Reading the Fascicles of Emily Dickinson: Dwelling in Possibilities

by Eleanor Elson Heginbotham
ISBN: 081420922X

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A Review of: Reading the Fascicles of Emily Dickinson: Dwelling in Possibilities
by Cindy MacKenzie

The persistent fascination of scholars and readers with Emily Dickinson's preparation of forty fascicles'-those little booklets of carefully stitched stationery sheets of about half of the over 1700 poems she wrote between 1856 and 1864-is central to an understanding of the genius of this great nineteenth-century American poet. In Eleanor Heginbotham's enthusiastic and thorough examination of the fascicles, the primary focus is on demonstrating the "intentional artistry" of the poet in compiling these booklets as a form of self-publishing, and more interestingly, as a space where she can edit and play with the effects of setting the poems in such a way that they "echo and speak to each other across the page," making them "new artifacts by virtue of their proximity." The book's title, Reading the Fascicles of Emily Dickinson: Dwelling in Possibilities highlights Heginbotham's thesis as well as Dickinson's own poetics of "dwelling in possibility," to resist limitation or closure at all costs.
The study emphasizes the artistic presence of the poet; it allows us to "sense the poems as hers, as belonging to and issuing from her specific and particularly personal character and lifestyle." Whatever else they mean, Heginbotham insists, they exist and, as such, cannot be discounted completely as many critics have attempted to do. Instead, she continues, they provide one way, and a very legitimate way, of considering an individual poem's meaning within a context that is constructed by the poet herself. These forty fascicles, holding between 11 and 29 poems, offer a logical way for us to "see what proximate poems can tell us about each other and what the selections suggest about the concerns of their author at the moment that she bound them together." For it is the "pressures of the surrounding work" that reveal how a single poem can be read by creating more than one interpretative possibility within a changing context. The magnitude of the project forces Heginbotham to focus on four pairs from the handbound booklets. She is well aware that her work is only beginning a study that could be continued by other scholars in the future.
Heginbotham's book conscientiously and meticulously acknowledges those scholars who concentrate on this aspect of Dickinson's work. As a result, the book offers a bibliographical resource that is thorough and up-to-date. Her readings of the poems within the framework Dickinson creates provide new and insightful interpretations that illustrate the "possibility of meaning" that each juxtaposition of poems has the capacity to create. While she consults some theoretical sources, such as Michael Riffaterre's Semiotics of Poetry and Neil Freistat's Poems in their Place: The Intertextuality and Order of Poetic Collections to support her own theory, she also includes her "conversations" with twelve contemporary poets-Richard Wilbur, Adrienne Rich, and Alicia Ostriker-to substantiate her ideas about the deliberateness and importance of placing the poems in a certain order or chronology. Although unconventional as a modus operandi, the results are fascinating and most compelling to read because they open up the entire question of authorial intention in quite a groundbreaking way.
Heginbotham's book is an important addition to the scholarly canon as it offers all readers of Dickinson an important new way to understand the enigmatically dazzling work of this complex American poet.

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