Monday, May 3, 2010

Aife Murry: Maid as Muse

 Emily Dickinson: Myth of the Solitary Poet
A review of Aife Murry's Maid as Muse on X Poetics.
Emily's language was affected by Mrs. Mack's and certainly by that of other servants with whom she regularly spoke or listened to intently. The queen of mimicry took an improvisational page from her servants' books. Even her genius for ambiguity could have found influence among servants for whom the art of evasion and ambiguity were part survival strategy and, at least in the case of the Irish, part of their legal tradition. Genius is believed to be solitary. What would it mean to rethink a body of work--in this case reread poems for class and race--in light of the way Emily's daily life was shared with the working poor of the town?
I've never quite believed in the myth of the poet as solitary recluse. Emily may have come to shun those of the outside world and all the most intimate acquaintances from her own station in life, but as Murry writes:
What is to be made of the fact that Margaret Maher [ the Dickinson's maid ] preserved the work in her trunk or saved the poems destined for destruction? As people investigating artistic motivation and process look around the writer's room, they are not just communing with the author and the view from the windowpane over the writing table. There was a woman leaning over the grate and some chance remarks that seeded an idea for a poem. All those quotations in the poems suggest engagement, ongoing conversations, and inspiration from the social world around her as much as the written world she inhabited. That 'social text,' that fleshy real world was inhabited by maids, laundry workers, seamstresses, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, basket weavers, laborers, stablemen--all of whom Emily knew by name. 
Suggests a rich social life indeed--of just the sort that class bound memory erases, and when it doesn't erase, discounts as of no importance. A woman of her time could not easily have ventured into a world beneath her class, but might well have found more in common with those who entered and left her domain--tearing the fabric of domesticity and piety and letting in a light too harsh, too unforgiving for the upstairs folk, but fertile for a mind insistent on engaging with a larger universe.
What does it tell us, that this daughter of New England Protestant rectitude selected for her pall bearers, six immigrant Irish Catholics?
 Thanks to Ron Silliman and his archival elves for listing this review!

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