Emily Dickinson Was So Horny and Ready to Die

By Blake Butler

What are we actually saying when we say what we are saying? That question is tacitly stated in almost every sentence we speak. “I’d like to pull over pretty soon” might mean “I have to go to the bathroom badly,” or “I want Arby’s,” or “I am going to kill you if I don’t get out of the car and as far from you as possible in the next 15 minutes because you won’t be quiet.” Each variation depends on a variety of contextual factors not found in spoken language. It’s hard to say anything, really, and even when you put it as plainly as you can, the ways anyone else might take it could go a hundred different directions from there and complicate the situation in the next thought or intuition or actual response. Maybe this is what keeps a lot of people from reading beyond Wikipedia and Facebook.

I couldn’t shake this feeling recently when I was reading a book by an author I’ve always loved, Gary Lutz. Usually his sentences operate in such a way that seeing how they’ve been made means more than what the thing itself ever could. In Divorcer, though, I kept finding myself translating what was written into a more literal event, such as when Lutz writes, “My apartments were always efficiencies, for the pointed and abridged living they required, toilet and stove each practically within arm’s reach, though I conducted much of my body’s insurgent business in the most public of places.” I wished it instead said “My home is very small so I like to shit away from home.” Lutz’s seems more beautiful for its ornateness, but also somehow intentionally cloudy, suggesting that the art is in how you say something rather than in what is said. Going from that, you could arguably condense most any sentence written or spoken by anybody into a hidden version of itself, and even once a sentence is as base as it can be there are often a hundred other ways to take it, making all texts a kind of set of itchy masks. Somewhere in there lurks the person. And some sentences could be said in seemingly no other way, which is why I like to read language that sounds like it’s been written by someone with brain damage. The logic and the image reign.

These ideas and others come to mind when considering a new book produced by Paul Legault, The Emily Dickinson Reader, from McSweeney’s. Here Legault offers greatly condensed and often aphorism-like statements, termed here as English-to-English translations, each based on the 1,789 poems Dickinson produced in her lifetime. So for instance, in place of poem #352, Legault writes, “Having sex is kind of like dying.” And in place of #103, he offers, “If I could, I would kill everybody, and after I was done killing everybody, I’d commit suicide.” One by one he entirely reconstitutes, or at least refibers, the body of work Dickinson left behind into another kind of death- and sex-obsessed text puzzle, one that beyond the humor and Twitter-like intention seems to question why anybody speaks except in gibberish or about food. It’s a good reminder that the ultimate death isn’t only for the body, but for what you leave behind.

VICE: Like six months ago we were standing in front of Emily Dickinson's grave at the same time. I didn't know then that you had made or were making this book of translations of her poems. What was it like standing over her body after having been so, um, inside of her work?
Paul: I kept listening to hear if there were any rotational movements happening underground. Here was her grave, but she wasn’t turning in it.

Either she’s not offended or she’s not dead and buried there. If the latter, if you’re out there, Emily, reading this, send me an e-mail.

Do you think E.D. would like what you did with her poems? Does that matter?
It matters to me that I think she’d like them—though the version of her that would like them would have to be conscious in 2012. And that version is my imaginary friend, Emily Dickinson, who told me she likes them. So, yes.

Technically, the IRL E.D. didn’t want her poems to exist at all: 788. All published poets are whores. But I’m sure her family members thought they were doing (and actually were doing) a good thing when they published Dickinson’s posthumous verse, instead of burning everything (as she’d requested). Either way, the judge is dead and gone and the work isn’t; so neither get harmed.

I’ll claim innocence, because I’m in love with her. Love absolves most radical acts.

How much of yourself, your life, what you get into, etc. do you see in what E.D.'s body of work came out through you as?
I think we’ve got a lot in common—I too enjoy flowers, Bobolinks, time machines, Massachusetts—though we differ on the matter of how much we enjoy hanging out with the personified version of Death.

Like E.D.:

270. I'm not a morning person.

276. I'm different.

1349. I'm proud to be ashamed of myself.

But in terms of what this book is, it’s translation, but it’s also an original. So I wrote it. So I’m in it.

But don’t worry. Although—

584. Sometimes I like to pretend that I'm dead. Ah, that feels nice.

—the messages contained in this book are the opinions of a third party. Who’s neither of us.

Was there a particular procedure or procedures you used to do the translations? Did some take more tries than others?
I carried around my copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson until it fell apart, at which point I carried around my new copy of The Complete Poems until it also fell apart, reading ten or so each day at lunch and jotting my “translations” in the margins.

More than a few totally stopped me —my “My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun” (#764) reads:

“See My Emily Dickinson, by Susan Howe (pp. 76 - 120).”

And I translated #725 as:

“I don't know.”

Restating eloquence often seemed futile, but then something ordinary would happen to me that had happened to Dickinson—fear of death, sexual desire, food allergies, etc.—and I’d “get” the feeling that she was working from and write it down.

Though sometimes Dickinson didn’t know what she was up to either.

How would you respond to someone asking, “Who are you to reconsider the work of Emily Dickinson?”
Me? I’m a fanboy—in an age of translation: between languages, media, and otherwise—who’s as eager to send the world to the vast realm that is Dickinson’s brain and poetry as the next E.D. lover ready to defend her honor.

Ungained - it may be - by a Life’s low Venture
But then -
Eternity enable the endeavoring
Again.

Addition doesn’t endanger the original—the more you reconsider the thing you considered loving the better. As Emily Dickinson writes of Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Did you ever read one of her Poems backward, because the plunge from the front overturned you? I sometimes (often have, many times) have - A Something overtakes the Mind -

She overtook me. Not the other way around. And as I/she/we put it in #1768:

“Sometimes I just want to be bossed around.”

Also by Blake Butler:

Pimp C and Raisin Brain Are Inextricable Parts of Reality

The Putrid Voyerisms of Peter Sotos

The Juggalo Summer Reading List

@blakebutler

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