February 8th, 2011
In “Neither Lesbian nor Straight: Multiple Eroticisms within Emily Dickinson’s Poetry,” Sylvia Henneburg explores the nature of the eroticisms and their intent within Dickinson’s poetry. She argues that, while biographers and critics have a tendency to place specific poems within specific sexual contexts (This is a heterosexual poem, while this one is homosexual), Dickinson’s speakers vacillate between sexual identities throughout the course of each poem, thus letting the reader experience “ a continuum of multiple eroticisms.” Henneburg begins this piece by rebuffing several of the primary critics (including Martha Nell Smith) who strive to place Dickinson in a sexual box. By doing so, she says, the critic has a tendency to produce readings that coincide with the idea of hetero/homosexuality in mind, rather than keeping the text more open. Henneburg also notes that the idea of using a binary sexuality, however, is “no longer tenable.” If the homo/hetero rhetoric is not deconstructed from time to time, the individual is left without the realization that human beings can be both sexualities. Furthermore, whether body or text, the individual experiences a variety of erotic experiences and emotions; the boxed terms that critics often throw out—“asexual,” “heterosexual,” etc—are often limiting and they do not fully describe those experiences. It is preferable, then, that Dickinson’s poetry is not reduced to static either-or oppositions but viewed as an “area of perpetual différance.”
As an example, Henneburg gives a reading of Poem 232, “The Sun—just touched the morning—” One reading places the poem in a submissive female, heterosexual context. The morning is cast as the woman, who has achieved femininity in the only way how—through marriage. However, because she has had to give up “all that has gone before” in order to be a bride, the morning is dependent upon the sun, her husband. With his absence, she therefore has nothing; his loss equals her death and places her in an ultimately passive state. Henneburg argues that this reading, however, falls apart by the second stanza. Dependence is part of the reading, as the sun’s touch gives her happiness. However, the morning experiences a “holiday” in his absence, making her free, while the masculine sun must perpetuate between the cyclical motion of night and day. The sun’s absence also creates another pole, night, which is not gendered. Thus, the masculine figure is not the controlling or centered figure in the piece. Furthermore, by the end of the poem, the morning is exhausted, as if from intercourse. She has “lost her crown” and is “unannointed,” however, which implies that the King/Sun/husband is not the only reason for her fulfillment. She therefore experiences multiple eroticisms and jouissance, furthered by the “ha” and “ho” soundplay within the poem.
She also cites 334, which critics often call a homoerotic poem. However, Dickinson avoids the usual homo/hetero binary by experiencing fulfillment with the text, a degendered item, rather than with a specific man or woman. By looking at the poem’s biographical context and noting that it was sent to a woman, the reader could infer that the poem was meant to be of a homoerotic nature. Henneburg reminds the reader that what kind of homoeroticism, however, whether “pure” or bisexual, active, passive, etc, is impossible to know.
Henneburg also discusses the poetic body of Dickinson’s work as a whole. She notes a reading that argues that Dickinson’s thematic vagueness, as well as her use of hyphen and ellipsis, making Dickinson much more vulnerable to the “lover-critic,” making the text a place of both eroticism and sometimes rape. That is, the reader can “enter the Bedeutungsleerstellen (gaps of indeterminacy) as well as the Textleerstellen (physical blanks and vacancies) of the poetic body(s) / he can either “penetrate,” “interpenetrate,” or find further ways of “taking” Dickinson and her poetry.”
577 is also a poem that is given eroticisms, versus eroticism. The addressed is “it,” “thee,” and “Thee all,” which leaves an open gender. Therefore, homo or heterosexual could be an appropriate reading, but neither encapsulates the full meaning, as necrophilia could also categorize the interaction between the addresser and addressed.
Ultimately, Dickinson is perpetually resistant to text, and whenever a meaning is assessed, different readers and contexts always serve to destabilize that meaning. Henneburg therefore concludes that whether due to Dickinson’s “stylistic and thematic indirection, obliquity, and elusiveness, to inconclusive biographical evidence, to the multitude of readers endlessly creating new signification, or to disjunctures between several versions and variants of a single poem, (the) textual-sexual body is in constant motion.”
The reading that Henneburg creates within this piece serves to advocate several warnings to Dickinson’s readers that I think may be necessary to look. Her idea that we not place Dickinson in a box (whether it be a sexual one or no) is perhaps essential to Dickinson’s poetry, since part of the pleasure of reading her is the constant double meaning of words, as well as Dickinson’s resistance to meaning itself. Furthermore, I think a lesson such as this also reminds the reader not to rely on the biography of Dickinson as well, something that we’ve discussed happening frequently with her biographers and critics. This is problematic because we have an inconcrete history of her poetry—what was destroyed or changed or actually sent or not is impossible to know completely. By looking for the multiple eroticisms within a text, we therefore are allowed to disregard biography as the ultimate authority. We are also able to give more credit to Dickinson, remembering that her poetry is never in stasis and set on one meaning, but instead invites the reader constantly to conjecture.
Sylvia Henneberg. “Neither Lesbian nor Straight:.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 4.2 (1995): 1-19. Project MUSE. Web. 21 Jan. 2011. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.