Commentary on “The Fascicles of Emily Dickinson”

The Fascicles of Emily Dickinson

First of all, such a fussy word—little bundles
of nerve sewn up and plunged in a trunk,

sewn with a needle that must have pricked
her, and how she must have sucked her finger

promising herself—next time—a thimble, as the blood
ran down into a starched cuff. Mostly,

though, I’d say she went bareheaded
into the storm, like a scrimshaw etcher

on a surging deck—one eye out for leviathan,
the other trained on a tiny fistful of ivory.

***

“The Fascicles of Emily Dickinson” is from Susan Gubernat’s The Zoo at Night, winner of the Prairie Schooner Prize in 2016.

Orlando Ricardo Menes is Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. His poetry collections include, among others,  Fetish (Nebraska, 2013), winner of the Prairie Schooner Prize in 2012, and Heresies (New Mexico, 2015).

Below Menes discusses the poem. 

Word hounds (and hoarders, too) that we poets are, we will at times (or often if luck blesses us) encounter an unusual word that reverberates in the imagination, and thus the poem is born. Such is the case with Susan Gubernat’s “The Fascicles of Emily Dickinson.” I get the strong sense that it is this word that served as the conduit or bridge to Dickinson and made her come to life in Gubernat’s imagination. Nonetheless, the poet is rather tongue-in-cheek about the word in the very first line: “First of all, such a fussy word,” and this exclamation is followed by a definition: “little bundles / of nerve sewn up . . . .” (This ludic touch is characteristic of her tone throughout the collection, which lends intimacy to her voice.) The construction of the poem, it should be added, also evokes this sewing motif: five unrhymed couplets (like strips of fabric?), together with four white spaces, that tend to rely on enjambment to create a seamless effect). Now back to “fascicle.” How Gubernat defines the word, or rather turns (tropes) the meaning thereof, is rather complex and indicative of her interpretative art. In terms of writing, a “fascicle” is “one of the divisions of a book published in parts” (Merriam Webster), and it is the name that one of Dickinson’s early editors gave to those manuscripts she sewed into “bundles” and then stored away, but the word also means a small bundle of fibers (muscle, nerve, etc.) or pine needles, flower buds, and so on. And it is this organic connection that Gubernat turns into a conceit—paper transformed into Dickinson’s very body, each page a nerve of her being, her essence, and thus poetry’s existence necessitates that thought and body, the abstract and the physical, come together in a kind of sacred communion. The poem describes Dickinson sewing the poems of her creation in almost Christocentric terms—the poet as a martyr to her vocation whose needle “must have pricked her [finger], and how she must have sucked [it]” (a Donnean eroticism that is not lost to me). Thereafter, Gubernat gets even more daring (naughty?) as she imagines Dickinson’s blood “[running] down into a starched cuff.” There is in Dickinson’s mind the afterthought of a thimble (“promising herself—next time”), which seems odd to me since thimbles are commonplace. Dickinson wants to bleed, wants to experience the sacrifice of making a manuscript (and by extension the suffering of making a poem). It is this sacramental rendering of the body that I find exhilarating as a Catholic poet. However, the poem then moves away from the devotional and the domestic to an entirely different realm—whaling—and its allusion to Moby Dick, a world fraught with danger and obsession, violence and the yearning for redemption. In this quintessentially American realm of struggle, Gubernat describes (as in an afterthought—“Mostly, // though”) Dickinson going off “bareheaded / into the storm, like a scrimshaw etcher // on a surging deck.” The poet is naked, unprotected, her only power that of her craft, as she enters the storm of creation, scrimshaw being the whaler’s corollary to the poem. The final lines paint a portrait of Dickinson in a struggle between the overwhelming vastness of the ocean (and its monstrous leviathan), which is the source of creation, and the smallness of the scrimshaw, art being something delicate, precious, yet precarious as well. Nonetheless, the poem tells us, Dickinson must acknowledge both, keeping “one eye out for leviathan, / the other trained on a tiny fistful of ivory.” In this parable (of sorts) we come to the realization that creating art is ultimately agonistic and perhaps prone to failure, yet we will never come to the truth of creation unless we go “bareheaded / into the storm.”

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