Friday, April 2, 2010

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson's Dog

I am reading a fascinating novel about the life of American poet Emily Dickinson. Long viewed as an eccentric, reclusive spinster, the Belle of Amherst seems unlikely material for a novel. In novels, as I tell my tutees and student readers, things are supposed to happen—characters face and resolve conflicts, they grow or they don't, readers learn something about life and the human condition. What kind of story can a modern novelist spin about a woman who rarely left her house, never married or had children, and left little personal affects besides a trunk full of enigmatic scribbles? The answer is plenty. The Dickinson in Jerome Charyn's latest work, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (W.W. Norton, 2010), is icy, sharp-tongued, smart, spoiled, ignored, eccentric, wildly imaginative, passionate, red-haired, and a little bit nuts.

Of course ED gets tarted up for a modern novel. (Take a look at that atrocious cover, will you?) But the unexpected part? Emily Dickinson has a dog, a giant Newfoundland named Carlo. He is Dickinson's chaperone for fifteen years, accompanying her on poetry-spinning strolls through New England apple orchards and illicit adventures to rum-houses where she meets and falls in love with inappropriate and not-quite-sane men. Carlo is protector and companion, and he grows to be both enormous and ancient. Hot tears I wept as I read of a half-blind Dickinson returning from a trip to Boston, entering her father's house, and crying, "Where's my dog?" Because, of course, the end is near. Carlo goes to sleep for the last time in a soft bed beside his mistress' own, during a snow storm that whitens the world:

. . . My fellah had died in his sleep, sitting on his blanket a foot from my bed.
I lay down beside Carlo in his bassinet. I must have been there five or six hours, my arm around his neck, and would have stayed another six if Pa-pa hadn't started tugging at me. He would tell people how I had all the strength of a steam engine, and that he couldn't pull me loose until I heard Ma-ma cry.
"Em," she moaned, "you cannot stay in this room forever with a dead dog."
I would have stayed, but I couldn't bear that look of horror in Ma-ma's eye.

And by the next chapter, Dickinson has assumed the persona that every American high-school student knows—the recluse clad in white who refuses to leave her house. Spoiler alert: The reason for her donning virginal colors is not a heart broken by a man or a youth lost. No, indeed. She is mourning her dog.

I wandered from room to room like the ghost that everyone thinks I've become, dressed in all white, because I will wear no other color while Carlo's soul is in Purgatory—I for one am not convinced there is much of a Heaven for dogs; they are doomed to wander somewhere, and while my Carlo was wandering, I will wear only white.

Mystery solved. Her reaction makes perfect sense.

The book is available at Austin Public Library.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the permission, busy zia, we posted this review at our facebook community and it sparked some lovely comments - especially when we added a photo of a Newfoundland just like Emily's Carlo!


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