Feeling, Relating, Existing

On emotion and the human dimension

Review of "Dickinson Unbound"

Elegiac poetry illuminates the experience of traumatic loss.

Dickinson Unbound (http://www.amazon.com/Dickinson-Unbound-Paper-Process-Poetics/dp/019985808X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1336752021&sr=8-1) is a book by English professor Alexandra Socarides (younger sister of my late wife, Daphne Socarides Stolorow, who died on February 23, 1991) about how Emily Dickinson made her poems—i.e., “her actual, literal, and physical methods and processes of writing” (p. 4)—and the relationship between the way she made them and the poems themselves.

As a psychoanalyst and philosopher preoccupied both personally and professionally with grasping the experience of traumatic loss and grief (see, for example, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/feeling-relating-existing/201110/trauma-and-the-hourglass-time), I found the chapter on Dickinson’s elegiac poetry to be particularly valuable. Socarides’ explication of the relationship between Dickinson’s compositional method and her poetry is especially illuminating. Socarides writes:

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“[B]y writing poems about death and by sewing them [literally] to each other, Dickinson investigates the inability of poetry to represent the complicated nature of loss as it exists at the very limits of comprehension [and] she challenges the promise of consolation that the [traditional] elegy aims to conjure…. Dickinson uses the [stop-again start-again] structure of the fascicles [manuscript books] to radically expand time and space, to produce repetitions with a difference, to return to the unreturnable, and to ensure that consolation itself … remains impossible. In the act of sewing together sheets on which she delved into multiple and often conflicting experiences with death, Dickinson allows her poems to be saturated in the very issues of breakage, connection, and finality that the fascicle form itself employs and disrupts” (p. 80).

In the chapter, Socarides demonstrates in masterful detail how the compositional style and structure of Dickinson’s elegiac manuscripts disclose over and over again how the traumas of death and loss shatter one’s emotional world and massively disrupt one’s ordinary experience of time as a linear unfolding toward an open future. As Socarides puts it, the specter of death “causes time itself to loop, therefore foreclosing the possibility of closure and consolation….” (p. 98). Both Dickinson and Socarides grasp traumatic temporality as an endless circling back to an experience of traumatization.

Copyright Robert Stolorow

Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D. is one of the original members of the International Council for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology, which stems from the work of Heinz Kohut.

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