Emily Dickinson's Failures of Self
Essay Press 2015
New Books in American StudiesNew Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in Literary StudiesNew Books in LiteratureNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in PoetryNew Books Network October 8, 2016 Eric LeMay
Emily Dickinson is no ordinary poet. Her intelligent and profound work inspires a fierce attachment in those who love it. I know this first-hand. My wife began reading Dickinson soon after we first met and took to the poems so deeply that, a little over a decade later, she published a book about Dickinson’s spiritual life. What that meant for me–in addition to admiring her writing–was that for over a decade Dickinson was more or less a member of our household, readily quoted by my wife on almost any occasion. “If your Nerve, deny you,” she might advise me as I tried to parallel park, “Go above your Nerve.” Or, on a winter morning, she might suddenly reflect on the “polar privacy of a soul admitted to itself.” A number of times I had to remind her that not all of us speak Dickinson. And yet, even if I don’t speak Dickinson, I, too, admire the poet’s work, as well as the spiritual struggles she undertook.
So I was delighted to come across Kristen Case’s new book, Abdication: Emily Dickinson’s Failures of Self (Essay Press, 2015), which takes up many of Dickinson’s great themes. What does it mean to be a self? And how can one fail or lose oneself? How does one approach or perhaps even dissolve before God or infinity or finitude? Why do our absences, longings, and emptiness sometimes define us more than what’s actually there, before us, as us? These are dense and weighty questions, and Case takes up with a keen intelligence and deft attention to language, her own and Dickinson’s. Case is, indeed, a writer who speaks Dickinson and a writer worth hearing.