Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Unknown poems by Katherine Mansfield found in a Chicago library

Katherine Mansfield
Illustration by Triunfo Arciniegas

Unknown poems 

by Katherine Mansfield 

found in a Chicago library


‘I couldn’t believe my eyes’ says Mansfield scholar as she uncovers a cache of ‘literary gold’

Cameron Robertson
Thursday 11 June 2015 10.00 BST


Nearly 30 unknown poems by Katherine Mansfield have been discovered in a US library, giving fresh insight into the writer’s most painful and difficult period, the evidence for which she had later destroyed.
Gerri Kimber, senior lecturer in English at the University of Northampton and chair of the Katherine Mansfield Society, made the discovery at Chicago’s Newberry Library in May this year. The collection’s significance had remained undetected until now because it was marked with a name similar to the New Zealand-born writer’s previously published poems.
“I had already looked at the Newberry’s Mansfield collection, and the folder said, ‘The Earth Child and other poems’. The poem ‘The Earth-Child in the Grass’ (its full title) had been published already,” said Kimber, who was attending a conference about Mansfield. “I had three days to spare so I wanted to go through every single thing the Newberry has pertaining to Mansfield. I thought, ‘I don’t recognise this one. Or this one. Or this one …’ I couldn’t believe my eyes!”

Kimber, series editor of the Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield, soon realised the folder in fact contained 26 unpublished poems (alongside a further nine that had been published already), two handwritten letters from Mansfield to a publisher, Mansfield’s calling card, and an auction dealer’s sale entry for the entire collection.
“Between 1909 to 1911 she destroyed as much personal material as she could find, I think because she was embarrassed and possibly ashamed of much of her conduct,” said Kimber. “We know she once smoked hashish with Aleister Crowley, had one – possibly two – abortions, as well as a traumatic stillbirth alone in Bavaria in June 1909, and an intense affair with a Polish émigré Floryan Sobieniowski, and then another affair when back in England in 1910, with young schoolmaster William Orton. This was a really difficult time for her. She was addicted to Veronal [barbiturates], and experimenting with life, her sexuality, all sorts. You could call this period hedonistic. As a result, uncovering any material from this period is literary gold for Mansfield scholars.”
In 1909, Mansfield was sent to Bavaria by her mother who believed a bizarre water treatment would turn her daughter away from lesbianism, explained Kimber. “I think her mother didn’t know that Katherine was pregnant and, while she was in Bavaria, she gave birth to a stillborn child.”
Mansfield stayed in Bavaria for another six months and Kimber says elements of the writer’s love affair with Sobieniowski are chronicled in this unpublished poetry. “Some of these poems are directly written for or about him,” said Kimber. “For example, number XXII begins, ‘In the swiftly moving sleigh / We sat curled up under the bear skin rugs / And talked of the dangers of life’, it is almost certain that this sleigh ride depicts Mansfield and Floryan. I do think these remarkable poems are going to offer new biographical detail.”
The business card in the folder also notes the writer’s name as “Katharina Mansfield”, a Slavic-influenced version that Kimber said Mansfield had signed on documents discovered previously, but no such calling card was known to exist.
The newly discovered poems represent a lost collection by Mansfield. The folder’s two letters, dated 8 November 1910 and 15 January 1911, chronicle her failed efforts to persuade publisher Elkin Mathews to print the poems. The second letter is written in a tongue-in-cheek style, pleading with the publisher to put her out of her misery on whether her material will be accepted or not. But the manuscript was never published and, if Mansfield did receive a note of rejection, it has not survived.

Katherine Mansfield’s follow-up letter to Elkin Mathews
Photograph: Courtesy the Newberry Library, Chicago


Handwritten by Mansfield to Elkin Mathews, the second letter reads:
Dear Mr. Mathews
May I hear from you soon the fate of my poor ‘Earth Child’ Poems – I really am worrying about her immediate future – yea or nay.
Love her or hate her, Mr. Mathews, but do not leave her to languish!
Sincerely yours
Katharina Mansfield
“It’s an amusing letter,” said Kimber. “She’s saying, ‘Look, I’ve sent you my manuscript. Are you going to do something with it or are you not? Let me know’, he may have sent her a rejection slip. Authors tend to bin them because they’re too painful to hang on to. She probably binned that, but he held on to the manuscript with these poems.”
The material was later put up for auction and subsequently bequeathed them to the Newberry library in 1999.
Although further research will be carried out, Kimber and the Newberry Library have no doubts the material is authentic. “It took a researcher [Kimber] with considerable knowledge of Mansfield’s published poems,” said Martha Briggs, the Newberry’s Lloyd Lewis curator of modern manuscripts, “and the patience to look carefully at what most people assumed was a manuscript copy”
“Although they’ve been catalogued,” said Kimber, “I don’t think any experienced Mansfield scholar has gone through them and realised what they had in their hands.”

The UK-based scholar thinks that these unpublished poems would have possibly earned Mansfield early recognition as a poetry writer.

Kimber said: “These poems show her early maturity as a poet. They could have been a lovely little book that could have enhanced her reputation and set her off on the road to being a poet, not just a short-story writer. But Elkin Mathews clearly didn’t like them, so they didn’t get published. As well as Mansfield being one of the most famous modernist short-story writers, I believe there is a case to be made for reassessing her as a poet.”
Despite her “hedonistic” behaviour of that period, kimber said “there are some really lovely poems, full of metaphors about children and love”.
“There’s a very touching poem about her beloved grandmother. I would say they are as good as any other poems she would go on to write,” she said.
In 1911, Mansfield went on to loosely fictionalise her adventures in Bavaria with her first published collection of short stories, In a German Pension.
Children’s writer Jacqueline Wilson, most famous for her Tracy Beaker series, is patron of the Katherine Mansfield Society and has loved Mansfield since she read The Doll’s House as a child, being engrossed by the “truth and sharpness” of the story.
“I admire Gerri’s diligent and patient scholarship, and it’s wonderful that she’s discovered a thick folder of Katherine’s unpublished poems. I can’t wait to read them all,” said the former children’s laureate. “The one extract I’ve seen looks fascinating.”
The poems will be available to the public in the Newberry Library and made available online. Next year, the final volume of the Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield – The Diaries and Miscellany – will publish the new poetry collection in full for the first time.
Mansfield died in 1923 aged 34 following a haemorrhage, in Fontainebleau, France, where she was also buried. Mansfield’s second husband, John Middleton Murry, went on to publish much of her work following her death.





Monday, December 28, 2015

Katherine Mansfield / Butterfly Laughter



Butterfly Laughter
By Katherine Mansfield
BIOGRAPHY

In the middle of our porridge plates
There was a blue butterfly painted
And each morning we tried who should reach the
butterfly first.
Then the Grandmother said: "Do not eat the poor
butterfly."
That made us laugh.
Always she said it and always it started us laughing.
It seemed such a sweet little joke.
I was certain that one fine morning
The butterfly would fly out of our plates,
Laughing the teeniest laugh in the world,
And perch on the Grandmother's lap. 



Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Vinícius de Moraes / Sonnet to Katherine Mansfield



Sonnet to Katherine Mansfield
BIOGRAPHY
by Vinícius de Moraes
Translated by Regina Werneck


Vinícius de Moraes / Soneto a Katherine Mansfield (Pessoa)

Your perfume, beloved — in your letters
Reborn, blue...— it's your afflicted hands!
I remember them white, light, withered
Pending along abundant corollas.

I remember them, I go... in lands gone through
I inhale it again, here and there awakened
I stop; and so close I feel you, so close
As if in one we had two lives.

Weeping, so little pain! so much I wished
So much to see you again, so much!... and the spring
Already comes so close!... (will you never part

Spring, from dreams and from prayers!)
And in the imprisoned perfume in your letters
To the spring appears and evanesces.


Monday, December 21, 2015

Katherine Mansfield / To L.H.B.

Illustration by Elena Odriozola
To L.H.B.
By Katherine Mansfield
BIOGRAPHY

Last night for the first time since you were dead
I walked with you, my brother, in a dream.
We were at home again beside the stream
Fringed with tall berry bushes, white and red.
"Don't touch them: they are poisonous," I said.
But your hand hovered, and I saw a beam
Of strange, bright laughter flying round your head
And as you stooped I saw the berries gleam.
"Don't you remember? We called them Dead Man's
Bread!"
I woke and heard the wind moan and the roar
Of the dark water tumbling on the shore.
Where--where is the path of my dream for my eager
feet?
By the remembered stream my brother stands
Waiting for me with berries in his hands...
"These are my body. Sister, take and eat."


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Katherine Mansfield / Malade

Two windows
by Triunfo Arciniegas

Malade
By Katherine Mansfield
BIOGRAPHY

The man in the room next to mine
has the same complaint as I.
When I wake in the night I hear him turning.
And then he coughs.
And I cough.
And after a silence I cough. And he coughs again.
This goes on for a long time.
Until I feel we are like two roosters
calling to each other at false dawn.
From far-away hidden farms.




Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Katherine Mansfield / When I was a Bird


When I was a Bird
By Katherine Mansfield
BIOGRAPHY

I climbed up the karaka tree
Into a nest all made of leaves
But soft as feathers.
I made up a song that went on singing all by itself
And hadn't any words, but got sad at the end.
There were daisies in the grass under the tree.
I said just to try them:
"I'll bite off your heads and give them to my little
children to eat."
But they didn't believe I was a bird;
They stayed quite open.
The sky was like a blue nest with white feathers
And the sun was the mother bird keeping it warm.
That's what my song said: though it hadn't any words.
Little Brother came up the patch, wheeling his barrow.
I made my dress into wings and kept very quiet.
Then when he was quite near I said: "Sweet, sweet!"
For a moment he looked quite startled;
Then he said: "Pooh, you're not a bird; I can see
your legs."
But the daisies didn't really matter,
And Little Brother didn't really matter;
I felt just like a bird.


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Poet Sarah Howe named young writer of the year

Sarah Howe
Photo by Hayley Madden


Poet Sarah Howe named young writer of the year

Half-Chinese author’s debut collection Loop of Jade, exploring her dual heritage, praised by judges as ‘a work of astonishing originality’


Alison Flood
Friday 11 December 2015 12.38 GMT

Sarah Howe has been named young writer of the year for a “luminous” first collection of poetry exploring her dual English and Chinese heritage, Loop of Jade.
Howe, 32, was named winner of the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop young writer of the year award on Thursday night. The £5,000 prize, won in the past by Zadie Smith, Robert Macfarlane and Simon Armitage, is for the best piece of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a British or Irish writer aged 35 or under.
This year, Howe was the only poet to be shortlisted, with her collection competing with Sunjeev Sahota’s Booker-shortlisted novel The Year of the Runaways, Ben Fergusson’s Betty Trask award-winning historical novel The Spring of Kasper Meier, and Sara Taylor’s Baileys-nominated The Shore.

Andrew Holgate, judge and Sunday Times literary editor, said the choice of Howe was “unanimous”. “From the strongest of shortlists, they selected Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe as a work of astonishing originality, depth and scope,” he said, praising her “luminous” work.
“She is a writer always conscious of language. These are poems that are sensuous, subtle, and full of immediacy and resonance,” added Holgate.
Howe, who was born in Hong Kong to an English father and a Chinese mother, told the Guardian that she was astonished to win. “The three other books were so extraordinary that I was just enjoying being shortlisted,” she said.
Loop of Jade is her first collection, and was previously shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize, and for the Forward prize for best first collection. She spent 10 years writing it, and it has “quite a strong narrative strand running through it”.
“A lot of the poems are telling the story of my mother, who was an abandoned baby in China, almost certainly given up because she was a girl. That story is entwined with the story of my own childhood in Hong Kong,” she said. “It’s told quite elliptically and in fragments – poetry is good at that, and that’s the way the story was told to me. I heard about my mother’s story in fragments.”
Her mother, she added, is pleased about the success of Loop of Jade. “I think she’s really proud; we have glancing conversations about it, where I ask a question and she answers a different question. But she tells everyone about it.”
With her win, following poet Andrew McMillan’s triumph in the Guardian first book award for his collection Physical, Howe said that “poetry seems to be having a bit of a moment in the national consciousness”.
For National Poetry Day this year, Howe’s poem Relativity was recorded by Stephen Hawking. “They say / a flash seen from on and off a hurtling train / will explain why time dilates like a perfect / afternoon,” he read, asking: “If we can think / this far, might not our eyes adjust to the dark?”
Novelist Sarah Waters, a former winner of the prize who joined Holgate along with Sunday Times chief fiction reviewer Peter Kemp on the judging panel, said that Howe was “a significant literary talent, a very special writer indeed”.





Saturday, December 5, 2015

José Martí / Two Poems

José Martí
Poster by T.A.

Two Poems

by José Martí



Waking Dream
I dream with my eyes
open and always, by day
and night, I dream.
And over the foam
of the wide and restless sea,
and through the spiraling
sands of the desert,
upon a mighty lion,
the monarch of my breast,
blithely astride
its docile neck,
always I see, floating,
a boy, who calls to me!

—From Ismaëlillo, 1882

Fragrant Arms
I know arms that are strong,
soft and fragrant;
I know when they encircle
my fragile neck,
my body, like a kissed
rose, opens,
and breathes in its own
languid perfume.
Rich in new blood
the temples throb;
and the red plumage of
internal birds begins to stir;
across skin weathered
by human winds
restless butterflies
beat their wings;
elixir of rose ignites
dead flesh!—
And I give up those rounded
fragrant arms,
for two small arms
that know how to tug at me,
and cling tightly
to my pale neck
and of mystic lilies
weave me a chain!
Away from me forever,
fragrant arms!
—From Ismaëlillo 1882.

Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen.
Esther Allen is currently editing and translating an anthology on José Martí, forthcoming from Penguin Classics.

One thing Cubans everywhere agree on is that José Martí (1853-1895) is their national religion. The central intellectual and political leader in Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain, Martí was also an influential poet. His first book, Ismaëlillo (Little Ishmael), was published in 1882 in New York City, where Martí spent most of his adult life, and consists entirely of passionate poems addressed to his absent three-year-old son, who was in Cuba, separated from his father by politics and exile, and by his mother’s will. The reader who comes to these 19th-century poems in the year 2000 may experience a vertiginous feeling that they were inspired by recent headlines. Earlier this year, as crowds were gathering daily in José Martí Park in Miami’s Little Havana to shout that Elián González had to stay in the United States, Fidel Castro hastily erected in a Havana waterfront square (now known as Plaza Elián) a massive socialist realist sculpture of José Martí, carrying a small boy in one arm.


Sunday, November 29, 2015

Blanca Varela / Two Poems

Blanca Varela
Poster by T.A.

Two Poems


by Blanca Varela



The Things I Say are True
A star explodes in a small plaza and a bird loses its eyes
and falls. Around it men weep and watch the progress
of the new season. The river flows and bears in its cold
and muddled arms inscrutable matter that has
accumulated for years and years behind windows.
A horse dies and its soul flies up to the sky, smiling, its
large wooden teeth stained with dew. Later, among the
angels, it will grow black, silky wings to shoo the flies
away.
Everything is perfect. To be locked in a small hotel
room, to be wounded, cast off, impotent, while outside
rain falls, sweet, unexpected.
What is it that’s happening, that throws itself down
from above and covers the leaves with blood and the
streets with golden rubble?
I know I am sick with a ponderous malady, brimming with a
bitter liquid, an inclement fever that whistles and
scares anyone who hears it. My friends left me, my
parrot has died, and I cannot keep people and animals
from fleeing at the sight of the black and terrible
splendor that my passage through the streets leaves
behind. I always have to eat lunch alone. It’s terrible.
—From This Port Exists, 1949-1959.

Family Secret
I dreamed of a dog
an eviscerated dog
singing its body was its red body whistling
I asked the other person
the one putting out the light on the carnivore
what’s happened
why are we in the dark
it’s a dream you’re alone woman
there is no other person
the light does not exist
you are the dog you are the flower that barks
gently sharpen your tongue
sweet black tongue with four paws
the skin of man burns in dreams
human skin combusts vanishes
only the dog’s red pulp is clean
true light inhabits the crust on its eyes
you are the dog
you are the eviscerated dog of every night
dream of yourself that’s enough
—From Light of Day, 1960-1963.

Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen.
Esther Allen is currently editing and translating an anthology on José Martí, forthcoming from Penguin Classics.

Blanca Várela, born in Lima, Peru in 1929, belongs to the generation of Peruvian poets that also includes Sebastián Salazar Bondy and Jorge Eduardo Eielson. Varela’s poems exhibit economy of language, Surrealist imagery and a meditative voice. Among her poetry collections are Ese puerto existe (This Port Exists, 1959), Luz de día (Light of Day, 1963), Valses y otras falsas confesiones (Waltzes and Other False Confessions, 1971), Ejercicios materiales(Material Exercises, 1993), El libro de barro (The Book of Mud, 1994), and Canto villano: Poesia reunida, 1949-1994 (Villain Song: Collected Poets).



Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Virgilio Piñera / Poem to be Said in the Midst of a Great Silence

Virgilio Piñera
Poster by T.A.
Poem to be Said 
in the Midst of a Great Silence
by Virgilio Piñera
BIOGRAPHY
Translated by Pablo Medina


Can it be they are going to kill?
Will they pierce the heart with a huge knife?
And with the sharpest scalpel empty the eyes?
And with the steeliest chisel break the skull?
And with the most hammer of hammers crush the bones?

Can it be that on the erotic table
--table of sex, table of love--
my love, you and I,
being startled one night
your heart spoke
when you were under my blood?
Can it be the same as it was
when it was an oath, and even more so,
your work, your word bled,
soaked by the soft perfume of kisses,
so as not to deny, to be one indivisible?
And can it be so blindly believed,
so blindly, that all the suns go dark forever
while the soul travels in darkness?
Can it be there never was a soul despite the waves of music we made?
Soul that never was though soul you might be for an instant?
Remember that instant when you were a soul and adored me,
and then your own monster came suddenly
to take you to the place where being you were?

Can it be that after you are no longer,
when not being is merely a mound of dried out kisses,
you will be by not being, instead being love?

(1967)



Saturday, November 21, 2015

Virgilio Piñera / I See It

Virgilio Piñera
Poster by T.A.
I See It
by Virgilio Piñera
BIOGRAPHY
Translated by Pablo Medina

Better death raise
the crown of your life
to weigh it,
and on the forehead where the moon hides its reflection
death will overcome its own severity with splendor.

You are naked,
as if the hourless days slid down your body,
as if a fleeting animal raced
between rest and memory.

Day now begins its ascent
and you end up in the sudden beak of inertia.
You call me as if the impregnable shrouds
of destruction dropped on my ear one by one.

And I too label you destroyed,
I reach your outskirts,
I set fire to you with the suns of my condolence,
I place you in a box of laments,
your fear reaches me and I wreck the air
with the vibrations of its impediment.
I see you in the air like a dead star
shattering into cold moons,
I see you with your shoes and your perfection.

(1945)



Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Virgilio Piñera / Elegy and Such

Virgilio Piñera
Poster by T.A.

Elegy and Such
by Virgilio Piñera
BIOGRAPHY
Translated by Pablo Medina

I invite the word
walking its barren bark among the dogs.
Everything is sad.
If it crowns forehead and breasts with shining leaves
a cold smile will blossom on the moon.
Everything is sad.
Later the sad dogs will eat the leaves
and bark out words with glistening sounds.
Everything is sad.
A dog invites the hyacinths by the river.
Everything is sad.
With loony words, with doggerel arrows,
with tiny toothy leaves
the hyacinths wound the mute damsels.
Everything is sad.
The black grass grows with a quiet hum,
but shiny edges caress the rhythm.
Everything is sad.
Behind the words the serpents laugh,
deaf earth allows no sound.
Everything is sad.


A heavenly bird barks in the sky
to scare death away.
The bird discovers it with with the flowers of night
and seduces it with words of a dog
and buries it with a cupful of earth.
Everything is sad.
I invite the earthbound word
that cuts through life and mirrors
and splits the echo of its image.
Everything is sad.
A play of words and barks.


Everything is sad.
A javelin whooshes through the speeding wind
in virile variations.
Half a cup of earth silenced the music.


Everything is sad.
Then the earth drank itself.
Everything is sad.
And when the time for death arrives
place me before a mirror where I may see myself.
Everything is sad.


(1941)



Thursday, November 12, 2015

A bomb in her bosom / Emily Dickinson's secret life



A bomb in her bosom: Emily Dickinson's secret life


Beneath the still surface of the poet's life lay a fiercely passionate nature and a closely guarded secret, argues her lastest biographer

Lyndall Gordon
Saturday 13 February 2010 00.05 GMT


Emily Dickinson was a great poet whose life has remained a mystery. The time has come to dispel the myth of a quaint and helpless creature, disappointed in love, who gave up on life. I think she was unafraid of her own passions and talent; that her brother's sexual betrayal and subsequent family feud had a profound effect on the Dickinson legend that has come down to us; and perhaps most significantly, I believe that Emily had an illness – a secret that explains much.
It was Emily herself who helped to devise the blueprint for her legend, starting at the age of 23 when she declined an invitation from a friend: "I'm so old-fashioned, Darling, that all your friends would stare." In place of the tart young woman she was, she adopted this retiring posture. Born in 1830 into the leading family of Amherst, a college town in Massachusetts, she never left what she always called "my father's house". Townsfolk spoke of her as "the Myth".

Emily Dickinson

On the face of it, the life of this New England poet seems uneventful and largely invisible, but there's a forceful, even overwhelming character belied by her still surface. She called it a "still – Volcano – Life", and that volcano rumbles beneath the domestic surface of her poetry and a thousand letters. Stillness was not a retreat from life (as legend would have it) but her form of control. Far from the helplessness she played up at times, she was uncompromising; until the explosion in her family, she lived on her own terms.
Her widely spaced eyes were too keen for the passivity admired in women of her time. It's the sensitive face of a person who (as her brother put it) "saw things directly and just as they were". At 17, as a student at Mount Holyoke in 1848 (the same year that the women's movement took a stand at Seneca Falls), she refused to bend to the founder of her college, the formidable Mary Lyon. At this time Massachusetts was the scene of a religious revival opposed to the inroads of science. Emily, who had chosen mostly science courses, makes her ­allegiance clear:
"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see –
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.
When Miss Lyon pressed her students to be "saved", nearly all succumbed. Emily did not. On 16 May, she owned, "I have neglected the one thing needful when all were obtaining it." It seemed that other girls desired only to be good. "How I wish I could say that with sincerity, but I fear I never can." When Miss Lyon consigned her to the lowest of three categories – the saved, the hopeful and a remnant of about 30 no-hopers – she still held out.
During a creative burst in the early 1860s, she invited a Boston man of letters to be her mentor, but could not take his advice to regularise her verse. Helpful Mr Higginson, a supporter of women, who thought he was corresponding with an apologetic, self-effacing spinster, was puzzled to find himself "drained" of "nerve-power" after his first visit to her in 1870. He was unable to describe the creature he found beyond a few surface facts: she had smooth bands of red hair and no good features; she had been deferential and exquisitely clean in her white piqué dress and blue crocheted shawl; and after an initial hesitation, she had proved surprisingly articulate. She had said a lot of strange things, from which Higginson deduced an "abnormal" life.
There was an increasing divide between people she wished to know and those she didn't. Her clarity could not endure social talk instead of truth; piety instead of "The Soul's Superior instants". Her directness would have been disconcerting if she did not "simulate" conventionality, and this was "stinging work". But a more threatening challenge, deeper below the surface, fired the volcanoes and earthquakes in her poems – an event, as she put it, that "Struck – my ticking – through –".
Something in her life has so far remained sealed. The poems tease the reader about "it" and her almost overwhelming temptation to "tell". I want to open up the possibility of an unsentimental answer. If true, it would explain the conditions of her life: her seclusion and refusal to marry. Once we know what "it" is, it will be obvious why "it" was buried and why its lava jolts out from time to time through the crater of her "buckled lips".
During the poetic spurt of her early 30s, Dickinson transforms sickness into a story of promise:
My loss, by sickness – Was it Loss?
Or that Etherial Gain –
One earns by measuring the Grave –
Then – measuring the Sun –
Sickness is always there, shielded by cover stories: in youth, a cough is mentioned; in her mid-30s, trouble with her eyes. Neither came to much. In her poems, sickness can be violent: she speaks of "Convulsion" or "Throe". There's a mechanism breaking down, a body dropping. It "will not stir for Doctors". "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain", she says, and "I dropped down, and down". Allowing for the poet's resolve to tell it "slant", through metaphor, are we not looking at epilepsy?



In its full-blown form, known as grand mal, a slight swerve in a pathway of the brain prompts a seizure. As Dickinson puts it, "The Brain within its Groove / Runs evenly", but then a "Splinter swerve" makes it hard to put the current back. Such force has this altered current that it would be easier to divert the course of a flood, when "Floods have slit the Hills / And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves".
Since the falling sickness, as epilepsy used to be known, had shaming associations with "hysteria", masturbation, syphilis and impairment of the intellect leading to "epileptic insanity", it was unnameable, particularly when it struck a woman. In the case of men secrecy was less strict, and fame in a few – Caesar, Muhammad, Dostoevsky – overrode the stigma, but a woman had to bury herself in a lifelong silence. If this guess is right, it's remarkable that Dickinson developed a voice from within that silence, one with a volcanic power to bide its time.
Prescriptions (one from an eminent physician, others in the records of an Amherst drugstore) show that Dickinson's medications tally with contemporary treatments for epilepsy. The condition, which has a genetic component, appeared in two other members of the Dickinson family. One was Cousin Zebina, a lifelong invalid, immured at home across the road, whose bitten tongue in the course of a "fit" is noted by Emily in her first surviving letter at the age of 11. "I fit for them," she announced in a poem of c1866. Then her nephew, Ned Dickinson, turned out to be afflicted. He was the son of Emily's brother Austin and his wife Susan Dickinson, who lived next door. To the family's dismay Ned, aged 15, had an epileptic fit in 1877. Horrendous attacks continued, about eight a year, recorded in his father's diary.
We can't know whether Emily Dickinson suffered as her nephew did. There are many forms of epilepsy, and the mild petit mal does not involve convulsions. The mildest manifestations are absences. A schoolmate remembered that Emily dropped crockery. Plates and cups seemed to slide out of her hands and lay in pieces on the floor. The story was designed to bring out her eccentricity for, it was said, she hid the fragments in the fireplace behind a fireboard, forgetting they were bound to be discovered in winter. This memory is more important than the schoolmate realised, because it suggests absences, either accompanying the condition or the condition itself.
Her violent images, the "spasmodic" rhythms Higginson deplored, and the sheer volume of her output show that she coped inventively with gunshots from the brain into the body. She turned an explosive sickness into well-aimed art: scenes with "Revolver" and "Gun". Contained in her own domestic order, protected by her father and sister, Dickinson saved herself from the anarchy of her condition and put it to use.
emily dickinson by maria menshikova

The mystery the poet was not to "tell" continues to this day to be encased in claims put out by opposed camps who fought for possession of her greatness. These camps go back to the feud. It began with adultery between Emily's brother Austin, in his 50s, and a newcomer to Amherst, a young faculty wife of 27, Mabel Loomis Todd. After the poet's death, the feud came to focus on Emily as her fame grew: who was to own her unpublished papers? Who had the right to claim her?
Both camps proceeded to wrap the poet in legends that stress her pathos: where Dickinson legend built up a bereft Emily in a dimity apron turning away the one and only man she loved, Todd legend built up a pitiful Emily "hurt" by her "cruel" sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson. How can we crack through the sad-sweet picture to find what Dickinson called the red "Fire rocks" below?
One way is to go back to acts of ­adultery that changed utterly those who were to be the first keepers of her papers. The advantage of approaching the poet through the feud is the entrée it provides to emotional currents in the family. Assignations – sometimes "with a witness" – are on record, recounted precisely as to time and place in the lovers' corroborating diaries. The impact of adultery on the family is plain – and not so plain, for the riddles in the poet's notes to her brother's mistress must be solved if we are to understand where she stood.
A recurring fact during the first years of the affair is crucial to the poet's position. Because it was difficult to keep adultery secret from the tattle of a small town, the safest place was the irreproachable home of the Dickinson sisters. There, the lovers would occupy the library or the dining-room (with its black horsehair sofa) for two to three hours. The door would be shut, blocking the poet's access to her second writing table in one room or to her ­conservatory via the other.
Austin Dickinson blew apart his family when he rejected his wife, Susan, who had long been the poet's keenest reader. Who had they been before this happened, and why, earlier, did Dickinson speak of a "Bomb" in her bosom? The Bomb may refer to periodic explosions in the brain, but emotionally both Austin and Emily had an eruptive vein, which Emily channelled into poetry. Her letters show that she cultivated adulterous emotions, if only in fantasy, for an unnamed "Master". How did this affect her response to her brother's sudden outbreak into active adultery?
In September 1881, David Todd and his wife, Mabel, had arrived in Amherst from Washington. She was a dressy urban beauty bent on maintaining standards in what appeared to her a negligible "village" full of retired clergymen and elderly academics. Mrs Todd, extending an immaculate white glove, her smile sliding up one cheek, was invited everywhere and was in a position to choose whom to favour. In Amherst, the Dickinsons were like royalty: Mrs Todd was taken with "regal", "magnificent" Austin Dickinson and his wife's dark poise, set off by a scarlet India shawl, when they called on her. Behind Austin's back, Amherst children mocked his auburn hair, arrayed like a fan above his head, and his sniffy walk, tapping his cane as he went.
At first, all the Dickinsons (bar Emily, who kept to her room) warmed to Mrs Todd's accomplishments: her solos soared above the church choir, she painted flowers to professional standard and published stories in magazines. She soon won the friendship of the bookish Susan Dickinson, before it became apparent that she was flirting with Susan's son, 20-year-old Ned, who fell painfully in love. This happened just before his father became a rival. Austin's love for Mabel Todd was to last for the rest of his life.
The result was what came to be known as "the War between the Houses". Austin turned against his children when they sided with their distraught mother. New evidence reveals that, far from withdrawing from the feud, Emily Dickinson took a stand. Unlike her sister Lavinia, who sided with the lovers, she refused to oblige her brother by signing over a plot of Dickinson land to his mistress. In August 1885 the poet wrote to her nephew Ned, confirming her resistance. "Dear Boy," she starts her letter assuring him he would find "no treason". "You never will, My Ned." This letter ends: "And ever be sure of me, Lad – Fondly, Aunt Emily.


A new and prolonged phase in the war between the houses began with the poet's death in 1886 and her sister's discovery of a lifetime's poems in her chest of drawers. Within a short time, Austin persuaded Lavinia to hand over the papers to his mistress. Yet Austin must have been aware that in his own home, his estranged wife treasured a separate collection – poems Emily had given her over the years. Fuelled by adultery, antagonism between Susan Dickinson and Mabel Todd mounted over possession of the poet, with the success of Todd's four editions of Dickinson (two co-edited with Higginson, two put out on her own) during the 1890s followed by the poet's growing stature in the course of the 20th century. Insistent legend continued to wrap her in the image of the modest, old-fashioned spinster. But the bold voice of the poems can't be categorised: "I'm Nobody," she says, "– who are you?" It's a voice we can't ignore, confrontational, even invasive, defying façades with a question about our nature.
The feud fed into a succession of increasingly public conflicts, starting with a court case in 1898 when Lavinia Dickinson changed sides and took a stand of her own against the Todds' further claim to Dickinson land. At the heart of the trial is Mabel Todd's assertion that this strip of land was due to her as compensation for her years of toil in bringing a great poet before the public. Poems (1890) had sold 11,000 copies in its first year. Her defence turned on her undoubted feat in transcribing, dating and editing piles upon piles of unpublished manuscripts.
Hatred did not die with the deaths of the first generation. The daughters of the feud, Susan's daughter Martha Dickinson and Mabel's daughter Millicent Todd, did battle through adversarial books during the first half of the 20th century. At its height in the 1950s, the feud turned into a conflict over the sale of the Dickinson papers.


When she died, Mabel got her land. Three weeks after the funeral the deed was signed and the Todds' house rose on the Dickinson meadow – a venue for future assignations.
This might have been a routine story of a femme fatale were it not for the presence of mysterious genius. As the feud sharpened its focus on the poet, it would be seen how Mabel had quickened to the poems of Emily Dickinson and how willing Mabel would be to undertake years of toil with difficult manuscripts. She was to show herself ready in other ways, one of only three people during the poet's lifetime to recognise Dickinson's genius. The name of Mabel Loomis Todd will always be associated with the poet.
Mabel appears to act out a familiar plot – the seduction of a man in power – but what differs here is the presence of another and grander form of power, that of a poet who selects her own society, then shuts the door. To Mabel Todd, with her discerning taste, that shut door, and the elect intelligence behind it, offered an irresistible challenge. So, on 10 September 1882, accompanied by Austin, Mrs Todd knocked on the Homestead door, and had herself admitted to the parlour where she sang to Lavinia and Austin. As she did so, Mabel imagined the poet listening in her fastness upstairs, captivated, as the trained voice trilled through the house.
Over the years to come Mabel was to re-enact this scene, fantasising a bond with the invisible poet. She would ­insist on this bond yet although she was in and out of the Homestead, she never once laid eyes on Emily ­Dickinson. On this initial occasion, the poet sent in a glass of homemade cordial together with a poem, which Mabel told herself had been composed spontaneously as a tribute to so pleasing a guest. Then, within 24 hours, on 11 September, there was a declaration of love for Austin – the "Rubicon" where he abandoned marital fidelity at the gate of his home before the pair entered to play a game of whist with the unsuspecting Sue.
Mabel's entry into the Homestead looks politely innocuous beside this initiation of adultery, but it was to present a parallel and more lasting threat to family peace. In time, ­Mabel would take possession of a large cache of Emily Dickinson's papers, and ­market them in her own terms, so that the strange nature of the poet would be ­obscured as a victim of Susan Dickinson. So it was that an eruptive poet sending out her "bolts", "Queen" of her own existence, would be subject to a false plot acted out in the unstoppable momentum of Todd's takeover.
The Dickinson camp appeared to win that round. But before Millicent Todd died in 1968, she set up a posthumous campaign that could not fail. Her plan was to co-opt a writer of impeccable credentials for a book she had in mind. To this end she appointed Yale professor Richard B Sewall as her literary executor, granting him exclusive rights to the Todd papers. Her partisan agenda was clear: this executor was to "set the whole network of Dickinson tensions in proper perspective". So it came about that Sewall perpetuated the Todd positions in a two-volume biography of Emily Dickinson that has remained standard for the last 36 years.


Mabel Todd's persuasive grace in presenting her point of view was reinforced by the educated rigour of her daughter's voice on tape as she took Sewall through the legal history of the feud, bristling with facts and dates. These she laid out in the orderly manner of a scholar. To the unwary her testimony would appear objective and informed, and yet in every instance the Todds turn out to be the victims of Susan Dickinson and her fearsome daughter. To hear the tapes is to understand their impact on a biographer. Sewall felt "haunted" by Austin's statement that he went to his wedding as to his execution. Only no one can know what Austin said: the image of execution was transmitted by a mistress determined to oust his wife, and not only in the usual manner, but in various ways to obliterate Sue's centrality in the poet's life.
A biographer tempted by exclusive access to an archive of such eloquence is bound to be influenced, and though Sewall relayed what he found in a cautious manner, he passed on the trove of Todd untruths: that Emily Dickinson had favoured Mabel; that the poet's withdrawal into seclusion had been the result of a family split preceding Mabel's appearance; and that Austin (contrary to evidence in the trial) had "deeded" to the Todds a second strip of land. The biographer even outdoes the Todds when he suggests that Dickinson's "failure" to publish was a result of a family quarrel.
Legends of this kind spread to theatre and fiction. In 1976 an award-­winning playThe Belle of Amherst reinvigorated the sad-sweet image: a "shy", "chaste", "frightened" poet hardly knows what she says, so keeps busy with baking. The playwright called it an "enterprise of simple beauty", backed by "audiences who have taken our 'Belle' to their hearts". In a novel of 2006 a spiteful Sue ends up "hating" Emily. In a novel of 2007 Sue becomes a death-dealing Lucrezia Borgia. She awaits her victims in the hall of her house, a vamp in décolleté black velvet waving her fan. Can evil go further? It can. Sue "could make mincemeat pie of the Dickinson sisters and eat it for Christmas dinner".
So the pathos has persisted even though Dickinson's words reveal a woman who was fun: a lover who joked; a mystic who mocked heaven. This woman was not like us: to know her is to encounter aspects of a nature more developed than our own. Her ­poems turn on the communicative power of the unstated between two people attuned to it. So, the question of contacts is crucial: for whom is she writing? Who is being trained in her unique mode of communication? Who provokes her to further communication? "Be Sue – while I am Emily – ", she commanded the friend of her youth who became her sister-in-law, "Be next – what you have ever been – Infinity".


An initiation in infinitude was the gift Dickinson offered to the few she admitted to intimacy. Sewall's assumption that men changed her has dated. It was she who operated on others for the brief periods they could bear it. She created certain people in the same way as she created her poems, many enclosed in letters as extensions of them. She half-found, half-invented a receptive reader in Sue to whom she sent 276 poems – more than twice the number sent to anyone else. In a similar way she created a deathless love for the person whom she called "Master".
Biographers have sought meaning behind the bearded and married "Master", who appears in three mysterious letters from spring 1858 to the summer of 1861. Evidence remains thin, and biographers have taken their pick from an array of unlikely candidates. These letters race from one literary drama to another, including Jane Eyre's encounter with her married "Master" and deathless love in Emily Brontë – in 1858 Dickinson had acquired a copy of an 1857 edition ofWuthering Heights – and it seems likely that the "Master" letters were as much exercises in composition as letters addressing a particular person. The most popular candidate originated in hearsay that the love of Dickinson's life had been the married Rev Charles Wadsworth, whom she met during a visit to Philadelphia in 1855 and then, supposedly, renounced. (Lugubrious, beardless, with stringy locks, Wadsworth sent Miss "Dickenson" a dull pastoral letter about her sufferings – without a clue what those sufferings were.)
In her late 40s and 50s, a new drama began when she turned to fierce Judge Lord of the Massachusetts supreme court. But though she thought of his touch at night, interrupted her writing to anticipate his weekly letter and played up to the comic character he assigned as "Emily Jumbo", she would not marry him. Epileptics in her time were not supposed to marry, and some American states passed laws against it. Drafts of her love letters have survived: they are witty, confident, open (not coded like letters to "Master"), and within the limits of her unrelenting control over her existence, abandoned – hardly the way 19th-century ladies were supposed to behave.
Dickinson found love, spiritual quickening and immortality, all on her own terms. One model remained: Wuthering Heights. Yet unlike the ­anarchic lovers of the Heights, Dickinson was a moral being, a product of upright New England: she grasped the potential destructiveness – to her sanity, for a start – of the "Bomb" in her bosom; and she witnessed the eruption of the feud – during her lifetime, another secret within the family. She refers repeatedly to a secret "Existence" – primarily her poetry – that must be seen in terms of New England individualism, the Emersonian ethos of self-reliance that in its fullest bloom eludes label. It's more awkward and less lovable than English eccentricity – dangerous, in fact, as Dickinson owned when she said, "My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –".