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Review: The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, by Jerome Charyn

It was shortly after my matriculation at Emerson College in 1988 that I was introduced to the work of Emily Dickinson. I was a recent refugee from the suburbs of western Pennsylvania, where nothing was ever gone into in great detail, and Dickinson's work had much the same effect on me that laser beams have on cataract patients. It sliced through the haze of ennui that my childhood of chemical-green lawns and daily doses of Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch had imbued me with, and made me understand, more than any other writer has done before or since, that the role of the poet is to map the vast space of an inner, unseen world.

I had hoped that there was someone like Dickinson out there. My one regret, after finding her, was that I would never get to make her acquaintance. No doubt millions of others feel the same. It's for us that Jerome Charyn has written this book.

Charyn has taken upon himself a seemingly impossible task. He has attempted to climb into the long-emptied skin of one of the United States' foremost poets, and to describe not only what he sees through the holes where her eyes were, but also to echo the often frenzied beating of her heart. On both counts, he succeeds to the point of jealousy. Mine, I mean.

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The world that Emily knew has long vanished, but here Charyn recreates it with such skill that our transportation across the years is as effortless as taking the F train to Chinatown. As for the thoughts and longings of a 19th-century woman who spent the better part of her life a recluse in her father's house, within pages I had forgotten I was reading a book written by a man in the 21st century and had come to believe, with scarcely a hiccup, that I was hearing from Emily herself.

Charyn shows us how she forsook the physical world in favour of exploring her inner one

We meet her first at 17, when she is a "little nun" at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Sent home to recover from croup, Emily never returns to the school and, in fact, rarely leaves home again until her death nearly 40 years later. Even though these were repressive times for women, this was her own choice.

Her first attempts at writing poetry are portrayed as efforts to attract the attention of her father, Edward, who loved her but drove her to fits of envy by showing too much paternalistic affection to his daughter-in-law, among other young women. Emily has an Electra complex a mile high.

But she does not begin writing in earnest until a bout of iritis in her late 20s renders her nearly blind for months. "I had a lot of lightnin' when I couldn't use my Pen," she says, describing what was apparently her most creative period. Lightnin' is what Emily calls inspiration, while her poems are Feathers, or sometimes Plumage, that come to her all at once. Of this, she says, "I never compose - the lightnin' comes, and I mark it down." She kept a pencil on a string around her waist for that very purpose. Generally shy of speaking about her poetry, she nevertheless confides what the whole business is about for her: "A real Poem ripped the roof right off your head, that you couldn't recover from reading it." Indeed.

The paradox of Dickinson is that such a mind should choose to lock itself away in Amherst, Mass., instead of roaming the world and taking in as much as possible. Yet Dickinson was her own prisoner. Had she married well enough, she could have led a life of culture and stimulation. But Charyn shows us how she forsook the physical world in favour of exploring her inner one. Perhaps, he intimates, the world was simply too big for her. Young Emily sees herself as a Mouse, and who else but a mouse could pen lines such as these:

Several of Nature's people/ I know, and they know me;/ I feel for them a transport/ Of cordiality

Although this novel lacks the forward drive we have come to expect from modern storytelling, it makes up for it by peeling away the layers obscuring the truth of this remarkable woman, even as time seeks to bury her.

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William Kowalski is the author of Eddie's Bastard and three other novels.

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