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Essay: A Poetics
Kathleen Peterson

I. Belief
God made me – Master – I did’nt be – myself. I don’t know what it was done. He built the
heart in me – Bye and bye it outgrew me – and like the little mother – with the big child –
I got tired holding him. (Dickinson, letter to 1861 to recipient unknown)

Emily Dickinson’s unknown “Master” received some of her truest thoughts (lucky and
anonymous bastard) even if he never received the letters (which we did not know that he
did not) copies of which were found among Dickinson’s correspondence after she died.
Some scholars like the letters because the recipient is unknown, which allows them to
read them without becoming the intensely sexualized object Dickinson is creating in the
present tense. The voyeurs like them because the recipient is effectively the self in the
process of reading, the object being needed and created: the other. You can watch
yourself rejecting Emily and being entreated by her. And being rejected by her. And
having your rejection of her rejected. The voyeurs have something to learn from the
scholars. Dickinson’s Master letters are, according to someone I know, the best pillow
book literature has to offer.
One set of thoughts in the Master letters have to do with the apparent unendurability of
emotional pain because of the terrible feeling of necessity love impresses upon a self, and
the certain inevitability of the survival of the soul through that feeling. The question: how
is possible that I can have any form at all, in a state of alone-ness? Not only: someone
else must have made me, but someone else must be making me right now. Dickinson sent
dozens of her “poems” as letters to recipients, sometimes unsigned, often unsaved in a
draft in her drawer. She gave them away. A combination of generosity and hubris. The
poem as use; the poem as leisure; the poem as constant creation myth.
Another set of thoughts in the Master letters have to do with the certain alteration of the
self across time and experience: the fact that as we change, our names for ourselves also
have to change, and the way we name our pain, and our myths of origin have to change as
well, and our way of talking to ourselves becomes more quick, and our toleration for pain
grows greater but so does the depth of grief, in that curious way that as we become better
at something the world usually forces us to do more of it. Another set of thoughts have to
do with the feeling we have of being and thinking and conceptualizing in the body, which
is a sense both of body and of soul. Dickinson was haunted by the idea that the brain was
stranded behind the eyes and some of her poems experiment with a change in that state:
If ever the lid gets off my head
And lets the brain away
The fellow will go where he belonged –
Without a hint from me,
And the world – if the world be looking on –
Will see how far from home
It is possible for sense to live
The soul there all the time
Dickinson rarely mentions the mind unless she is talking about the mind of God, and
always instead talks about the brain. When she talks about the brain I tend to see that
diagram of the brain from high-school biology with all of its folds and humid softness,
and its two halves. When I write poems I want them to have the same quality of
experiment Dickinson has, which is to say: an experiment with materials. An experiment
with the self. The point of that kind of experiment, I think, is often not to go forward, but
get back to origins – to see the remainder of the soul that was there all the time when
everyone else has left and its dark and no one is around to tell you who you are. Not to
mention that writing a poem about yourself is like being swallowed by an imaginary sea
monster and wondering who made the sea monster, and considering that speculation
some kind of a useful answer to the question of who you are. The place that question
takes you, which is outside of yourself, way outside of yourself, is what makes form.
II. Thief
I am in the speakroom with my aunt, Sister Agnes, the Mother Sub-Prioress of the Order
of Carmelites, Discalced, of the Convent of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, in Valparaiso,
Speakroom: room where the cloistered can speak with outsiders. We are separated by two
metal grates. In the cross-hatching the eyes cross; the ear becomes engaged but slightly
disembodied, a single sense made the totality of communication. A person can hear
perfectly but thinks she can’t because she cannot see. Form: one sense concentrated on
that makes the others off-kilter. An extreme focus on one thing to the transformation of
I have come a long way to get here. It is October and I have been teaching for the past
two months at a school in a remote desert valley in California. To reach Valparaiso,
Nebraska, I drove my car four hours to Las Vegas, boarded two planes and was picked up
at the airport by a friend who drove me thirty minutes into the countryside. Outside, the
fields layer summer and fall, and the chill in the air seems to have to descend onto the
grasshoppers, big as your hand, whose song generates the heat of August inside the fall
colors of the stiffening corn. I am to be my friend’s date at a wedding later this afternoon
which is happening in a coincidence too serendipitous to be a coincidence on a farm
within walking distance, which is why I have made this visit to Sister Agnes. My errand
for the couple getting married is to get the sisters to ring their new bell, which was named
after my grandmother Winifred Carreras Sullivan, at five o’clock when the wedding
begins, for more than the usual five rings. “Ten or twelve would be good,” the couple
said, their happiness having the leisure to lack precision. I haven’t seen my aunt in five
years. We have talked all day about everything from my romantic life to why sheep might
make good pets. The certainty my aunt has that St. Theresa and St. John of the Cross
levitated when the spoke to each other (it was proven, she said, her eyes so full of
conviction they didn’t need to widen) made the day stand still at two-thirty when I
recorded that she had said it in my head, whose clipboard is so full at this point I can
barely generate a sentence. At some point I recited “There’s a certain slant of light,” to
my aunt’s assembled community, at which point another sister recited part of another
Dickinson poem and asked me, “do you know any other poems about Eternity?” It is not
because of our intimacy that there is a feeling about talking with my aunt that we could
talk about anything, meaning, to me right now, that we could talk about sex. It is the
confidence of one of my favorite characters in theatre, Hannah Jelkes, who says in
Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, when someone asks her why she let a
lonely male stranger smell her panties on a Chinese junk while traveling in the far east,
that there is nothing dirty or terrible that has to do with human beings. But these
conversations do not occur, though they could, and in fact, it is four-thirty, and these
conversations now have occurred, are in the past tense, and I have to go into the tiny
bathroom in the reception area and put on a black silk dress and heels and stumble out
into the corn to go to a wedding with someone I can’t decide whether I want to fall in
love with or not. Such is the pressure of occasion; such are the comforts of friendship;
such are the uncertainties of this moment whose lack of permanence recommends it to
my consciousness as something to be remembered. My aunt has finished saying a prayer
with me and both of us have said it quickly. I am conscious that I will not see her again
for some time, that these errands come into possibility quite without warning.
“Goodbye,” she says, and she does say goodbye, and “God be with you,” and then she is
gone, and the last I see of her is the flash of her white wimple under her black veil, and
her white skirt under her black surplice, and it is as if I was not a visitor every three
years, but a visitor every day, and there was no need for a ceremony of leave-taking: the
strange and the ordinary, together. Absence of her presence in the room like a furrow in
the earth. What I want is to write a poem which exits the page like she did.
III. Grief / Sheaf
I want the poem to want selflessness, but I want selflessness to have presence. Not to
have my cake and eat it but to have my cake and give my cake away. The mark of the self
on the poem as the mark of giving the poem away. I want the willing absence of myself
to occur in the word of the poem as presence. I want to make my mark on the poem as
presence by charting the motions of my own absence. Coleridge: “There is small chance
of Truth at the goal when there is not a child-like Humility at the starting post.” My odds
are on Humility to win though Pride makes a run for it.
I don’t want to torture myself but I want to expose myself. In a world in which creativity
so often chooses pain as way of expressing itself. I don’t want to think of form only as
resistance, a pressing into service, the self being turned away by the absent god of the line
break, the metrical pattern, the stanza. But form does resist the voice; the materials resist.
Dickinson, to the Master: “I came to you for Redemption – you gave me something else.”
I don’t want to be in charge of the poem but I don’t want to lead my reader into a lawless
country undefended and afraid.
Dickinson turns fear over:
I am afraid to own a Body—
I am afraid to own a Soul—
Profound—precarious, Property—
Possession – not optional—
Double Estate, entailed at pleasure
Opon an unsuspecting Heir—
Duke in a moment of Deathlessness
And God, for a Frontier.
What begins as declaration of fear becomes a daredevil foray into an unknown territory;
in the white space the self accepts the conditions of possession of the life: though there is
no choice other than to accept, her fear is not weakness but her putting up a fight, a
declaration of vulnerability that opens the poem out to an unknown end. Frontier: the
Roman god of borders, Terminus, taught us our limits but also showed us the unknown.
That acceptance reveals that presence, personality, selfhood, is what occurs in an
emergency, and what occurs on a dare. The unknowable frontiers of Dickinson’s own
work – the variant words, the ambiguously marked pages – collapse in the moment of
reading (which is its own emergency) in which interpretation, at its most selfless, seeks
not closure but provisional, diplomatic, generous, comprehensibility, bringing together
body and soul, reader and writer.

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