Sunday, March 13, 2005

E. D.'s "Circumference"

Emily Dickinson's "circumference" generally refers not only to what is enclosed, but also what is left out. If we think of the "circumference" of a circle, the boundary of the circle encloses space; at the same time, what is outside of the boundary also becomes significant.

For Dickinson, at least, choices demanded exclusion--to be a poet, as she saw it, meant that other options were not viable. Her "circumference" excludes as much as it includes.

She has been on my mind a great deal lately. In freshman lit, I teach Dickinson, Robert Frost and Langston Hughes "in context"--in other words, I try to provide some perspective on these poets' influences on literature and life. Over the years, I've gained a deeper appreciation of her complexities--I'm not sure I understand her work any better, but I certainly appreciate the boundaries she set and her rationale for those boundaries. To be a "poet" meant that nearly every other choice had to be rejected. We can see this in such poems as "I'm 'wife' -- I've finished that --"(#199) and "The Soul selects her own Society --" (#303).

Sometimes I wish I could do that--be defined as only one "thing" instead of having to carry all of my identities around with me. Each is important (really, every aspect of our identity is important); it's when they come in conflict that I want to throw up my hands and run (This usually involves a fantasy where I learn to speak fluent Spanish overnight and abscond to Mexico).

The difference, I suppose, is context. In Dickinson's time, women weren't expected to amount to much outside of their families. They were daughters, mothers, wives--the house was their domain (and this has changed how?). These days, we're expected (and, to be truthful, we expect of ourselves) to be masters of all trades inside and outside of the house--brilliant, beautiful, wise, funny, ambitious--able to leap tall buildings, etc. I'm really not complaining; I believe women should have the right to do whatever they choose, whatever suits them. As Virginia Woolf would say, you cannot define "women's work" unless you find out what they are capable of doing.

But, every once in a while, I wish I could, as Emily did, just "[shut] the door." And, sometimes, I do.

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