with intense eagerness since 2012! a channel of the los angeles review of books

Good, Giving, and Generously Spiced

Entry 2 of the Dickinson Variations

Dear friends,

Publication – is the Auction! Dickinson season 2 is here: we’ve got media mogul Samuel “Buzzfeed” Bowles giving the people what they want: content, and at rapid speed. Meanwhile the Dickinson family’s Black servants Henry and Hattie gather in a barn to start publishing an abolitionist newspaper. And there’s a new vision on the scene: some vaguely soldier figure named Nobody (I guess Wiz Khalifa Death has other ladies to visit this season). What’s Nobody doing? Materializing Emily’s concerns about the consequences of print publication: whether or not fame and celebrity is something she wants.

Dickinson doesn’t shy away from anachronism, nor does it try to dodge prolepsis. “You’ll be remembered as a baker, not a poet,” Sue off-handedly remarks after Emily wins first prize in the Amherst baking contest for her Caribbean black cake (!!!!). Sue, this is a weird thing to say! Almost no one outside of family circles is remembered for their baking. If they were, we would… have a preposterously large archive of recipes from every woman ever?

Will print publication be the death of Emily Dickinson? Season 2 asks. The good news, all good post-structuralists know, is that one person’s death of the author is another person’s birth…of the author function. So, if you’re a nineteenth-century Daria Morgendorffer (I am unapologetically linking Dickinson’s Dickinson to all her 1990s prototypes) mulling over posthumous name recognition, writing – not baking – is definitely the way to go.


All you have to do is store your poems in a wooden chest, then die, leave behind instructions to your sister to burn the contents of the chest, which she does and doesn’t do, have her hand them over to both your “preceptor” and your brother’s mistress, who will work together to publish the remaining poems (not before disaggregating your hand-sewn booklets and laying down the iron fist of proper grammar and punctuation) so that a few years after your death you are finally – finally! – a published and immediately famous, if controversial, poet. It’s a simple plan, really.

Okay, now for the cake! Given that I’ve already spilled some ink on the topic of Dickinson and taste, it will come as no surprise that the episode Fame is a fickle food is my favorite of the first three episodes thus far. I love how Smith uses Dickinson’s foray into public baking as a way to introduce the poet’s central concern about fame: that it has a short shelf-life. Shit gets stale. Or, perhaps better put, the problem is not the poet but the public, not the food but the picky eaters:

Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set.

Since the three of us are all currently locked down with people who can count their age on one hand, we can surely all empathize with this problem. Do I want, Dickinson seems to be asking, to cater to toddlers, who read and recite John Greenleaf Whittier like he’s going out of style (Reader, he did go out of style), or would I rather whip up some “moist, sticky, generously spiced” poems just for me and my squad?

Dickinson may be the poet of not getting any, as our twenty-first century Emily says, but this description makes me think she’s also very, um, good, giving, and game in her own way! Giving as in making a very rich cake – in economic terms (expensive spices) and culinary ones (flavor/texture/density) – large enough to apportion as holiday gifts for friends and family.

So, when Sam Bowles tells Emily that her poem “Fame is a fickle food” is “better than your cake,” I was thinking: yes and no. Because the cake is really fucking good! And Bowles’s assessment feels very, like, old school aesthetics: Oh this lyric poem is immaterial and timeless and provokes Deep Thoughts, and is therefore far superior to black cake, which is loaded with material links to slave plantations and has a moist, sticky texture much too sensuous for intellection. I will grant that, yes, the final line “Men eat of it and die.” is, in fact, heavier than a black cake. Dickinson’s staccato syntax draws enough from common measure to roll off the English-speaking tongue. But with that line, thud! What had once been a fun enough frolic in the world of seeming celebrity trips and falls down with the weight of a thousand stopwatches ringing at the 15-minute mark.

But my larger point, I guess, is that despite Sam’s line, and the show’s circling around the question of Emily’s status as a capital-P poet, Dickinson suggests a far saucier kind of poetics, one that understands “moist, sticky, and generously spiced” as, Sianne Ngai might say, aesthetic categories. In episode 2, Emily does have a public, and they are making judgments of taste (literally!) about her creative output. Dickinson pushes this hoary old school aesthetics aside somewhat, seeing the beautiful as part of, rather than apart from, the moist, the sticky, and the generously spiced.

Speaking of spicy, I am hoping one of you wants to talk about Lavinia?? I am fairly obsessed with how Alena Smith totally vindicates her. Because the women in Dickinson’s life have had very uneven legacies. In the EDCU (Emily Dickinson Creative Universe), Susan Dickinson is a full-bodied, fleshed out person. She is now well acknowledged as an editor entirely crucial to the development of Dickinson’s verse, in addition to Dickinson’s friend/lover/??? (“friend/lover/???” describes every nineteenth-century same sex intimacy).

But wherefore Lavinia? For all the now-outdated figurations of Dickinson as a sad-sack spinster, it’s Vinnie who has by and large been shoved away in the attic. I’ve had this inkling that criticism or pop culture or whatever still somehow needs a spinster in the EDCU, and because it can’t be Dickinson anymore it’s now Lavinia. Ever in the shadow of her sister, Vinnie appears – when she even does appear – as a flat, two-dimensional domestic woman, with no life of her own outside of helping keep house and clearing space for her older sister’s writerly labor.

ANYWAY, my point being that in Dickinson Lavinia is, goddammit, not a static, two-bit player in the drama of Emily Dickinson but a dreaming, desiring, complex woman in her own right. She gets serious stage time for once! I am so so so excited about this development and hereby submit that this television show is what #JusticeForLavinia looks like.

Yours, generously spiced, with a hint of egg,


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