Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Emily Dickinson and the Holocaust: Why

I received an e-mail last week from Ezster Rimar, a student in Hungary, telling me she was presenting a paper on one of my poems at the conference "Witnessing Responses: A New Generation's Perspectives on the Holocaust" (held at Károli Gáspár University of the Hungarian Reformed Church, Budapest, September 9-12, 2009). With her permission, I am posting her presentation here. Ms. Rimar's insights into the poem, "Emily Dicksinson Is Jewish," are sharp and sensitive; what impresses me even more is her interest in assessing the poem and not the poet. I've pasted the poem, first published in Fine Madness in 1997, at the end. Following that I include my e-mailed responses to Ezster. And a general note on the poem: My placing Emily in the attic was a trick of synthesis. In a moment objects of my hybrid attention and hybrid debate (hybrid - I am Christian and Jewish) coalesced. I sat and wrote.

Analysis of the poem "Emily Dickinson is Jewish" by Sarah Sarai
by Ezster Rimar

Why this poem
2 years ago, special elective course on E. D.
Task: read poems about her.
This -> interesting title (E. D. Jewish?)
Focus on her in the poem...but why Jewish?
What are the similarities between her and the Jews of the Holocaust?

The poem
Free verse: no rhymes, no clear rhythm -> suggest distraction, restlessness, uneasiness
Unusual stanzas...four lines, 2, 3, 3, 1, structure, no harmony, no balance
Emotions flowing out just the way they are.

First stanza
We are in the attic
Attic: dusty, mysterious, dark, no light, perhaps no windows, old things, antiquities, forgotten past, bats, ghosts, Charlotte Bronte’s mad ex-wife Bertha (Jane Eyre)...good place for hiding, you don’t go there without an explicit purpose

E.D.’s restricted -> there is something she can’t say/do...makes her stay in the attic and hide her “selective nomadic soul”. Selective: discriminating, selecting like deciding what is good & what is bad? Nomadic: no fixed home, wanderer...her soul is a wanderer. Is Jewish soul a wanderer? Has it got its home where it can feel safe? Has it got the comfort of a home where it can express freely what it feels?

Listing the things E.D. misses: bees, frogs, “sovereign woods”..., nobility, beauty, nature, simplicity...all in few we don’t value them when they are there naturally... 
Squinting at dust, the Oriental carpet, a creaking plank...images, objects from the attic. Squinting -> not being able to see clearly, there is something disturbing in the picture. Oriental carpet vs. creaking plank: carpet soft, dulls the noise of steps, oriental = mystery, sg. unknown...Creaking plank: loud, dangerous, meaning death for pirates...if you walk the plank... don’t know what’s going to happen...when are you going to fall into the water and die, suffocate...

Second stanza
Clear allusion to E.D. with death carriage (“because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me”). Deliberation...won’t abandon! No intention! Come what may! She knows “doors slam shut on his train”. Finality. No way back! Once doors slam shut, it’s over. Train -> like train on which Jews were transported to camps.

Third stanza
Introduces Austin, E.D.’s brother, and his wife Sue. Nice pic, w/ children laughing, bringing life, vitality into the attic. Sue also stows things for E. In case she returns...again the most important things. Maybe crusts and laughter are enough for happiness...
Bread crusts: parts thrown away by so many. Precious for those in exile.
Jew-in-white: important picture in E.D.’s life...wore white all the time. White: symbol of purity, peace, angels, wedding (bride’s gown), in some cultures funeral also...also white associated w/ ghosts...if the woman in the attic wears white and is a Jew, perhaps...ghosts from the past up in the attic.

Fourth stanza
Shows a possible outcome. She could die there, or be captured. No other alternative. She will not go from the attic from her own will. She will not just appear as if everything was all right. She can die there, or be captured. And, whichever happens will happen by force.

Why? “Muslin’s soft scratch” are restricted...fully. Completely. Are not supposed to do anything. No movements, no noise...even a fine material, like muslin, when touches the desk sounds as loud as “clicked boot heels”. It gives you away. It is not your friend. But you wear it. You wear your white muslin dress. Perhaps that’s all you have left from your normal life. The life that you had to leave behind. From that life before you began to hide in an attic.
Clicked boot heels: obvious allusion to German soldiers. They are loud, merciless, cruel...they will get you and, as the next line says, will “force” you from the attic...

At this point -> thought of Anne Frank...the Dutch girl, hiding with her family from the Nazis, writing her diary, which is found after she is captured and taken to the camp. Diary: important...she’s got a desk...she writes. The diary tells stories, feelings, intros situations, her attitude. Fears and hopes. Wishes. What they are, a nice bath, eating something good, visiting friends, going to the cinema...just like in the first stanza, where we read what Emily was missing. Simple things. Nothing extraordinary. Just everyday things.

Interesting: muslin vs. loud clicked boot heels...feminine vs. masculine, beauty, tenderness vs. violence, force, crudity, vs. death. Think of oriental carpet vs. creaking plank -> also finery vs. cruelty, crudity...

One liner
Emily is forced from this attic. She is found out. Short, factual, no illusions, no explanation, real. Very real.

Last stanza
The final picture. Showing weakness, exhaustion, up. Not able to fight. To say anything, go against the power. “Faint breath” definite sign of it.
Stanzas lapped in smoke: smoke, again reference to death camps, burning the dead. Smoke: hiding evil deeds...also giving them away. Gives mystery to “stanzas”. They are there, but perhaps will never be found. However, they will rise into the air, they will become free. No more restrictions, no more fear, no more confinement.

“Poems as long as one letter, rise.”
Reminding of those short messages, those sighs and silent utterances that were inscribed into carriage walls, whispered in the dark, suppressed in the brain, and let out into the smoke. We must not forget, or neglect these one letter poems. These must stay in the memories so that the world can remember not to repeat the past again.

Why E. D.? She was a lonely woman, who could not come to terms with the world around her. Her father was authoritative, accepted no opposition. Emily’s views, especially those concerning religion, differed from those of her father. She, however, could not reveal them. She did not care about the issues of the world surrounding her. She turned from the detested outer world to her own, created one where she could avoid embarrassing social situations, meaningless conversations, and rejection.

Attic 2: mind...back of the mind...suppressed memories, thoughts, hopes and fears
Her fears, her hopes and wishes, her inability to communicate makes her a good agent for this comparison. The Jews of the Holocaust also had to hide. Not only physically, but also they had to hide their convictions, their beliefs. They hungered understanding, acceptance, they wished for normality, simple, everyday things. Just like E. D., who many times wrote only to her desk, unwilling to have her works published, Jews of the Holocaust, and we might definitely take the case of Anne Frank, also kept their deepest thoughts secret from the world.

Psychological bond between 19th, 20th, and all the centuries. Fear is never different. Whether self confinement or society presses one...must not be allowed. People are the same in all centuries.

Emily Dickinson Is Jewish

Emily Dickinson is Jewish and hides in an attic.
Restriction and Emily's selective nomadic soul breed
Speculation. She misses bees, frogs, familiar sovereign woods.
She squints at dust, the Oriental carpet, a creaking plank.

Emily won't abandon Death's carriage.
She knows doors slam shut on his train.

Austin's wife Sue stows bread crusts
And the children's laughter
For her Jew-in-white.

Emily could die here or be captured,
Muslin's soft scratch on the desk
Loud as clicked boot heels.

Emily Dickinson is forced from this attic.
Faint breath and her thin tongue.
Stanzas lapped in smoke.

Poems as long as one letter, rise.

...... Sarah Sarai



Dear Ezster:

I found your insights and analyses to be on the mark, and I thank you for your sensitivity. If you don't mind, I add a few thoughts, at random. Please note that none of these thoughts is meant to replace or criticize your critique. The attic: It is also a place to write--Virginia Woolf's fabled room of one's own. Your conclusion: Yes, Emily was lonely and unable to tell her authoritarian father her mystical versions of religion. But I would argue with the sense I receive in reading your that paragraph that she is a victim. She wasn't only lonely. She wasn't totally isolated. And God knows, that woman had a visionary inner life that had to offer many satisfactions. I suggest she was extremely lucky to know the confluence of genius, originality and opportunity. [[[[[Granted, her life--happy, unhappy, voluntary, forced, personality disorder, genius (well, that's not debated), straight, gay--provides an ongoing debate for readers, scholars, feminist scholars--and more so than Elizabeth Bishop's or Robert Lowell's or Poe's or Rimbaud's or Coleridge's or many of the many famed alcoholic/addict poets of literature.!]]]]]

. . . Sarah

And thanks to anyone who reads this blog entry. Ezster, please stay in touch. S.
The photo is of Emily Dickinson's portrait, as depicted on the mural at West Cemetery, Amherst.

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