These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, Martha Ackmann

These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, Martha AckmannThese Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson by Martha Ackmann
Published by W. W. Norton Company ISBN: 0393609308
on February 25, 2020
Genres: Poetry, Nonfiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

An engaging, intimate portrait of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s greatest and most-mythologized poets, that sheds new light on her groundbreaking poetry.

On August 3, 1845, young Emily Dickinson declared, “All things are ready”—and with this resolute statement, her life as a poet began. Despite spending her days almost entirely “at home” (the occupation listed on her death certificate), Dickinson’s interior world was extraordinary. She loved passionately, was ambivalent toward publication, embraced seclusion, and created 1,789 poems that she tucked into a dresser drawer.

In These Fevered Days, Martha Ackmann unravels the mysteries of Dickinson’s life through ten decisive episodes that distill her evolution as a poet. Ackmann follows Dickinson through her religious crisis while a student at Mount Holyoke, her startling decision to ask a famous editor for advice, her anguished letters to an unidentified “Master,” her exhilarating frenzy of composition, and her terror in confronting possible blindness. Together, these ten days provide new insights into Dickinson’s wildly original poetry and render a concise and vivid portrait of American literature’s most enigmatic figure.

I have been waiting to read Martha Ackmann’s biography of Emily Dickinson, These Fevered Days, for a few years. Ackmann was one of my instructors at a weeklong workshop on Emily Dickinson’s life and work sponsored by National Endowment for the Humanities. In fact, she read the second chapter of this book to us during one session. At that time, she was contemplating calling the book Vesuvius at Home.

The conceit of this book, that ten days changed Emily Dickinson so that she was “different, say, at ten o’clock at night from how she was at ten o’clock that morning” (xviii), is novel and works well, especially considering Dickinson’s life has been the subject of much biographical writing (in spite of her more interior existence). While Ackmann engages in a bit of speculation about what her book’s subjects were thinking or doing, it rings true, and I know for certain that Ackmann’s conjecture is based on solid research. For example, she obtained permission from the Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum to go into the attic of the Dickinson home so that she could ascertain the “certain slant of light” in the room and read Shakespeare aloud, as Dickinson did, in order to determine what that experience was like so that she could render it properly. Dickinson proclaimed that “the rafters wept” at her own reading. Ackmann has also taught a course at Mount Holyoke on Emily Dickinson for years—even bringing her students into the Dickinson home to study her work. Having been a student of Ackmann’s for only week, I’m still not afraid to say she has lived and breathed the poet’s life and work for years, and that knowledge shines forth in this book. The final chapter on Dickinson’s final day of life is rendered especially poignant. Rather than witnessing the passing of a great poet, Ackmann made me feel like I had witnessed the passing of an old and great friend.

Even if you’ve read biographies of Dickinson before, you’ll want to read this book for its intimate portrait of the moments that changed Dickinson’s life. As Ackmann acknowledges, other Dickinson scholars might choose different days, but Ackmann focuses on the following:

  1. The day Dickinson decided to write.
  2. Dickinson’s decision not to commit herself to Christ at the behest of Mary Lyon, principal of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson was attending school.
  3. Emily Dickinson’s first publication (despite popular belief, she did publish a few works anonymously in her lifetime).
  4. Dickinson’s decision to bind her poems together in fascicles and preserve them (Christanne Miller’s book Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them is a wonderful resource for more on this).
  5. Dickinson’s work on F124 “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” with her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s advice.
  6. Dickinson’s remarkable decision to write to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who was living in my home city of Worcester, MA at the time) after reading his article “Letter to a Young Contributor” in The Atlantic Monthly and begin a lifelong correspondence and friendship.
  7. Dickinson’s brush with blindness.
  8. The first meeting of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
  9. The publication of Dickinson’s poem F112 “Success is Counted Sweetest” in the No Name series after much cajoling by her friend Helen Hunt Jackson.
  10. The day Emily Dickinson died.

Reading this book was extra special for me because I had the opportunity to visit Dickinson’s home on several occasions, and I was even permitted to take photographs. I was able to visualize the moments Ackmann describes with greater clarity—I felt like I was there, and not only because of my memories of the Dickinson homestead but also because of Ackmann’s precise description.  Check out Ackmann’s article at The Paris Review for some exquisite photos of Emily Dickinson’s dress. Even though the dress on display at the museum is a copy, I’ll never forget the first time I saw it. I was visiting Amherst for my birthday, and we were touring the Dickinson home. Our guide led us upstairs, and the dress was there on the landing. The light streamed in through the window and illuminated it. It truly took my breath away. One might almost have thought Emily Dickinson herself was standing there. After that thought, my second thought was, “She was so tiny!”

Emily Dickinson means a lot to me. Her poetry brought me comfort after a very difficult loss. Martha Ackmann’s book is well worth your time if you’d like to indulge in a delightfully intimate portrait of the poet in some of her most momentous events.

Emily Dickinson's Bedroom
Emily Dickinson’s Bedroom © Dana Huff
Emily Dickinson's Grave
Emily Dickinson’s Grave © Dana Huff

Note: Please do not reproduce these images. I am permitted to share them as long as I do not seek to profit from them, but I am not able to control what happens to them once they are stolen, and I have pursued websites with DMCA takedown notices for taking these images without permission or credit.

five-stars

Review: Deaf Republic, Ilya Kaminsky

Review: Deaf Republic, Ilya KaminskyDeaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
Published by Graywolf Press ISBN: 1555978312
on March 5, 2019
Genres: Poetry
Pages: 80
Format: Paperback
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three-half-stars

Ilya Kaminsky's astonishing parable in poems asks us, What is silence? Deaf Republic opens in an occupied country in a time of political unrest. When soldiers breaking up a protest kill a deaf boy, Petya, the gunshot becomes the last thing the citizens hear—they all have gone deaf, and their dissent becomes coordinated by sign language. The story follows the private lives of townspeople encircled by public violence: a newly married couple, Alfonso and Sonya, expecting a child; the brash Momma Galya, instigating the insurgency from her puppet theater; and Galya's girls, heroically teaching signing by day and by night luring soldiers one by one to their deaths behind the curtain. At once a love story, an elegy, and an urgent plea, Ilya Kaminsky's long-awaited Deaf Republic confronts our time's vicious atrocities and our collective silence in the face of them.

Finalist for the T. S. Eliot Prize
Finalist for the Forward Prize for Best Collection

The conceit of Deaf Republic is interesting, especially given that Kaminsky is deaf. This collection is described as a commentary on our times, and it’s true we are living in an era when a lot of people don’t seem to be listening. They don’t seem to be seeing either, but that’s another issue.

Yesterday, I saw a tweet by Kaminsky that feels appropriate to share.

This tweet is in response to the rash actions of the person currently occupying the White House, which many speculate may lead to war. I suppose that remains to be seen. I admit to feeling some unease, which is a reason I picked up this book. Unfortunately, the book didn’t do much to make me feel better. The closing poem makes it clear—whether we are living through a time or war or peace, the U.S. lumbers along, blind to the damage it causes its own citizens, never mind what it does to other countries. It’s a fairly pessimistic collection, and yet, there is also the fact that the citizens of the town continued to fight, even as the soldiers began killing them. Always a dedicated few who want their freedom will risk everything to achieve it.

I appreciate what Kaminsky was doing, and the collection coheres well. The first (above) and final poems stand out for me. I am not sure how many of the individual poems stand up on their own, but I think that’s my personal response. Most of my poetry-loving friends adore this collection. Still, I admire what Kaminsky attempted and achieved, especially because the commentary about human nature is fairly spot-on.

three-half-stars

Review: 1919: Poems, Eve L. Ewing

Review: 1919: Poems, Eve L. Ewing1919 by Eve L. Ewing
Published by Haymarket Books ISBN: 1608465985
on June 4, 2019
Genres: Poetry
Pages: 76
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

Poetic reflections on race, class, violence, segregation, and the hidden histories that shape our divided urban landscapes.

The Chicago Race Riot of 1919, the most intense of the riots that comprised the “Red Summer” of violence across the nation’s cities, is an event that has shaped the last century but is widely unknown. In 1919, award-winning poet Eve L. Ewing explores the story of this event—which lasted eight days and resulted in thirty-eight deaths and almost 500 injuries—through poems recounting the stories of everyday people trying to survive and thrive in the city. Ewing uses speculative and Afrofuturist lenses to recast history, and illuminates the thin line between the past and the present.

I had been wanting to read 1919 for a while and finally picked it up at the Harvard Book Store recently when Steve and I went to Cambridge to hear Katherine Howe discuss her new book. Ewing weaves together passages from a report called The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot (1922) with poetry inspired by the passages and photographs from the era. If you hadn’t heard about the 1919 race riot in Chicago, you are not alone. I hadn’t heard of it either, and you have to wonder how much this tragic event influenced race relations in Chicago in the decades that followed up to the present day. Did it influence redlining, for example? Redlining isn’t unique to Chicago, but it’s the city people think of when they think of redlining. What about the school system? The way in which that city can still be quite segregated, though again, it’s not alone among northern cities in that regard. The book weaves together reimagined passages from Exodus with a wide variety of poems (including haiku, haibun, two-voice poetry, and erasure poetry).

The collection includes several poems that stood out for me. “I saw Emmitt Till this week at the grocery store” imagines an Emmitt Till who survived to old age. Till would turn 78 later this month, had he lived, lest anyone think that the kind of racial violence that resulted in his murder happened a long time ago. “April 5, 1968,” an allusion to the aftermath of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, includes some gorgeous language, some of which alludes to King’s speeches. “Countless Schemes” riffs on a chilling passage from The Negro in Chicago that suggests the only solution to eliminating racial strife in the country is the elimination of African Americans, either through deportation, the establishment of a segregated state, or the hope [their word] that African Americans would die out. “Jump/Rope” evokes a jump rope chant, similar to “Miss Mary Mack” in structure and recounts the death of Eugene Williams, which sparked the 1919 riots.

1919 is an excellent poetry collection. I plan to use it as a mentor text in my Social Justice class. It gave me the idea that my students might be able to create a poetry project based on a social justice issue they research.

I’m so glad my poetry friends clued me in on Eve Ewing. Check this book out if you are interested in poetry, race relations, and racism, society, history, Chicago, or all of the above.

five-stars