The Emily Dickinson Reader by Paul Legault

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At their best, love and translation share some contradictions, including selfishness and generosity. Translation is impossible, or at least not very good, without a passionate desire to own the material and leave one’s mark on it. At the same time, few translators want to “hide the light” of their translations “under a bushel.” The translations they undertake and complete belong to them, are marked by them, and yet they are without much value unless shared. Literary examination is also a lot like love and translation, for the reasons just noted. And when a poet who is also a translator writes an English translation of a well-known, sometimes poorly-served poet who wrote in English, messy complications can become “unfortunate events.”

The good news is that The Emily Dickinson Reader, Paul Legault’s English-to-English Translation of Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems, is plenty complicated, rarely messy and always a musical, visual and tactile delight. Someday, graduate students will write theses about the way McSweeney’s designers work with its authors and with text, and will also discuss the financing that enables, in this case, gold-tipped pages, endpapers with in-joke images about Dickinson’s botanical interests, and ribbon place-markers usually reserved for prayer books. I have heard librarians (don’t ask me to name individuals or institutions) grouse about shelving oddly sized McSweeney’s books, adding that the books are gorgeous, while holding them tenderly.

Dickinson, over the years, has become as much a physical object–with prim hairstyle and high necked dress–as a poetic innovator who flipped the bird to conventional grammar and punctuation. She opened floodgates for imitators who couldn’t be bothered with understanding the formalities of verse she was steeped in before she broke away. The physical package of The Emily Dickinson Reader is about as good as it gets. Every word in this book stands alone, but every design decision supports it or elevates it. I believe it is risky to speak for the dead, but I also believe that Emily Dickinson, William Blake, Walt Whitman and other earlier poets would have as much serious fun as I am with this enchanting book that doesn’t flinch from the poet’s weirdness, pettiness or fantasies of transgression. Or adorations and vexations.

Emily Dickinson had a huge, rich, intricately subversive interior and that has a lot to do with her appeal. For younger readers, her work can initially feel appropriately, approachably adolescent, with enticing hints of what is to come. As one ages and keeps reading her, the work becomes increasingly adult, daring and complex, because the reader has grown into the poet. Legault’s treatment is brisk, cogent, fearlessly nourishing and should age well with readers of varying (or no) exposure to Dickinson and her milieu. It should also-it goes without saying- encourage more interest in Dickenson’s poems, with or without this volume nearby.

Dickinson’s poetry was very compact for the nineteenth century, and Legault takes the compactness to another level. Here is Dickinson in “’Faith’ is fine invention”:

“Faith” is fine invention
For gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

Here’s Legault’s translation:

Science has more practical uses than religion.

All the lines, hers and his, are inextricably entwined with social, religious and scientific issues of the day. When Dickinson was writing, science was exploding and challenging the New England religiosity of her universe, and she knew it and welcomed it even when she found it a bit intimidating. In 2013 we have climate-driven storms that give us Emergencies we could have avoided had we been more prudent in our attention to science. The concentric expansions never really quit, which is a major element of the magic.

Legault hears her Dickinson, strokes her, invites you in. He does it with most of the 212 pages, and he’s morbidly amusing when Dickinson fondles the dead.

Zombies are similar to robots.

Paul LegaultThat’s his response-translation to a poem called “How many times these low feet have staggered,” a piece with (I feel pinned to these image) a “soldered mouth,” an “awful rivet,” and other allusions to the industrial age that has encased a dead “Indolent Housewife.” He’s pretty cheeky. Except he isn’t. And he can be plenty snarky, which is just fine, because the very word “snark” is made for Dickinson, as “All published poets are whores, ” is Legault’s version of a Dickinson piece that begins:

Publication –is the Auction
Of the mind of Man-
Poverty be justifying
For so foul a thing

Possibly- but We – would rather
From Our Garret go
White-unto the White Creator-
That invest-Pure Snow.

Take THAT, AWP!!! Rot in Sodom and Gomorrah, Poets & Writers, and PEN and every other bureaucracy that helps authors, but did not exist in the nineteenth century. This is an example of the dilemma faced by everyone who cares about vocation, their own or others’. Dickinson was pure without being artistically priggish, and that freed her to confront without giving a blink, the confines of current syntax or feelings not yet tried, or considered beyond morality or less than morality, as in her desire for Sue, her sister-in-law.

On the subject of Emily and Sue, Legault makes it hard to keep a straight face. Pun intended. No apologies. He is laugh-out-loud funny with the comic, flip-side of pain, and use of the beloved’s name:

I like to watch people sleeping ( a little too much).
Here’s looking at you, Sue.


I would be happier if people like Sue would stop

stopping loving me.


Your name is shiny, Sue.

And the heartbreaking:

I like to eat things that are inedible. Like Sue.

Really. This stuff could be the inhabiting, zombified (zombie is a favorite Legault noun), limbo where Dickinson’s pen wept slivers of broken glass, but also sang ecstatically, waiting for the world to catch up.

The The Emily Dickinson Reader is a fabulous love letter to Dickenson. And so to all of us.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →