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“If her poems are like his boxes, a place where secrets are kept, his boxes are like her poems, the place of unlikely things to happen,” Charles Simic is quoted as saying.Finding similarities between voices in the crowd surrounding Dickinson can be an interesting exercise, if random; though not as random as when Charyn draws a comparison between Dickinson and the dancing of Allegra Kent. The impulse of writers is to read Dickinson herself like a text—with all the problems of interpretation that follow. In her 2012 Paris Review interview, she expressed frustration with those who try to over-decipher the intended of the Master letters: “The constant need of some scholars to decode in these letters a flesh-and-blood lover belittles the ferocity of her poetic calling,” she said.
The chapter “Ballerinas in a Box” mostly traces the artist Joseph Cornell’s near-obsession with Dickinson, but Charyn takes such a circuitous path that the portrait becomes muddled.
He opens with quotes from male poets and critics who revived Dickinson’s reputation in the early twentieth century.
Benfey compares “the cunning and craft” of her letters to Matthew Higginson to performance art, hypothesizing that she meant for him to serve as “a mirror, a conduit, a messenger.” He even goes on to say Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd were akin to publicists.
“She gives them just the amount they need; she withholds access in just the right way.” Charyn’s Dickinson may be a seductress, but in this reading of her, clutching at every clue, she becomes more unreal than usual.
Charyn’s book quickly sets up themes that reflect more about his own cultural tastes than Dickinson.
He examines, for instance, figures who have been as enchanted as he is with Dickinson as muse.
In hot pursuit, she becomes dreamlike and open-ended; she could be anything to anyone.
There is very little new learned in A Loaded Gun about Dickinson’s life, save for in the very last chapter.
Allen Tate, he tells us, wrote in 1932 that many were mistaken that “no virgin can know enough to write poetry,” but went on to call her “a dominating spinster whose very sweetness must have been formidable.”Charyn finds fault with the group, but limits the argument to two sides, basically between those who called Dickinson a spinster and those who took his own more sensational view.
He introduces Rebecca Patterson’s 1951 book, The Riddle of Emily Dickinson, which proposed that Dickinson had a romance with one Kate Scott.