Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

The Conjuror's Hat: Poetry and Biography

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

The Conjuror's Hat: Poetry and Biography

Article excerpt

Mina Loy. The Lost Lunar Baedeker. Ed. Roger L. Conover. Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1996. 236 pp. $23.00 $13.00 (paper)

Carolyn Burke. Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux 1996. University of California Press 1997. 493 pp. $35.00 $18.95 (paper)

Imagine a biographer's table: sheafs of poetry, some in folders and all undated; a looseleaf binder marked The Dial next to the stack of index cards that crowd the folder labeled "manuscript fragments"; a lamp; a couple of pencils, a pile of out-of-print books. Now ponder, for a moment, Richard Sewall's two stately volumes on Emily Dickinson, a poet who lived as an adult in eremitic, and legendary, isolation. Doubtless Sewall also spent much of his time alone contemplating the absent comma, which may portend nothing more than the slip of a recalcitrant hand. Of course, his motive was different from hers, his errand (at least on the surface) more sure. Daily, he confronted the vestiges of a life, hoping to recompose them: incomplete drafts of untitled poems, scattered letters in various handwritings, and querulous family memoirs, each declaiming its proprietary rights. But from these scraps he built a voluminous, marvelous biography in which Dickinson emerges a true Jamesian heroine, recondite and regal.

For Dickinson is the biographical enigma par excellence. She entices; she evades; she affronts and ensnares. Her archive is small and untidy. Only one daguerreotype survives and just a fraction of thousands of her letters. She left no diaries or datebooks, no flowers lovingly pressed and meticulously labeled. Refusing most interviews-she conducted one rare colloquy from behind her bedroom door-she spoke in riddles even to her most devoted wellwishers. "Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied," she wrote to her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Then she disappeared.

Across the Atlantic, and some years later, Virginia Woolf grapples with the biographical dilemma, imagining her subject, Mrs. Brown, as she rides the train from Richmond to Waterloo. "My name is Brown; catch me if you can." How can we ever know anyone, whether a fictional Mrs. Brown, a real Emily Dickinson, or even ourselves? Of course, if we care for facts and figures alone (assuming we can find them), the problem's solved. Photographically real, Mrs. Brown sits in the small compartment near the window; she wears a hat and leather boots. That she does not reveal her secrets matters little, for she represents a type of stolid middle-class English matron, with her polished leather and downcast eyes. And if that picture of her doesn't suit, if we require a still closer look, we can interview her travelling companions, who doubtless knew how to judge the caliber of her portmanteau.

Unsatisfied with these tangible details, Woolf imagines Mrs. Brown's inner life. What did the good woman think that morning as she pinned her brooch to her dress, fiddling with the clasp and blanching when the small prick to her finger drew hot runny tears from her eyes? What, indeed? Such secrets vex the biographer no less than the novelist, whose aim, according to Woolf, is the relation of outer to inner, fact to perception-even granite to rainbow so long, that is, as we persist in regarding fact "as something of granite-like solidity and of personality as something of rainbow-like intangibility." For Woolf, granite is the stuff of portmanteaux and boots; rainbow, the substance of poetry: gestures of personality, fleeting and deeply felt.

If novelist Woolf can conjure Mrs. Brown as she sees fit, not so Dickinson's biographer, as bound to Emily as poor Ahab to the whale. The biographer depends on what Dickinson gives, what she leaves behind. And the parsimonious Dickinson left little-as well as a great deal. After the poet's death, Lavinia Dickinson discovered in her sister's room packet after packet of elliptical, incendiary poems. So Richard Sewall took solace where he could, which is to say among those remarkable packets of "Internal Difference / Where the Meanings are. …

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