25 Points: The Emily Dickinson Reader

The Emily Dickinson Reader: An English-to-English Translation of Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems
by Paul Legault
McSweeney’s, 2012
247 pages / $17.00 buy from McSweeney’s







[Note: In the text that follows, the leading number refers to the catalog number assigned to each Dickinson poem and its accompanying translation. These numbers are derived from the Franklin (1999) edition of Dickinson’s oeuvre. The trailing trailing number appearing in square brackets references the actual “point number”, and thus the in order in which the reviewer would prefer, although would not require, that these 25 points be read. JM]

12. Concurrent with my reading of Legualt, I’ve been following Brandon Brown @ Harriet (the blog) on translation. How he says, “There is no master.” I feels it applies here, too. But maybe Brown and Legault are colleagues, correspondents, even. (One of them, surely, is wren-like and sherry-eyed.) Or the inventions are independent identicals, like Darwin and that other guy*. I imagine Brown and Legault meeting in some profile coastal city with a very specifically desirably demographic profile, dotted with saloons and taverns, meeting over craft beers intensely hoppy and a shared literary ambivalence which tastes of salt without being salty per se. But this meeting, which is like a prelude to a deeper or longer encounter, this meeting wordless, sudsy… these beers, these refreshments bitter and compulsory… the possibility of Brown and Legault merely overlapping at the bar is as far as my imagination goes. And is this stopping heartful, braked by the anxiety of influence? “Emily Dickinson wrote in a language all her own, thus the need for this English version of what she meant.” (7) Wait, so does the agony of influence deny the mortification of the flesh? [3]

29. Handed over to the hand that writes, “simple” and “direct” are always driven forward. I mean, forward as out or away, into that exile that enable observation, not into the completed future of conveyance. (That, and I just don’t trust McSweeney’s.) [4]

98. Biography bugs me most of all. I wish we had no daguerrotypes of Dickinson to caption. I wish reading really pressed some sort of pause button on life itself. I wish I didn’t feel like I, too, know how caretaking will warp you. [16]

167. But with such rueful wishing, if not in it, a realization disappoints me with surprise and surprises me with disappointment: I have this idea all the time. [25]

221. Translation isn’t telling, much less re-telling. But it snags in the same temporal flow as does narrative. [7]

319. What was Dickinson herself translating? Emerson? Swedenborg? Whiteness: “racial,” temperamental, existential (not a word she would have recognized, not for all the tenements in Amherst)? The Puritanism that idles with such delightful perversity in Frost’s “The Generations of Men”? The erotics of a universal chlorosis? Proverbs she found when she dreamed of communion in the hills so misty from her gnomic lookout? Hell, that’s it. Dickinson, even her doubts are too bold. For all Legault’s contemporary light shines, it can’t cast her shadows. [8]

333. Not that I think Dickinson’s—or any poet’s poetry, for that matter—is inviolable. Reading it will always rough it up anyway. But what about introversion? [2]

392. Consider Paul Legault’s project a sort-of ekphrasis on Dickinson’s unwritten autobiography. Consider that Dickinson’s medium isn’t poetry, that Legault’s isn’t comedy (though more than a few of these read as if they could have been spouted by a vintage, arrow-through-the-head Steve Martin), that there is no translation evident here, only notation, only commentary, only adumbration, thoughts broken in the process of their own manufacture by the machine that is, quite literally is, addiction to the author’s held-out promise of exegesis. Consider your prurient self covertly mocked. [21]

421. Emily Dickinson isn’t your friend, and never was. Anyway, friendship thrives on novels (its parasitic), not poems. And Emily Dickinson does care, in the sense that she wants to know something true of her own being. That she would exemplar herself, if only privately. [20]

438. The apostrophe of the second-guess. The syntax of the spit-take. After all, the literal is the absurd. [13]

640. Fame-baiting. Let’s call it that, and leave it at that, and then continue talking a bit more about how celebrity and fame aren’t anywhere near similar. Can only know each other in approach, not that the moment itself could care. Legault would make of Dickinson a tin Achilles quietly smoldering in petticoats, a Harold Bloom with a Dr. Phil megaphone. [12]

759. Maybe it’s never OK to joke about singular, stable meaning when poetry houses the context. [15]

770. Am I being too polite? Pious? Is this substituting of “zombies” for the endless departed, this leaning on the lazy condescension of “weird,” these “like”s and “really”s and “Whatever”s really irreverence. I mean, does Legault’s language—doubly appropriated, ironic in all directions—ask us to re-imagine the reverent? The revered? Is this book a mop for spilt Romanticism? (Paper, even when gilded, does absorb.) [22]

813, 821. Legault’s is an act not of homage, not in any obvious way, but of advocacy. “Look, as gibberish as her doppelgängers rattle on, as much as she’s a sorceress, Dickinson thinks about the same stuff we do! Food and sex and confusion and death and God and the whys of what’s beautiful and what’s fleeting about it!” Of course Dickinson did, and of course her poems do. But I can’t dispense with the how of it, I can’t disaffect myself from those capitals and em dashes. (Em, like, a nickname for Emily? Of course not.) [10]

849. The point is not to see through the window to the scene framed on the other side. The point is to feel the window shattering against and into you as you plunge through it. [23]

951. Legault unsilences Dickinson (if we choose to construe her ellipticity and “difficulty” as a kind of amped-up silence) by resurrecting the moody teen entombed under all those years of domestic diligence, giving her her own diary or phone (line) or LiveJournal or Twitter or whatever comes next. [9]

1032. What does a one-liner respect? Economy? Hardly. Surprise? Partly. Whatever funny might be? Not even close. A one-liner most respects the idea that, if figurative language can be killed, its only with a swift and cavalier stroke. And the nullification of figurative language—rhetoric, metaphor, cliché, the whole bit—that’s the annihilation of the inside joke. [19]

1180. Legault: “I hate when people tell the same jokes over and over.” Dickinson:

The Riddle we can guess
We speedily despise —
Not anything is stale so long
As Yesterday’s surprise —

Me: I would subject this poem to rendition as follows: “You want to know what meta- is? If you understand me too quickly, I’ll only come back to haunt you all the more.” [6]

1209. Paul Legault lives in Brooklyn. I don’t know where he works. [14]

1370. I will aim to make a list of the modes Legault employs, some canonical, many not. Aphorism. Confession. Temporization. Supplication (or prayer). Abjection. Encyclopedism. The pastoral (or the arcadian). Adamancy. Marie Calloway feminism. Non sequitur. Colonizing Southern California tonalities. The declarative. And then I will give up. In Legault’s Dickinson is cataloged every poetic naughtiness (or sin… but that’s more Emily than Paul) committed as well as omitted in this one-old-century-that-refuses-unmercifully-to-end-even-as-its-successor-can’t-marshall-its-energies-to-begin. Let grace descend upon this Saint Paul. [17]

1446. The weight of paraphrase. Don’t Legault’s versions get shorter, and therefore more self-consciously tiresome, as they transcend toward their end? They veer, and so they do. [11]

1589. In time, this, too, will cease to be English. [5]

1616. I keep thinking about Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks, another salvage project that thinks itself thinking. And, often what it thinks itself thinking is a kind of frozen heroism: “Here, again, I confront death.” Yet isn’t every reflex staring down against death? (Fear, however, the refusal of certain of our instincts to wake to the fact that they are, in effect, dead…) The books, neither of them have to wage what they wage against mortality, and the author who would be the one who makes the book falters, because the book never quite manages to do instead what was never required of it. Not until it that book is closed, anyway. Not until its meanings are darkened and shut. [18]

1734. I’ve tried to rewrite this multiple times, to craft it away from a meaning I’d prefer not to admit. Still all my revisions come back to this: Here, this book (which did I purchase, BTW FWIW), is represented an idea I wish I’d had. [24]

1788. How about I share (take, or leave, the portion’s availability is all that counts) an old and borrowed joke? “Emily Dickinson is still dead.” [1]

* Alfred Russel Wallace


Joe Milazzo is the author of The Terraces (Das Arquibancadas) (Little Red Leaves Textile Series, 2012). With Janice Lee and Eric Lindley, he co-edits the interdisciplinary arts journal [out of nothing]. His writings have appeared in H_NGM_N, The Collagist, Drunken Boat, Black Clock, and elsewhere. Joe lives and works in Dallas, TX, and his virtual location is

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