A McSweeney’s Books Preview of Paul Legault’s The Emily Dickinson Reader.
BY Paul Legault
Perfect for the poetry fan who is short on time, The Emily Dickinson Reader offers Paul Legault’s ingenious and madcap one-line renderings of each of Dickinson’s 1,789 poems. Take that familiar chestnut, #314, à la Legault: “Hope is kind of like birds. In that I don’t have any.” Or the classic hymn, #615: “God likes to watch.” As Dickinson herself said in #769 (basically, via our translator): “This dead person used to be a person!” —and The Emily Dickinson Reader is here to tell readers what that person meant.
Today we offer a look at the opening few pages of the book. To preorder The Emily Dickinson Reader, please visit our store.
“She was much too enigmatical a being for me to solve in an hour’s interview, and an instinct told me that the slightest attempt at direct cross-examination would make her withdraw into her shell; I could sit and watch, as one does in the woods; I must name my bird without a gun, as recommended by Emerson.”
— T. W. Higginson, on first meeting Emily Dickinson
Born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson is both the father of American poetry and the most infamous lesbian vampire of the nineteenth century.
She wrote 1,789 poems in her lifetime, the bulk of which remained unpublished until her (supposed) death in 1886, when her younger sister Lavinia found them in a trunk. After escaping their Pandoran chamber, Dickinson’s works emerged into the twentieth century like an apocalyptic army of angels made entirely of paper.
Emily Dickinson wrote in a language all her own, thus the need for this English version of what she meant. The translations presented here are my attempt to rewrite her poems (with their foreign beauty intact) in “Standard English.”
The great Dickinsonian scholar and editor R. W. Franklin writes:
“Like every previous appearance of Dickinson’s poems, this edition is based on the assumption that a literary work is separable from its artifact, as Dickinson herself demonstrated […] There can be many manifestations of a literary work.”
Seriously. He’s right. And this one is personal.
If Emily Dickinson were a church, I would be inside of her right now, writing this. If she were a bee, I would buy a flower costume. If she were still alive, I would attempt, and inevitably fail, to be her best friend. (Maybe we’d hang out sometimes. Though she probably wouldn’t visit. Or go online that much.) Instead, I’ve settled on being her humble translator.
I meant to begin this introduction with a traditional invocation of the Muse(s). Here, one might call upon some of Dickinson’s favorites: death, Jesus, sex, bobolinks, her love-interest/sister-in-law Sue, &c. If they’ll allow it, I invite them now to conclude this preface.
O Great Bobolink, reveal your true song.
O Zombie Mother, explain this book for me—
Emily Dickinson used to exist. Now she’s doing it again.
— Paul Legault
The Emily Dickinson Reader
1. Everything has to love something.
2. Hey, really historically important people. Guess what? You’re all dead.
3. Life is like a little boat on a sea of itself.
4. The arrival of spring is somewhat sexually charged.
5. I am in love with my brother’s girlfriend. I am as fond of her as I am of my younger sister, though I do not want to have sex with my younger sister. My brother’s girlfriend’s name is Sue, and I want to have sex with her.
6. I’m kind of like a little boat in the sea of life. Who wants to have sex with its brother’s girlfriend.
7. If you’re a flower, I’m your zombie gardener.
8. Dig up my grave, would you? I’m a zombie, and I’ve got some flowers for you!
9. If today is opposite day, I’m happy.
10. I could probably only be queen in a completely imaginary state. Otherwise, I don’t think the country would do so well culturally or economically, because I would probably appoint plants, specifically roses, into key political and religious offices.
11. If you pick a rose, it can no longer access water and other vital nutrients that it needs to live.
12. I lost something that seems to be easily replaceable, but it is not easily replaceable.
13. I can’t wait for this great time when things will really be great. I think this time probably won’t occur until I’m dead.
14. This really is too much.
15. I woke up this naked woman under a tree, and she was excited to see me. Unfortunately, her name was not Sue.
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