Emily Dickinson and the Poetics of Trauma
In a 1998 essay, the Emily Dickinson scholar Robert Weisbuch describes receiving a letter from “[a] former and very fine student.” In the letter, the student, who has since gone on to become a psychiatrist, wonders whether Dickinson had perhaps suffered sexual abuse as a child. She bases her surmise on the startled sense of recognition some of her patients (who had themselves been abused as children) feel when she shares with them poems like this one:
There is a pain — so utter —
It swallows substance up —
Then covers the Abyss with Trance —
So Memory can step
Around — across — opon it —
As One within a Swoon —
Goes safely — where an open eye —
Would drop Him — Bone by Bone
(515) About summer 1863
Weisbuch admits that the poem can be read as an early—and, indeed, uncanny—anticipation of Freud’s repression theory of trauma, what Weisbuch calls “the automatic protections the self creates to guard against thinking the unthinkable.” And yet, in the end, his story is a cautionary tale. His student, he says, is “forgivably guilty” of what he terms the “biographical fallacy”—i.e., the idea that one can read the poems for signs of the life. One of his cardinal rules in reading Dickinson’s poetry is “Don’t pry,” which is to say “you mustn’t look for Dickinson’s life in the poems.”
Weisbuch cautions against biographical readings not just because they are futile (after all, the poems are not literal), but also because such readings are “insufficiently ambitious.” In particular, they blind the reader to what is truly distinctive about Dickinson’s poetry and the way she constructs meaning through it. Weisbuch emphasizes the “scenelessness” of Dickinson’s poems, the difficulty, indeed the impossibility, of saying with any certainty what they are “about.” For Weisbuch, this scenelessness (what, at another point, he terms the poems’ “precise imprecision”) is not simply a poetic technique, but a “metaphysic,” indeed an “epistemology”—“an alternative way of putting together the world.” Such a poetry avoids single meanings. Rather, it is an “endless quest, where any thought is open to revision or extension.” And he urges the reader to “resist pointing or pinning down a poetry which depends on expansible meaning.”
Weisbuch has a point. In the more than one hundred years of Dickinson criticism, there are many examples of reading poems like “There is a pain — so utter — ” as evidence that Dickinson’s poetry was a response, if not exactly to child abuse, then to some kind of personal psychic trauma in her life.
In particular, there is a long tradition of more-or-less reductionist psychoanalytic readings of Dickinson’s poetry and life. According to R. McClure Smith, “Dickinson has always seemed the perfect subject for the psychoanalytic method of biography and criticism.”
“Was Emily Dickinson Psychotic?” asked a 1962 article in the American Imago. “With all the evidence available it seems curious that no biographer has ever discussed the possibility of mental illness as a causative factor in her eccentricity,” the author writes. And while she gives no definitive answer, she comments that “If there is any point in literature where psychiatry and criticism meet, it would appear to be here.”
Probably the most dramatic example of this psychoanalytic version of the biographical fallacy is the psychoanalyst John Cody’s After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson, which is a maddening combination of inevitably speculative psychoanalytic detective work about the life based, in large part, on absolutely tone-deaf readings of the poems. So, yes, “don’t pry,” don’t look for the life in the poems.
And yet, I confess a fair degree of sympathy for that student-turned-psychiatrist. For once one puts aside the misreadings of the biographical fallacy, there remains the fact that many of Dickinson’s poems do seem to be engaged in a profound and complex way with something very much like trauma.
The basic argument of this essay is that in Dickinson’s poetry one finds, not a roadmap to her own personal traumas, but rather a fine-grained phenomenology of trauma — a psychologically acute description of trauma as a distinctive emotional and, indeed, cognitive state. Or perhaps we should borrow Weisbuch’s term: epistemological state.
In addition to being a persistent theme in Dickinson’s poetry, I believe the concept of trauma is also a key to understanding what the poet Adrienne Rich has termed Dickinson’s “complex sense of truth.” Put another way, among the truths that Dickinson has to tell are truths about the traumatic state and the distinctive self-experience that it engenders.
Finally, by “poetics of trauma” I mean that trauma is central to Dickinson’s conception of the purpose and the function of poetry. After all, this is the poet who is, famously, reported to have said: “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way.”
In Dickinson, poetry becomes a privileged means for telling the truth about trauma and, therefore, for integrating traumatic experience into the self. Or to put it in the words of Wallace Stevens, poetry is “a violence from within that protects us from violence from without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.”
Trauma as Trope: Poetry as “Precocious Testimony”
In developing this view, an important reference point for me has been what for lack of a better term I am going to call the “Yale School” of trauma theory, characterized by the work of literary theorists such as Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman, and Geoffrey Hartman. At the risk of massive overgeneralization, I want to let one essay stand for this approach, Shoshana Felman’s “Education and Crisis, or the Vicissitudes of Teaching,” which has become something of a classic in the field.
Felman’s article poses the question: “How is the act of writing tied up with the act of bearing witness . . . ?” The piece describes a graduate course she taught at Yale in 1984 in which students studied a variety of texts that, in their different ways, were “accounts of—or testimonies to—a crisis”: fiction by Camus and Dostoevsky, poetry by Mallarmé and Paul Celan, psychoanalytic theory by Freud, and also videotapes of Holocaust survivor testimonies. Felman’s essay combines her own “reading” of these diverse “texts” with a parallel account of how the subject matter of the course—trauma and the crisis of witnessing that it engenders—was “unwittingly enacted” by the course itself.
I’d like to identify three key ideas or principles from Felman’s essay that I’ve found useful in my exploration of Dickinson.
The first is the idea that trauma invokes a crisis of truth. Trauma is an experience of such intensity that it overwhelms the boundaries of the self. It’s an experience of “too much”—or in the evocative phrase of the psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold, “too much too-muchness.”
Precisely because trauma is too much, we cannot take it in. It is so overwhelming that it escapes normal cognition. Trauma does not register and, as a result, it is not really experienced at the moment of its occurrence but only belatedly — and then, in a particular way: not as conscious memory but as action, reenacted in the present over and over again.
On the one hand, trauma’s unavailability as conscious memory introduces a fundamental doubt about its truth status. Did it really happen? If not completely repressed, it is subject to what Robert Jay Lifton calls “psychic numbing” — an experience of decreased or absent feeling that, for Lifton, reflects a disruption of the individual’s capacity to symbolize his or her experience. There is a powerful example of this in Felman’s essay where she quotes a Holocaust survivor who says: “For the past thirty-five years I’ve been trying to convince myself that it never happened, that . . . maybe it happened but I wasn’t affected. I walked under the rain without getting wet . . . .”
On the other hand, trauma’s continuous enactment in the present makes it seem as if it is the only thing happening, the one sure thing, the foundation of an absolute, totalizing truth (like the intrusive thoughts and literal flashbacks suffered by a victim of post-traumatic stress). The experience that eludes the self ends up defining the self.
Boston analyst Arnold Modell has recently attributed this self-sustaining quality of trauma to a degradation of the individual’s capacity to use metaphor to recontextualize memory. In trauma, Modell writes , “the metaphoric process [understood as a cognitive, not just linguistic, process] transfers meaning from the past to the present without transformation . . . . The past becomes a template for the present, creating a loss of ambiguity in the experience of the here and now . . . . In experiential terms, that means the present is conflated with the past.”
This quality of trauma as simultaneously absent but ever present provokes a crisis of truth, and this crisis explains, I think, Felman’s fascination with “testimony” as a mode of discourse. To testify, she reminds us, is “to vow to tell, to promise and produce one’s own speech as material evidence of truth.” Felman points out that the legal mode of testimony dramatizes “a contained, and culturally channeled , institutionalized crisis of truth.” And she uses legal testimony as an explicit analogy for what she calls “the larger, more profound, less definable crisis of truth” of contemporary culture.
But of course, testifying to trauma is highly problematic—and this brings me to the second key idea that I draw from Felman’s essay. For trauma’s crisis of truth is simultaneously a crisis of language. “In the testimony, language is in process and in trial, . . .” she writes. The essence of the traumatic dilemma is that, on the one hand, the only way to break the cycle of repetition and re-enactment is to bear witness to the truth of trauma, to put it into words and, in this way, to begin a process of assimilation and integration of the experience that holds out the possibility of creating a post-traumatic self. And yet, giving voice to trauma runs the risk that in the very moment of telling, our language will falsify what is at the core of trauma’s truth: what Cathy Caruth has described as its “essential incomprehensibility, the force of its affront to the understanding.”
So there is a real question whether language is adequate to the task of testimony—or, rather, what kind of language might be adequate. Felman quotes from Paul Celan’s extraordinary Bremen address on the need for language somehow “to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through a frightful falling mute.” And she describes Celan’s attempt (still echoing the words of the Bremen address) “to penetrate . . . the state of being stricken, wounded by reality [wirklichkeitswund]—and to attempt, at the same time, to reemerge from the paralysis of this state, to engage reality [Wirklichkeit suchend] as an advent, a movement and as a vital, critical necessity of moving on.”
Which brings me to the third idea that I take from Felman’s essay: that poetry—and, in particular, modern poetry— is one important place where these crises play themselves out. In the section of her essay on Mallarmé, Felman argues that the rhythmical unpredictability of modern poetry has an unsettling effect that simultaneously mirrors the unsettling of the traumatic experience but also opens up new possibilities of meaning. Her discussion reminds me of a statement by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: “. . . Language bears within itself the dialectics of open and closed. Through meaning it encloses, while through poetic expression, it opens up.”
And in this opening up, poetry becomes what Felman calls “precocious testimony.” “Such precocious testimony,” she writes, “. . . becomes, with Mallarmé, the very principle of poetic insight and the very core of the event of poetry, which makes . . . language . . . speak ahead of knowledge and awareness and break through the limits of its own conscious understanding.” Or, to quote Bachelard again: “Forces are manifested in poems that do not pass through the circuits of knowledge.”
Dickinson as a Writer of Trauma
Emily Dickinson is not on Felman’s list of writers of trauma. Like much of the theoretical writing about trauma, the texts Felman treats are all European—as are her historical reference points (most obviously, the Holocaust). And yet, in terms of both style and substance, I believe a strong case can be made for Dickinson as America’s “writer of trauma” par excellence.
In one respect, this view is certainly no news. There is an honorable tradition in Dickinson criticism (although somewhat neglected today) that emphasizes Dickinson’s astringent psychological acuity. The poet Adrienne Rich, for example, in her classic essay, “Vesuvius at Home,” calls Dickinson “the American poet whose work consisted in exploring states of psychic extremity . . . .” And according to Albert Gelpi, Dickinson’s poetry represents “a complex psyche struggling to press her inner conflicts and contrarieties to clarity from moment to moment through the creative and reflective act of language.”
But “psychic extremity” is more than just a frequent subject of Dickinson’s poetry; it also deeply shapes her poetic style. Go back to Weisbuch’s emphasis on the “scenelessness” of Dickinson’s poetry, it’s “precise imprecision.” This has been a dominant trope of contemporary Dickinson criticism for nearly forty years. Critics have spoken, for example, of the “omitted center” in Dickinson’s poetry, or of the poet’s “strategies of indirection.” And in the 1980s, David Porter used the obvious lack of clear reference in Dickinson’s poetry as the centerpiece of a powerful view of Dickinson as a modernist—indeed, a deconstructionist—avant la lettre.
Porter described how Dickinson’s poems “pair[. . .] away the very armature of meaning” in order to achieve “the sort of virtual meaninglessness . . . that language only as an object instead of instrument is capable of . . . .” In the process, Porter argued, she anticipated — and helped found — “the radical strain of modern poetry as nondiscourse,” characterized by its “self-advertising refusal to mean.” So, decades before Mallarmé, Dickinson was privileging unpredictability and disruption of settled meanings in her poetry—and using that disruptive poetics to explore a psychological state that Porter famously described as “living in the aftermath,” in “the psychic voids that follow a crisis.”
More recently, Shira Wolosky has demonstrated how Dickinson’s style is a complex response to the historical trauma of the Civil War and, in particular, the failure of her culture’s redemptive Calvinist Christian logos in the face of the war (and yet, also, her inability to reject that logos altogether).
For Wolosky, the trauma of the war “put extraordinary pressure on the norms, and fundamental faiths, that had promised to structure Dickinson’s world and render it meaningful.” As a result, her poetry is a response to a metaphysical crisis of language in which “long-standing, traditional assumptions regarding the basic frameworks for interpreting the world are challenged to the point of breakage.”
Wolosky’s view of Dickinson as struggling with a failure of language in the aftermath of trauma is a direct link to Paul Celan (who, by the way, translated some of Dickinson’s poems and, according to Wolosky, “deeply recognized himself” in her work). Both poets lived in the aftermath of world-shattering—and language-shattering—traumas. Although from profoundly different cultures, times, and religious traditions, both engaged in a remarkably parallel project to wrest language from the “frightful falling mute” that Celan described in his Bremen address.
Wolosky borrows a term from both rhetoric and theology to describe this shared project; she emphasizes both Dickinson and Celan’s commitment to what she calls apophatic language. The Greek apóphasis (ἀπόφασις) means “to speak off” or “to deny.” In rhetoric, apophaticism is the practice of alluding to something by denying that it will be mentioned. In theology, it is the belief, found most particularly in mystical traditions, that God can be known only in terms of what he is not, what we cannot say about him.
The limit condition of apophatic language, of course, is silence. And Wolosky sees both Celan and Dickinson’s engagement at the boundary between language and silence as, on the one hand, “a form of protest against a metaphysical silence that has abandoned historical experience,” and, on the other, a stubborn commitment to “language as the domain for articulating meaningful experience.” In this respect, their work represents what she calls “a revised apophatics devoted to consecrating the immediate world.”
Trauma and Truth
What kind of reading of Dickinson’s poetry does this view of her as a writer of trauma afford? Begin with the following poem, written in pencil on a fragment of stationery around 1872.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
(1263) About 1872
This poem is a good place to start because of its deceptive clarity. At first glance, it seems worlds away from Weisbuch’s “precise imprecision.” “As directly as any poem Dickinson ever wrote,” writes Gary Lee Stonum, “this one posits a message.” And yet, Stonum continues, “the more the poem insists, the more it raises up divergent possibilities.” I want to suggest that trauma is the unacknowledged subtext of this poem.
The poem begins with one of Dickinson’s classic seeming contradictions: the double admonition to tell all the truth, and yet to tell it slant. “Slant” evokes a sense of furtiveness, indirection, distortion even (one of its meanings is “to warp from objective presentation”) — the very antithesis, it would seem, of telling all the truth. The sense of indirection is buttressed by the second line — “Success in Circuit lies” — with its suggestion of a circular route, a going around, a refusal to confront straight on.
The subsequent lines of the first stanza attempt to explain why a circuitous approach to the truth is necessary. “Infirm Delight” implies some lack of capacity, an inherent inability to appreciate the truth — strictly speaking, an inability to take pleasure in it. It is as if we cannot take the truth, which is to say cannot take it in, and thus cannot make it our own. The incommensurability between the truth’s “superb surprise” and our “infirm Delight” alienates the self from its own truth.
Another aspect of this first stanza intensifies the mystery: the way these lines introduce a perceptual shift, one that carries through to the end of the poem. It is a shift from “telling” (and, presumably, “hearing”) to “seeing.” Although the poet urges to tell the truth, in fact, she describes it entirely in visual terms, infused with light — bright, dazzling, blinding even — as if to say, the truth isn’t told at all, it is seen.
This shift is worth attending to. One fruitful line of recent Dickinson scholarship has emphasized the centrality of Dickinson’s visual imagination. For Dickinson, the realm of the visual is a realm of intense, at times even ecstatic experiencing. The visual holds the possibility of a direct, unmediated access to the truth — beyond language. Consider another poem:
You’ll know it — as you know ’tis Noon —
By Glory —
As you do the Sun —
By Glory —
As you will in Heaven —Know God the Father — and the Son.
By intuition, Mightiest Things
Assert themselves — and not by terms —
“I’m Midnight” — need the Midnight say —
“I’m Sunrise” — Need the Majesty?
Omnipotence — had not a Tongue —
His lisp — is Lightning — and the Sun —
His Conversation — with the Sea —
“How shall you know”?
Consult your Eye!
(429) About autumn 1862
In the supercharged light of this poem, we might think of “infirm Delight” as language itself, for “By intuition, Mightiest Things/Assert themselves — and not by terms — ”.
The inadequacies of language in the face of a dazzling truth might explain why one has no choice but to tell it slant. But why bother to tell it at all? Why not simply “Consult your Eye”? The answer, I believe, comes in the central image of the second half of “Tell all the truth.” Not coincidentally, it too concerns the experience of lightning (in Dickinson’s wonderful image above, the “lisp” of a tongueless, which is to say, speechless, omnipotence).
When it comes to this image, Dickinson’s lexicon for truth in the poem — “bright,” “superb,” “dazzle” — has a surface allure that, well, blinds us to deeper meanings. What this language leaves out is precisely that aspect of lightning that — for the child, in particular — is most operative: the fact that it is terrifying — literally traumatic in the sense of being “too much.” Lightning explodes upon the scene, overwhelming the child’s capacity to assimilate it. Put another way, the child has no category for it, and this experiencing of it without category — non-linguistically — has a mute omnipotence that collapses the gap between self and the world. So much so that the experience cannot be seen, known, or really experienced at all.
In Six Essays for the New Millenium, his never-delivered Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, Italo Calvino retells the familiar story of Perseus and the Gorgon in a way that sheds light on this relationship between trauma, truth, and seeing. Calvino reminds us how Perseus flies upon the winds and clouds with winged sandals to Medusa’s lair; cuts off her head (the head that turns humans into stone) by never looking at it directly but by only looking on its image reflected in his bronze shield; and then carries the head, concealed in a bag, to use as a weapon against his enemies. “Perseus’s strength always lies in a refusal to look directly,” writes Calvino, “but not a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live; he carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden.” So too with the truth of trauma: it must not be looked on directly (lest it turn us to stone). It must only be approached indirectly, one might say “at a slant.”
The truth, unmediated, may make us blind; it also strikes us dumb. It is precisely the truth that is unbearable in this way that has to be eased by “explanation kind” in order to be really experienced at all. A certain distancing from a traumatic truth is necessary, almost as an act of self-preservation. This is the function of language. Language — “explanation kind” — achieves this distancing. (Perhaps this is why Calvino writes about the story of Perseus and the Gorgon that “I am immediately tempted to see this myth as an allegory on the poet’s relationship to the world, a lesson in the method to follow when writing.”)
Strictly speaking, the explanation is a fiction, but a necessary one — indeed, a loving one. (Cristanne Miller is not the only critic who has remarked upon “the maternal image of the poet” in Dickinson’s poem.) Through language, we detach ourselves from the immediacy of experience. We reestablish the gap between ourselves and the world and in doing so, we contain the terror. Only when are we able to observe our experiencing (like Perseus observing Medusa in the reflected image of his shield) are we truly able to take it in, to make it our own, part of us. The truth dazzles gradually.
And yet, there is something too easy about this reconciliation of the self with its trauma through language. “. . . How exactly does an ‘explanation kind’ ward off the dangers of direct exposure to the truth?” asks Stonm. “Explanations do not ease the force of a storm.” Stonum reads these lines to mean the precise opposite of what they seem to say: “According to the insinuations of the lightning image, then, we can never see or grasp the truth’s illumination. Unless the truth dazzles gradually, at best a miraculous event, we are all blind. We are blind, that is to say.”
I would only add that what the poem leaves out — one might say, “what remains unspoken” — are the myriad ways that “explanation kind,” no matter how well meaning, can itself be traumatizing. The reassurances of “explanation kind” can mask a profound failure of recognition, and can amount to a denial of precisely what is distinctive about trauma — i.e., its very quality of “too muchness.” In this way, this poem reintroduces the traumatic moment after having wished it away.
Trauma engenders a crisis of truth that is simultaneously a crisis of telling. On the one hand, to escape the vicious circle of trauma requires telling, in order to integrate the traumatic experience into one’s current life. But there is a risk that in the telling, we lose something essential. “Slant” really does mean distort. Our explanations, precisely at the moment when they are meant to capture the truth, end up distorting what is most particular and defining about it. Thus, many victims of trauma will immure themselves in silence, as if this is the only way to stay true to their experience — despite the fact that this truthfulness comes at the cost of a kind of living death.
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant” enacts this traumatic dilemma: the imperative to speak, to bear witness to trauma’s truth, and yet the inadequacy of language to capture what is most distinctive and most personal about it; the imperative of dialogue with an other as the only way to contain and work through trauma, and yet the danger that such dialogue will repeat the original traumatizing encounter. These dilemmas are the very essence of “slant” — understood not just as a way of telling but as a mode of perception and a category of experience.
There are two other poems in the Dickinson canon that hinge on her use of the word “slant.” Both amplify the connections between truth and trauma, seeing and telling, language and silence that are at play in “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” The following is one of Dickinson’s best-known poems:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons —
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes —
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us —
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are —
None may teach it — Any —
’Tis the Seal Despair —
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air —
When it comes the Landscape listens —
Shadows — hold their breath —
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death —
(320) About early 1862
What is most striking about this poem is its atmosphere of nearly perfect silence. There is the silence of the winter landscape. There is the silence even in the analogy to cathedral tunes that oppress not so much by their sound as by their “heft,” their mass (like the physical sensation made by a church organ; the sound waves attack the entire body, not just the ear). There is the ecstatic silence of the “heavenly hurt” — a wound that leaves no scar but brings about a purely internal phase-shift of perception “Where the Meanings are.” And there is the silencing implicit in the “Seal Despair.”
Dialogue of the Dumb
Is there any way out of this entombing silence? I believe Dickinson’s answer is “yes” — but only by taking language into the silence, into the claustral, aphasic universe of trauma, and trying to speak from within it. It is an experience powerfully captured in the following brief and brilliantly difficult poem (and perhaps the most “Celanian” in Dickinson’s oeuvre):
It is dead — Find it —
Out of sound — Out of sight —
“Happy”? Which is wiser —
You, or the Wind? “Conscious”? Wont you ask that —
Of the low Ground?
“Homesick”? Many met it —
Even through them — This
Cannot testify —
Themself — as dumb —
(434) About autumn 1862
This poem begins where the three above leave off: with the announcement of a death and the positing of an imperative to go and “Find it — ”. Who has died? “It” — the traumatized self, depersonalized, reduced to an it. To go in search of this self requires moving beyond language into a realm of silence, “Out of sound — ”. It also means traveling beyond appearances, “Out of sight — ”, which is to say beyond the illusion of unmediated access to an absolute truth, into the invisible realm of the imagination where the meanings are and where no scar shows. To “Find it”, in other words, we must penetrate the silent universe of trauma, to enter into deadness — like entering a grave (which is also out of sound and out of sight).
The oracular urgency of the poem’s opening line sets up a dialogue, which is precisely an attempt at a finding, an encounter, establishing a common ground. And yet, what a strange and disjointed dialogue it is — the antithesis from that (falsely) reassuring imagined dialogue of “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” Who are the participants? On one side, there is the poet, like Dante’s Virgil, our guide to the realm of the dead. On the other, there is “You,” the reader, the one who is called to search for the it that is dead. It could be anyone facing the challenge of sympathetically entering into (as opposed to merely explaining) the trauma of another. Or it could be one’s own self on a search for “Ourself – behind Ourself – Concealed –” (407).
The dialogue of the poem is organized around three highly condensed questions, set off by quotation marks. The quotes have the effect of drawing attention to the status of the questions as speech, implying that we are to take our language with us into the realm of the dead. But the oblique, riddling, delphic nature of the dialogue (in which the first two questions are answered by further questions) also suggests that to “Find it”, we must not only enter this deadness with our language, but also enter the deadness of our language. We must renounce easy meanings, the defensively safe conclusions that make a genuine encounter with deadness impossible.
The poet’s questions in response to questions deflect meaning and the closure that meaning implies. They push against the capacity of language to define the experience, to make sense of deadness. “Which is wiser —/You, or the Wind?” sets up an opposition between “You,” the one who speaks, and the wind, which is a potent symbol for Dickinson of non-linguistic meaning: “phraseless Melody” (334).
The second question — “Conscious”? — echoes perhaps the question that Dickinson poses (also in quotation marks) in another poem, “I am alive — I guess —” (605): “‘Was it conscious — when it stepped/In Immortality’?” Was it conscious when it died? This is the question that the living ask of the dead. But to ask it is to reveal the unbridgeable gap between the two, to define a non-meeting, a non-finding. The riddling response in this poem — “Wont you ask that —/Of the low Ground?” — could be paraphrased: “Might as well ask that of the grave.”
If this is dialogue, it is a dialogue of the deaf. And at first glance, it would seem to argue that any genuine dialogue with traumatic experience is impossible. Indeed, the almost taunting quality of these lines can be read as a kind of re-enactment, a re-traumatizing. But for the victim of trauma, connection is traumatic — indeed, necessarily so, for it evokes the relationship with the other whose actions helped initiate the trauma in the first place.
It is the recognition of the problematic nature of this dialogue that, paradoxically, holds out the possibility of hope. By deflecting resolution and meaning, the poet’s questions hold open the possibility of a real encounter. This encounter takes place in the closing stanza of the poem.
This time, the one-word question — “‘Homesick’?” — is answered, not with another question, but with a statement that feels more definitive, authoritative. “Homesick” implies the homelessness, the dislocation of traumatic experience. But even more, it communicates a yearning for connection — and, thus, the rebirth of desire after the desolation of trauma. And unlike the non-meeting of the previous questions, this time there is a genuine meeting, both in the sense that the question is met with a statement (not just another question) and in the sense that the poet states explicitly that “Many met it” — i.e., the deadness but also the yearning to which the deadness gives birth.
The critic Christopher Benfy has described how the verb “to meet” carries a weight of significance throughout Dickinson’s poetry. According to Benfy, to meet something or someone is simultaneously “to face it, to question it, to be touched or moved by it.” But what is met here, really? I believe that in these lines, the poet effects a doubling of perception that allows the reader to hold two ways of seeing, two ways of reading, two ways of telling in his or her mind at the same time.
Seen from one perspective, the last stanza of the poem describes the ultimate failure of dialogue, of finding, of connection. While many have met it — that is, have encountered the traumatized self — “Even through them — This/Cannot testify — ”. The truth of trauma cannot find its expression even through an encounter with the other. Instead of the other being able to give voice to trauma’s silence, the unspeakable nature of trauma somehow contaminates the other. The only thing communicated is trauma’s incommunicability, the impossibility of testifying to its truth. A paraphrase of the final line might read: “In the face of trauma, others are rendered as speechless as the one who is traumatized.” This reading powerfully captures the quality of the trauma victim’s experience — in particular, the conviction that really to speak the truth of trauma would be somehow to destroy the world and all possibility of connection to it.
But there is another way to read these lines. What the many have met is the deadness of trauma and the homeless yearning in themselves. To one degree or another, we are all wounded by reality. And in being so, we are intimately familiar with the experience of being unable to testify, the apotheosis of “infirm Delight,” the damage wrecked by the “Seal Despair.” Seen from this perspective, the only way to “Find it” is to find it in one’s self, one’s own experience. The only way to “meet” the damaged other is to go deep into one’s own self to encounter the inevitable damage that each of us suffers.
Such an empathic (I almost wrote emphatic) act of the imagination is the antithesis of a dialogue of the deaf. Indeed, it is a dialogue of the dumb. In the dumbness that all of us muster in the face of trauma, there is the potential for a profound human connection. Indeed, only a dialogue from inside this dumbness can ever really hope to “tell all the truth” about trauma.
In “It is dead — Find it — ”, Dickinson poses a choice: whether to meet trauma from the outside or to meet it from within. To choose the former is, ironically, to remain imprisoned in a dialogue of the deaf, in a continuous round of reenactment. To choose the latter is to encounter the dialogue of the dumb, to find a measure of stubborn hope, to refashion our connection to the world precisely through the experience of slant — of having been damaged — that we all have in common. The “superb surprise” is that the way beyond trauma is to go into it, but to go into it not alone: “To learn the transport by the pain” that we share with every human being.
What I find brilliant about this poem is that both these readings are true. Or, put another way, the truth of this poem is precisely in the doubleness of perception that it articulates — its ability to express without flinching the full power of the rupture that trauma engenders between the self and its world, and yet at the same time to address a space beyond that rupture and imagine the possibility of a connection large enough to contain it. This is “all” the truth about slant.
“Double Inscription” as “Working Through”
This doubleness of perception makes Dickinson not only a consummate writer of trauma, but also a chronicler of the experience of “working through.” The historian Dominick LaCapra has repeatedly emphasized how the psychoanalytic concept of “working through” is essential to any adequate understanding of and response to trauma. LaCapra admits that there is a very fine line between “acting-out” and “working through,” But he wants to hold on to the possibility of a “critically controlled process of repetition” that can significantly change a life “by making possible the selective retrieval and modified enactment of unactualized past possibilities.” Interestingly, he uses a quasi-literary term to describe this process: “In the wake of trauma,” he writes, “the problem is how to effect a ‘double inscription’ of acting-out and working-through . . . .”
I find this phrase “double inscription” to be a quite resonant description for what goes on in so much of Dickinson’s poetry. It is her very rejection of narrative and reference that allows her poems to capture the experience on both sides of the threshold between trauma and truth. On the one hand, the disconnect between language and meaning in Dickinson’s poetry enacts the cognitive dissociation of the moment after trauma. On the other, our confrontation with what Porter calls the “musical and rhythmic being” of language, “prior to meaning,” forces a transformation of perception.
This is to experience the silence after trauma not only as a shutting down (Celan’s “frightful falling mute”) but also an opening up; not only as Porter’s aftermath to horror but also as a prelude to new, unanticipated possibilities. One category of poems, in particular, charts this subtle phase shift in perception. It consists, interestingly, of poems that describe moments of intense listening to what are fundamentally non-linguistic media — music, the wind, birdsong. By exploring the speech that does not mean, they create a space for new meanings of the moment after trauma.
Seen from this perspective, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant” might be read as a warning against the compulsion, rooted in the experience of being traumatized or damaged, to embrace a totalizing truth. The poem goes beyond merely recognizing the radical inadequacy of language. It founds its conception of truth-telling upon it.
“Success in Circuit lies.” The line suggests a wary circling of experience, but also a wary circling of our telling. To tell the truth “slant” means maintaining a skeptical distance from our telling, to understand that we can approach the truth only through revision. We can never really tell the truth. We can only re-tell it — by continually revisiting our telling and revealing its distortions, oversimplifications, wishful illusions. Indeed, it is precisely in this re-telling that we have the possibility of creating the circumstances for a real encounter with the truth.
Dickinson’s double inscription mirrors the essential duplicity of traumatic experience. And it calls for both a kindness about our necessary fictions and their function in coming to learn the truth of our lives, but also a wariness about them — again, a distance or doubleness. Instead of clinging too rigidly to our fictions and their received meanings, we must be willing to let them go in order to encounter the silence of truth’s “superb surprise.”.
But “Success in Circuit lies” has a further meaning. A circuit is a connection, a relationship. What goes around comes around, and the circularity suggests dialogue, a conversation. But if Dickinson’s truth is fundamentally dialogical, it comes with a canny recognition that this dialogue is necessarily a dialogue of the dumb — prone to mutual incomprehension, distortion, avoidance, breakdown, everyday reenactments of traumatization. Indeed, it is precisely in the opportunity of recovery from these breakdowns that the real possibility of encountering the truth lies.
In conclusion, Dickinson’s poetry is a powerful statement about the limits of language to testify to the distinctive truth of traumatic experience — what, in one poem, she describes as “. . . the Ultimate of Talk —/The Impotence to Tell —” (540). It is simultaneously an audacious attempt to probe that boundary, to live at the limit of language, to give voice to the unspeakable. I believe that Dickinson’s poetry is a search for a language that neither denies the truth of trauma nor enacts an absolute version of it, but rather opens it up to reflection and revision. She defines an ethic of revision in which language becomes the hard-won key to the imaginative transformation of experience.
Robert Howard is an independent scholar and writer living in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. Mr. Howard is a former affiliate scholar of the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute. This paper started as a talk at the Psychoanalytic Practices Seminar, Mahindra Humanities Center, Harvard University. It was first published in PsyArt: an online journal for the psychological study of the arts in June 2005.