We think we know Emily Dickinson: the Belle of Amherst, virginal, reclusive, and possibly mad. But in A Loaded Gun, Jerome Charyn introduces us to a different Emily Dickinson: the fierce, brilliant, and sexually charged poet.
...an ecstatic new book ... What's left for Charyn, then, is to outdo the competition in enthusiasm. In thematically arranged chapters describing the centers of her emotional world, from the family's maid, Margaret Maher, to Dickinson's dog, Carlo, the poet 'swaggers' and 'leaps,' tossing 'imperial fire.' Entranced digressions compare her to van Gogh for fearlessness, Joseph Cornell and his ballerina loves for ethereality, and the patients of Oliver Sacks in their rage for cosmic order. Charyn both insists on the likely inaccuracy of his biographical interpretations of her poems, yet offers them anyway: In this sense, he may be the perversely perfect critic for the poet.
Beyond speculation, Charyn doesn’t add anything new to our understanding of Dickinson. The book is a collage of other scholars’ work glued together with his own hyperbolic prose: 'Dickinson’s not only fled: she has taken our entrails with her.' Style overwhelms sense: 'Language itself was a kind of Ice Age for Dickinson, utterly autistic — soundless sounds.' The most fascinating parts of the book are Charyn’s interviews with major contributors to Dickinson scholarship, including Christopher Benfey and Susan Howe. These scholars have deep respect for and knowledge of Dickinson. By contrast, Charyn seems like a fetishist reaching into a grab bag for sexist tropes.
Charyn’s book gives a checkered history of the many interpretations of Dickinson, at times attempting to connect them to her actual biography ... in Charyn’s book, which leans heavily on his own personal web of associations, some sense of who Dickinson might have been ends up feeling more out of reach ... There is very little new learned in A Loaded Gun about Dickinson’s life.