FIRST THINGS FIRST: It’s a joke. If you don’t get that — that it’s a joke — then you are going to be enraged, or disgruntled, or just downright annoyed by The Emily Dickinson Reader. Take the Amazon reviewer who writes that Paul Legault’s book of Dickinson translations is “insulting” to both Dickinson and her readers. That particular reader didn’t get that it was a joke. Or if he did, he forgot it momentarily, rushing to Dickinson’s defense against a twenty-first century poet who takes all 1,789 of her poems and turns them into mostly pithy one-liners written in contemporary vernacular.
That being said, Legault's is not a simple joke, and, like all complicated jokes, it addresses much more than we recognize at first. In fact, by the time I got about 50 “translations” in, I had moved past my initial impression — that Legault was simply trying to paraphrase Dickinson’s dense and enigmatic poems in a witty, and sometimes snarky, way. He does do that some of the time, but he also understands Dickinson well enough to capitalize on her poems’ greatest strengths: their linguistic complexity, their indeterminate subjects and referents, their ability (and downright invitation) to be read “slant.” In this way, Legault couldn’t have picked a better writer to work with, and Dickinson meets him more than halfway.
The complexity of Legault’s project begins on the cover of The Emily Dickinson Reader. Upon first glance it is a very stately book, printed in hardback with a royal blue cover and gold-edged paper. The title, subtitle, and author’s name appear in a font that connotes both seriousness and precision; a delicate yellow ribbon that hangs between the pages marks it as a book in which one will want to keep his or her place. Readers familiar with Dickinson’s publication history will notice that the image on the cover of Legault’s book is the same image of Indian Pipes (one of Dickinson’s favorite flowers) that adorned her very first book of poems, which was published in 1890. But upon closer inspection, Legault’s book doctors the image, inserting the arm of a skeleton that is reaching out of the grassy ground on which the Indian Pipes have long resided.
In the same way that the cover allows a reader to experience both Dickinson and Legault, the 1,789 poems, phrases, sentences, quips, and comments that make up this book almost always work on multiple levels. As I see it, there are at least six ways one can read these entries, and most readers will toggle back and forth between several of these:
You like Legault’s lines just as they are.
Legault is a poet — his first book of poems, The Madeleine Poems, was published by Omnidawn in 2010, and his second, The Other Poems, by Fence in 2011 — and he knows how to write sharp lines. Take the opening entry, for instance: “Everything has to love something.” Or 73: “There are angels everywhere. Everywhere. / There’s one on your face.” Legault has a knack for short, romantic lines, and I like them regardless of their reference to or inspiration from certain Dickinson poems — even if there is no way, in the context of this book, to ever forget their source.
Legault sends you back to Dickinson.
You are a casual reader of Dickinson, and Legault’s lines send you to your bookshelf to...read more