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League of Inveterate Poets

The out-of-context contextuality of a foolish sage

The Secret Life of the Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: The Vampyre of Cambridgeport





By on March 13, 2011

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

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This essay is part of a series on the dreamscape aspects of Jerome Charyn’s novel, the Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. Read the introduction to this series. Click the series name above to see all the entries.

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To shut our eyes is Travel.” – Emily Dickinson, 1870.

“…if memory serves, & if it does not, then I will let Imagination run to folly.” The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (17).

(numbers in parentheses refer to pages in the novel)

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The Vampyre of Cambridgeport

19th Century BostonIn part three Emily’s Amherst threatened to go up in flames. Now in part four it seems the whole world is engulfed. Her weakening eyes in need of expert treatment, Emily is shuffled off to Civil War-era Boston. With the bulk of its young men away at war, the city is left to deserters, roving gangs of vigilantes hunting the deserters, the “hoi polloi” who could afford to avoid the war, and, of course, the women. Though forced out of her familiar bird cage back in Amherst, and fearful of losing her sight, Emily’s flames of passion have not been quenched in the least. She takes to the violent, mosquito-plagued streets of Cambridgeport in search of adventure and amour.

In such a harsh environment, she found it necessary to become “a blind Kangaroo left to play in the dark, and like a Kangaroo I kicked whoever I could and boxed the ears of friend and foe with my front paws.” Emily continues to reinvent herself, still occasionally as a plumed bird, but now also as a kicking kangaroo and a demure mouse. But, “I…punched and kicked only in my Imagination, which bloomed like truculent dandelions in that wilderness I was forced to inhabit” (196). Whenever life turned on her, Emily’s imagination became her friend, ally, and powerful weapon with which to confront the world.

It must be said, however, that in no way did Emily view her preoccupation with the interior life as a weakness. Far from it. Placing herself in the company of other maverick female authors of her time (George Eliot, the Brontes, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning), she says, “I dreamt of us as soldiers–battlers I should say. And in my dreams we were as powerful as any man and sometimes wore a beard” (197). Another time she exclaims, “I would not have been startled to learn that I had sprouted manly hairs and moles during the night” (210). The way of imagination was her and her literary compatriots’ way of subverting the male power structure that worked to exclude their contributions.

But misogynism was not the only obstacle in Emily’s way. As mentioned above, Emily’s eyesight was failing. What could be more horrible for her? Not only could this malady prevent her being able to put her words on paper, it would rob her of one of her primary senses by which she gathered data about this beautiful and terrible world. The sun, and even the light of the moon, become unbearably painful for her, forcing her to wear dark glasses day and night. “I had small use for this day world,” she says in some bitterness (212). So far from home, with light turned into an enemy, Emily takes to the night streets to maintain a touch with life. The streets become new avenues of her imagination.

Street gangThere she is set upon by a gang of war deserters who threaten to scalp her to sell her red hair for profit. She is rescued by an “apparition” who drives off the miscreants and stays with her as she swoons. Upon learning that he is a thief and the leader of Boston’s most notorious street gang, she decides with no other evidence that he must be her elusive Tom, come to her once again. “Dark glasses had given me a boldness I’d never had with sighted eyes,” she says. “I prowled like a pickpocket and had been rewarded with treasure” (208).

This brings to mind a stanza from one of her poems:

One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.

Later she dons her “Plumage” and writes a letter she never expects to deliver to the shadowy rescuer who haunts her brain. “Perhaps you are only a vapor that rises out of the burying-ground at night. But your little mouse don’t mind” (214). The blurring of reality and imagination causes Emily no concern. If it is alive in her mind than it is real. “I’m perfectly capable of reading a ghost’s mind,” she claims (237). Now certain that her apparition is her Tom, she renames him “that blond Assassin in the sunlight,” that creeps into at least two of her poems.

(In passing we will mention that though Zilpah Marsh does not figure prominently in this part of the novel, she abruptly intrudes at this point. There has been one glaring incongruity in Emily’s assumption that the Boston pickpocket is Tom: this rogue has a deep knowledge of the classics, yet Tom was wholly uneducated. In a moment of horror she surmises that it must be that Zilpah had tutored Tom in Shakespeare. Once again, at least in her mind, she has been bested by her “insane” counterpart.)

In the end, as always, “Tom” slips through Emily’s fingers and returns to the shadows of the graveyard. Thinking she might rescue him from the gallows, she fancies herself a “Vampyre” who will suck the life blood out of his captors. “But even a Vampyre,” she admits, “could run out of breath” (227). And this Vampyre has indeed run out of wind. Venturing out on the dark streets one last time, she ends up having to be rescued by her furious Pa-pa. She is not up to working her dreamworld charms over him. “I couldn’t tell him I was a mouse waiting for her pickpocket” (230).

Finally returning to Amherst, Emily is shocked into harsh reality by the news of the death in the war of one of the town’s most beloved sons. For once her response is not to withdraw into her inner world. After an initial paralysis, Emily suddenly shows up at the train depot to accompany her sister-in-law on a mission of mercy to wounded soldiers in Springfield. The anonymous narrator tells us “she’d put aside the secrets of poetry and her own natural reluctance to lend a hand” (238).

But this movement toward action in the outside world is not to last. In the next part a death much more tragic and personal for Emily will touch off the beginning of her long exile to the famous second floor bedroom.

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