Poetry News

"Without–the power to die–": Joyelle McSweeney Reading Emily Dickinson

By Harriet Staff

Head over to Montevidayo where Joyelle McSweeney engages Emily Dickinson's poem 754 [My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun]. She starts her reading of this slippery poem by writing:

In the past year I’ve found my thoughts returning & returning to Dickinson’s Loaded Gun (Poem 754). How is the body (and the body of the poem) a vessel of violence, but not of agency, a site from which violence returns and goes, is doubled up, masked, wears the mask of another, shines its face everywhere? The loaded gun is an amplifier, a medium. It sounds the landscape through its roar and glare. It replaces the sun and, part camera flash and part nuclear bomb, develops the landscape like the bomb at Hiroshima which burnt shadows permanently into sidewalk.

And every time I speak for Him -
The Mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -

What’s scary about this set of images is a tide of reversals: the would-be human is converted to a gun, which then conducts a would-be ‘human’ circuit of communication, complete with speaking, replying, smiling, and showing one’s pleasure on the face. This circuit of communication transfers human duplicity to the landscape; anthromorphized, the landscape now is capable of inflicting the violence with a human-like duplicity—the “Valley glow” shed by the “Vesuvian face” being the destructive expression of a volcano which, like human bombs, freezes human time.

Then later:

This powerful assemblage reverberates all the way up the body of the poem, crushing and reforming its polarities with its undead, undying shock. If the poem is the textual body of the speaker, the vessel of its “I’, then this poem now becomes the field of its machinic unions, its becoming, its undead deadly-ness, its spasming emphaticness. The speaker cannot die because, though deadly, dead-ish, full of death, she can ever complete this moment of becoming dead; the poem cannot die because it never completes its moment of assembling all it touches into the expanding field of its exploding body.

Read the rest in all its undying glory!

Originally Published: November 12th, 2012