In her 1976 essay “Vesuvius at Home,” poet and critic Adrienne Rich traveled the closest anyone ever had to the psychic core of Emily Dickinson’s oeuvre. It’s marked that one of the most legendary women to grace the American literary canon is also the least explicit; when we talk about Dickinson, we are inevitably mulling over the ways in which affect blooms forth from the expectation of silence, the kind of aching, stormy quiet bred through seclusion. Rich argues that what history has long couched as pathological shyness was really calculated artistic preservation on Dickinson’s part. She protected herself against the tastes of her time by wrapping her work in reams of faith. This was a defense against a world unprepared to listen properly; one is reminded of French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray’s theory of a speculative “feminine” language, a communication system unmoored from patriarchal expression. “I am trying... to go back through the masculine imaginary, to interpret the way it has reduced us to silence, to muteness or mimicry, and I am attempting, from that starting-point and at the same time, to (re)discover a possible space for the feminine imaginary.”
This “space,” intangible, untread, is where Rich makes her stake; “The poet’s relationship to her poetry has, it seems to me... a twofold nature. Poetic language—the poem on paper—is a concretization of the poetry of the world at large, the self, and the forces within the self; and those forces are rescued from formlessness, lucidified, and integrated in the act of writing poems. But there is a more ancient concept of the poet, which is that she is endowed to speak for those who do not have the gift of language, or to see for those who—for whatever reasons—are less conscious of what they are living through... It is as though the risks of the poet’s existence can be put to some use beyond her own survival.” In each of the few instances Dickinson was published over the course of her lifetime, her verses were chopped and twisted beyond recognition, often forced into awkwardly rhyming couplets that undermined her unique, rhapsodic momentum. Marriage would have meant compromise. Fame would have meant compromise.
This reification of the ineffable sits at the heart of a making impulse—good art doesn’t theorize or pontificate, it doesn’t bow to binaries or thesis statements. There’s no transcendence in explanation. We might find it useful, then, to frame Dickinson’s poems in visual terms, and not just because her imagery begs a more expansive treatment. Dickinson’s poetry traffics in the emotional undertow of nondisclosure, and it’s that relational sparseness that lends itself to a more object-oriented read. She even hand-stitched countless facsimiles of her poems, complete with meandering lineations on every page. Dickinson was influenced greatly by painter-critic John Ruskin’s writing on the subjects of composition and color, and the sensual dynamism of her pieces reflected a clandestine, devotional tactility that’s now par for the course in contemporary genres. To reconstitute Dickinson’s poems as objects is not to erase their literary import, then, but merely to unfold the outer dimensions of their influence. It’s little wonder that Dickinson’s work has so long inspired visual artists to create totems, not merely to her memory, but to the proto-postmodern language she forged far, far before her time. Earlier this month, the Atlantic unearthed the first 10 poems published after Dickinson’s death from their 1929 archives. In celebration, here are five pieces of art that have everything to do with Emily Dickinson’s artistic legacy.
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1974-1979
I HIDE myself within my flower,
That wearing on your breast,
You, unsuspecting, wear me too—
And angels know the rest.
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, the iconic permanent installation at the Brooklyn Museum, is one of the most thematically ambitious pieces of feminist art in existence. The dramatically lit triangular table holds space for 39 intricately wrought porcelain place settings, simultaneously underscoring the physical absence and ceremonial presence of under-heralded historical female figures. The settings feature embroidered runners, gold chalices and utensils, and china-painted plates with unambiguously vulvar central motifs. The names of another 999 women are inscribed in gold on the floor below. Each setting is themed and distinct, and Dickinson’s is no exception. Chicago’s vision of Dickinson’s legacy is a fairly classic one, focusing on the tension between her Victorian milieu and the fierce interiority that resonates so intensely with modern readers. An explosive flurry of pink lace speaks both to an essentialist anatomical interpretation of Dickinson’s relevance, but also to Chicago’s anachronistic recasting of the poet as a feminist. To ascribe a contemporary political agenda to Dickinson’s earnest, intimate art feels like a less-than-rigorous read, but her invite to The Dinner Party can and should not be disputed.
Roni horn's White Dickinson TO SHUT OUR EYES IS TRAVEL, 2006
We are by September and yet my flowers are bold as June.
Amherst has gone to Eden.
To shut our eyes is Travel.
The Seasons understand this.
How lonesome to be an Article! I mean - to have no soul.
An Apple fell in the night and a Wagon stopped.
I suppose the Wagon ate the Apple and resumed it’s way.
How fine it is to talk. What Miracles the News is!
Not Bismark but ourselves
Installation artist and writer Roni Horn draws heavily on themes of isolation and contemplation, motifs that have both motivated her frequent travels to Iceland and long-standing fascination with Emily Dickinson’s lyric malleability. By presenting Dickinson’s words in the formal space of sculpture, Horn emphasizes the syntactical materiality of her verses. This is Dickinson quite literally objectified; Horn’s unassuming, casual delivery system for Dickinson’s lines demands a modest amount of physical inconvenience from the viewer en route to proper scrutiny, an experience that mirrors the process of poetic interpretation itself. In her “White Dickinson” series, Horn offers the sensorial grammar of place as a form of knowledge, framing Dickinson’s posthumous participation as collaborative rather than strictly archival.
Barbara Penn, Poem no. 341, after a great pain a formal feeling comes, 1994
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
In 1994, sculptor Barbara Penn created an installation based on Dickinson’s Poem No. 341, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes”, consisting of a crib filled with eggs hatching a variety of odd, natural objects. The crib lives on a platform in front of a wall constructed of tiled half-spheres, evoking both eggs and breasts. Instead of dedicating her artistic liaison with Dickinson to representation, or the capture of fugitive meaning in theoretical amber, Penn instead chooses to anchor Dickinson’s words in abstraction as a through-line to pre-categorized subjectivity, transmuting the spatial language of poetry into inhabitable theatre for the white cube.
Joseph Cornell, Chocolat Menier, 1952
Reclusive, self-taught assemblage artist Joseph Cornell pioneered the use of glass-paned shadow-boxes as a means of melding Victorian bric-a-brac with a distinctly Surrealist sensibility. Fascinated by refuse and garbage, Cornell fueled his odd, impulse-driven practice with an obsessive eye towards accrual and collection, but more pointedly, with the narrative specificity of the objects he sourced. In his piece Chocolat Menier, Cornell indulges his abiding love of birds by pairing a cheerfully faded cardboard cut-out of a parrot with a Chocolat Menier wrapper, a reference to Emily Dickinson’s frequent use of that particular brand of paper to pen her poems. This subtle nod to Dickinson’s process acknowledges the similarities between Cornell’s self-imposed asceticism and Dickinson’s while foregrounding the ontological resonance of her technique. In this piece, Cornell has provided another argument for the ‘thingness’ of Dickinson’s work; a found, fragmentary, fleeting moment unhindered by the expectations of formality. She wrote because she had to get the inside stuff out, and Cornell's fastidious boxes reflect that same creative urgency.
Carla Rae Johnson, Lectern for Emily Dickinson, 1994
Volcanoes be in Sicily
And South America
I judge from my Geography—
Volcanoes nearer here
A Lava step at any time
Am I inclined to climb—
A Crater I may contemplate
Vesuvius at Home.
In her 1994 installation, “Lectern for Emily Dickinson”, sculptor Carla Rae Johnson constructs a tense duality between between untenable desire and the expectation of feminine aesthetics. A disembodied stair and rail twists over notational, excerpted domestic architecture, but just below, a miniature volcano glows with hot, red lava. This hypnagogic depiction of a burgeoning fire inside as a point of waiting rupture, one impossible to squash but necessary to tame, perfectly illuminates the inescapable link between the socially mandated confinement of female lives and the personally mandated confinement of female fire. Dickinson's practice might have sought to tend that hearth, but also to force future viewers to sweat, just a little bit. A lectern denotes speechifying or some sort of religious address, a position that jars with Dickinson's famous reticence, but that dichotomy makes the poet's absence all the more... poetic.