I greatly enjoyed The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, a novel wholly conjured and written in the poet’s voice. Author Jerome Charyn channels Emily, seems to enter into her mind, or a very credible - because imaginally truthful - variation of her mind. Writing in language as startling, bracing, and original as the poet’s own, Charyn’s “music” evokes Emily Dickinson yet it is wholly his own.
Mr. Charyn demonstrates an astute grasp and acceptance of Emily Dickinson’s essential complexity. A central problematic that she had to work out was the "queerness" of being different, of being outside a culture that did not understand her. And work it out she did, as reflected not only in her poetry and letters but indeed in every expressive aspect of her life, e.g., her youthful creation of a dried flower album (herbarium), her eloquent white dress, her proffering of flame-colored daylilies, her firm declining to come downstairs for visitors, etc. She was an artist, independent and self-creative in every respect.
Over the course of her life Emily Dickinson devoted herself to her art and eschewed opportunities for fame or fortune. Her life’s work – the marks she left on paper, bound into little packets – was discovered after she died. As more than a century has passed since her death (at age fifty-five in 1886) it emerges that an aspect of her legacy is her extraordinarily vivid posthumous immortality, of which she herself during her life seemed both patient and prescient (“if fame belonged to me, I could not escape her”). Emily Dickinson has turned out to be a Muse, inspiring others' creative imaginings and engaged responses. There is a very interesting intertwining and mingling of like minds among those, such as Jerome Charyn, who are so touched by her Muse. It seems to suggest something about the nature of consciousness - that there is something so capacious ultimately about the compelling and living idea of Emily Dickinson that we are so drawn to her and inspired.
I myself find my most profound personal beliefs challenged and deepened in considering Emily Dickinson. By getting more insight into her (through a variety of sources including her poetry and letters, biographical materials, critical essays, and now this inspired, imaginal offering by Jerome Charyn) I gain a better understanding and acceptance of myself, as a woman of divided mind who for a long time unwittingly fought against artistic aspects of myself.
Emily Dickinson as Muse certainly selected her own society when from an ample nation (and reaching even across the “pond”) she chose Jerome Charyn. Mr. Charyn has stated that he had to reinvent himself in order to write this novel – he had to become the character. In considering Mr. Charyn’s literary achievement one thinks of Flaubert - "Emily Dickinson - c'est moi.”
Mr. Charyn is a Muse himself in all this. Emily Dickinson and Jerome Charyn, among others, are individuals who "dig deep" in one way or another to find things out, build a narrative, get at hidden truth. There is a wonderful review, by Cindi Di Marzo, which compares Charyn's literary approach to that of an archaeologist - an inspired metaphor:
Author of novels, memoirs, non-fiction, short stories, graphic novels, essays and reviews, Charyn revels in complexity. His portraits of people and places run deep; his interpretations of their histories, real and fictional, follow risky routes. Blending verifiable fact with emotional and psychological truths, accessed by him through great heart and imagination, Charyn creates worlds within worlds; like an archeologist, he sets forth to uncover entire civilizations teeming below the most benign exteriors.Charyn has delved deep into the Dickinsonian landscape and the ghosts it contains, events and lives that vividly occurred once. With artifacts both unearthed and newly sculpted he has brought aspects of Dickinson’s persona to light - and to life - in a beautifully shaped and told story.
The conclusion of Di Marzo's review touches again on the archaeological metaphor:
... [Dickinson’s] box of phantoms erupted into words with wings. Charyn’s excavation of Dickinson’s phantoms is as startling as Dickinson’s poems, which invite readers to consider worlds contained on the head of a pin. Alive to the magic of her poetry, Charyn weaves a Dickinson mythology equal to his subject.Di Marzo's metaphor deepens my understanding of Charyn's quest as well as that of those at the frontiers of archaeology. The restless creative drives seem similar even if one is in the realm of "art," the other "science." Where it makes sense, I'm all for crossing genres - fun for the creative, boundary-busting author, user-friendly on the lay reader. (Leave strict categorizations to librarians and archivists!) A different kind of truth is illuminated in crossing genres. As Mr. Charyn noted in an interview, biographies are too often “voiceless – like strange mirrors - you can’t glimpse that far - I wanted to go right down the rabbit hole,” to re-imagine Emily Dickinson for the 21st century reader.
Jerome Charyn’s writing (like that of Emily Dickinson) is truthful and poetic. As with his Muse, there is never the “forced epiphany” (in poet Christian Wiman’s phrase) that renders some gifted writers into mere stylists. In my experience epiphanies are rare, but when they happen they’re electric. They’re not sentimental codas, and by the same token, sentimental codas are neither true nor poetic. (It is doubly annoying when the moral of such a coda is about being truthful and poetic.) What I love about both Emily Dickinson and Jerome Charyn’s writing - none of that.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Be not the slave of your own past. Plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep and swim far, so you shall come back with self-respect, with new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old.” Better to be a deep diver (or archaeologist, or poet) than to remain on the surface of things (at least to those of us who count ourselves as deep divers). Deep divers get the pearls. (That's an Emily theme.) Emily Dickinson looked carefully at the details of nature, understood her own psyche, and glimpsed the divine. Jerome Charyn, like his Muse, looks beyond the obfuscating glass of much false, fusty mythologizing of Emily, intuits closely, and reveals the hidden. Charyn “gets” the girl. We the Readers – his pearl.
I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. -- Vladimir Nabokov