It’s always fascinating when one author examines the life of another, and Jerome Charyn has his work cut out for him with Emily Dickinson. Few traces remain of the celebrated poet. She’s the unknowable genius…because she wanted it that way.
But Charyn won’t be deterred. He’s determined to make contact with her coquettish spirit. From the secrecy of the grave, she delights in hiding behind many masks. The virginal recluse. The half-cracked spinster. The resentful daughter. The village harlot. The closeted lesbian. The patrician princess. The doting aunt. The affectionate mistress. Take your pick.
So he delves into her poetry line by line, dash by dash, until a seminal moment occurs when he’s in the presence of the few remaining scraps covered in her actual handwriting. He’s so moved, he’s literally bowled over, like he’s discovered the building blocks of the universe, the charge that ignited the Big Bang.
Not stopping there, he holds up to the light the one known photograph of her in existence, before turning a critical eye upon the second, recently unearthed by a junkman in a Massachusetts estate sale. He meticulously presents the testimony of family members as well as scholars, critics and artists from all mediums that span the better part of three centuries. And still the mystery remains.
Just who was this woman?
A loaded gun. That’s the conclusion Charyn inevitably comes to. Returning to the source, Dickinson’s words remain at the heart of his search because they allow him to relate to her on a personal level and that’s where the richness of his portrayal comes into sharp focus. Charyn is a man, a New Yorker, living in the twenty-first century, yet he understands this female rebel from New England like no one else can. He sees a part of himself in her, and that’s when the book hits its stride.
In terms of making a lasting impact, Dickinson was the longest long shot in history. She never sought earthly ambition. She kept to herself, composing her work in the silence of her bedroom or scribbling away in the pantry, diluting the sunlight just enough through the window slots to accommodate her failing eyesight. She was closer to her dog, Carlo, than she was to any living person. Yet her words roared with thunder at a time when women weren’t encouraged to explore an inner life full of the tumult that comes for those brave enough to strive for perfection.
Not many writers reach the pinnacle, and Charyn feels this deeply. He knows no one walks away from reading Dickinson unscathed. Chasing her is an exhilarating—often frustrating—journey, one that he’s obliged to preface with a warning: Beware. Her words leave a permanent mark.