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Kristin LeMay's captivating I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson is a hybrid of devotional writing, spiritual memoir, and literary analysis—and the kind of book we wish we saw more often. It is a daring endeavor: as Tweetspeak Poetry said, "an interesting combination of genres and approaches that could have easily gone awry." But LeMay deftly combines literary analysis with her faith experiences in a way that enriches the well-loved poems of Emily Dickinson, while simultaneously widening the genre of spiritual autobiography. LeMay enters into Dickinson's poems as if they were spiritual texts, finding signs and symbols for her life, using Dickinson's words as her own liturgy: "I discovered that I could pour my word-poor desire for prayer into Emily's poems, as in a mold, and let it settle there.... One hundred and forty years later, Emily was interceding for me. Her poem was my prayer." LeMay also refers to Dickinson's letters and biographies, which chronicle an often-anguished longing for faith, and a countering inability to fully commit to it—making her a highly suitable patron saint for LeMay, another writer familiar with the teetering scales between faith and doubt. While LeMay delves into her own life, her narrative is always framed by Dickinson's—and organized into topical categories like "Belief," "Silence," and "Beauty" that provide entry for the reader's own reflections. We have to agree withParnassus editor Herbert Leibowitz; this cross-genre gem is "a smart, seriously playful, winning, and readable commentary." Or, if we could borrow the words of Emily Dickinson herself, we might say that LeMay achieves "the Heart's portrait—every Page a Pulse."
Widen your understanding of the highly personal ways in which art and faith intersect.
Image Journal - Feb. 20, 2013
In 1860, when she was just thirty, Emily Dickinson wrote a poem meditating on Jacob’s nightlong wrestling with an unseen stranger in Genesis 32. “I will not let thee go / Except thou bless me,” she quotes Jacob as saying, then pivots on his realization, moments later as the sun rises, that the stranger who had stooped to struggle with him was God himself: “And the bewildered Gymnast / Found he had worsted God!” (Poem 145). The poem explodes in wonder that God would permit himself to be known in this way. As Kristin LeMay argues in this striking series of meditations on twenty-five Dickinson poems, this is exactly the realization arrived at by the over eighteen hundred poems and one thousand letters Dickenson wrote, visible if you read them slowly and carefully enough, allowing them to goad and challenge you, rattle you in their inconsistencies, and comfort you in spelling out what you had never seen articulated before. As LeMay puts it, Dickinson was “a poet who called herself a pagan, foreswore prayer, never gave a confession of faith, and left the church” (p. 164), and yet, for all of her resistance, was finally a poet who could describe herself in a late fragment as “grasped by God” (p. 234). She seems to have spent a lifetime wondering at a God who would come near, take on her wild blows, and continue to hold on, whispering out of love’s weakness, “Then have I / Nothing to show / But Calvary—” (Poem 652).
I think LeMay is correct in this view of Dickinson, but that is not the real strength of this work, for, as she notes, you can find a version of this position in such scholars as Roger Lundin, James McIntosh, and Alfred Habegger. What is remarkable about the book is the personal struggle it enacts. Much like Dickenson herself, LeMay begins the book with Jacob’s opening confidence—“I won’t let her go until she blesses me” (p. 11)—but ends with Jacob’s chastened awareness that the real wonder is that the poet had been the one holding on all along. Twice, in her last year 1886, Dickinson turned Jacob’s words and wrote to dear friends, “I will not let thee go, except I bless thee” (p. 254). LeMay concludes with this thought—that the true wonder is that poetry, and through poetry, God himself stoops or condescends to be wrestled with, intending all along to bless in coming near. I read this book, then, as a spiritual memoir, accomplishing deeply inward work through what would seem the very ordinary tasks of literary criticism—working out linguistic puzzles, charting poetic breakthroughs, tracking down biographical details, holding on to these twenty-five poems over the course of a decade and allowing them to “challenge and deepen my spiritual life, my beliefs and doubts” (p. 10).
Three of the meditations especially stand out. “Intercession” begins with a discussion of Dickinson’s 436, where the poet ponders how one could “chalk the Sun” to someone who lived her entire life underground, then turns to a surprising moment in which the author, having found herself unable to pray, discovered herself praying Dickinson’s words, “pouring my word-poor desire for prayer into Emily’s poems, as in a mold, and let(ting) it settle there” (p. 107). Dickinson’s poems, that is, intercede for her, giving her words, in her personal darkness, for what she could not see or say on her own. “Resurrection” teases out the difference, in Dickinson’s 1573, between the spatial terms extent and expanse, arguing that Christ’s self (his “extent”) having passed through death meant, for Dickinson, that his “vast Expanse… opened in death a wide way” (p. 189) for all of us. Living with this poem, coming to terms with its challenging vocabulary, “chides us,” LeMay remarks, “into hope” (p. 190). And the poem “ Grasped by God” links three experiences of the author’s of God’s presence—once like light, once like honey, once like the wind, she writes, beautifully—with three reported by Dickinson in 996, comforting herself that, even in Dickinson, time passes and such experiences fade.
Reading, LeMay insists, is “shared work,” pointing to her experience of having “worked alongside Emily at mending those ‘snapt’ and worn places in my soul” (p. 253). It is work that she invites us to as well, offering us both eyes to see with and a “spiritual companion” with whom to “approach those fundamental questions that leave us trembling” (p. 150).
—Thomas Gardner, Anglican Theological Review