertility clinic,/I pass five dead animals.” But she also finds comfort in her garden and senses how “with each new name” of a tree she learns, “the world expanded.” If she fears her tendency to brood, identifying her “problem” as being able ‘to see all the angles of what/ could go wrong,” this rich imaginative power also fuels her writing. And not everything does go wrong. While in one poem she feels she’s “supposed to carry grief” instead of a child, in another she declares that “I take out my anger/and lay its shadow/on the stone I rolled/over what broke me.” Call that shadow these defiant, questioning, courageous poems.
My love for Maggie Nelson's writing grows with every book, essay, and poem I read by her. Something Bright, Then Holes is a reissue of her 2007 poetry collection, and it is a keen and vivid book. It will probably not make you feel better during a dark time in your life or the world, but it might give a shape to some of the pain.