Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Language to Object: Reading "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun" by Emily Dickinson in the Aftermath #SOL17

In the aftermath of yet another uniquely American trope, a mass shooting, I found myself thinking about Emily Dickinson's poem #754, "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--." The poem's words haunt me, especially the last two lines:

For I have but the power to kill, 
Without--the power to die--

In one of the most poignant critiques of Dickinson's #754, the poet Adrianne Rich contends, "The poet experiences herself as a gun."

Think about that for a moment. In the Nineteenth Century Emily Dickinson, a poet most revered for the ways she redefined American poetry through her use of unusual punctuation, through her free verse structures, and through her themes of nature, love, and God, constructs an extended metaphor of herself as a gun.

My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--
In Corners--till a Day
The Owner passed--identified--
And carried Me away--

Not only is the speaker in this poem literally a gun, she also possesses power equal to that of a gun. Again, Rich offers an interpretation I find most satisfying in her description of the poem as one "about possession" and "about the danger and risks of possession." 

In Rich's reading, we find a sensual subtext. Our speaker and the gun are one, but the hunter has the power to carry both away.

The poem progresses with this gun-woman and the hunter roaming the woods and experiencing physical awakenings that rival the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. For the hunter, the woman becomes a protector from his enemies. 

That is, the woman's power far exceeds that of the hunter. Remember, she is the gun. She makes the choices regarding its use. The final stanza clarifies this enigmatic point: 

Though I than He--may longer live
He longer must--than I--
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--

In the wake of yet another mass shooting, another suicide by mass killing--for the killer almost always ends up dead, leaving men scratching their heads and pondering his motives--I'm reminded of the power of art as I read #754.

As a poet, Emily Dickinson's art lives on. Today a poem reminds me that it is our artists who own the most power. "This woman poet also perceives herself as a lethal weapon," argues Rich. 

Will we continue to allow an object, a gun, to "have the power to kill, without the power to die"? Or will we embody our power, the power of art and of women who know language is more powerful and love a superior protector. 

Emily Dickinson speaks to us from the Nineteenth Century. A gun will never die, but we can give art more power to live. A gun is nothing more than an object that once possessed has the ultimate power to kill, and in Dickinson's imagination, the gun and its possessor are one, inextricably linked in a uniquely American pattern. 


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