A Resistant Writer–No Kidding

I can definitely see what Scanlon means when she said that Dickinson (and H.D.) at times actively resist the reader.

Take poem 42.

I’ve spent a long time thinking about this poem and, though I am much further along than when I started, I still don’t know if I can make the whole poem fit together. Dickinson starts with a kind of riddle, which the reader is left to guess: “There is a word…” (1) and, by the end of the poem, she seems to have given at least three possible answers. The word is either, the most obvious contender, “‘forgot'” (18), which she places in quotation marks, or perhaps “Time,” which takes center stage in the final stanza as “the keenest marksman! / The most accomplished shot!” (15-16), or it could be something that the poet has not identified and has left for us to conjure. My candidate is “forgot,” which would seem to make sense at first, since that would seem to be the greatest harm to a decorated war hero, rather than time which “harms” everyone in the sense that it ultimately leads to death.

But when confronting the second half of the first stanza, it’s no longer certain. If “[t]he saved will tell / On patriotic day” then how could one forget him? I’ll grant that their memory seems woozy (“Some epauletted Brother” [9], emphasis mine), but the remembrance is still occurring. Besides, what do we then make of the second stanza in which it seems that Time is in fact the word? The first reference of “it’s noiseless onset” (13) seems to refer to the same “It” of line four, the word, and yet, if one associates the exclamations (as I do), then the “marksman” and “most accomplished shot” would be aiming for the “target,” which “[i]s a soul ‘forgot'” (15-18).  Now it looks like Time is the word which is the ultimate culprit and forgetting just a consequence.

But Dickinson isn’t through complicating all of this–she decides to make “Time’s sublimest target” (17) the word “forgot.” What?? I thought that the word was a bad thing? It “bears a sword” and “[c]an pierce an armed man” (2-3). That doesn’t sound very sublime, nor does “hurl[ing] it’s barbed syllables” for that matter (4). And yet, perhaps, as I thought earlier, it is after all “forgot,” which, of the two particular candidates, is the only word with “syllables” (plural). But that just leaves us right back where we started–what do we make of this whole time business at the poems close? How could forgetfulness be so deadly if people seem to still remember?

Now of course I recognize that this is just my understanding. I’m eager to see what other people make of this poem (and the others) as I imagine many of us will have different interpretations.

Thoughts on this one?