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Still another version of the life of the nineteenth-century American poet, Emily Dickinson, this time a movie, has been released to theaters around the country. Terrence Davies, screenwriter and director of A Quiet Passion, has been captivated by her enigmatic world since a teenager, one that mirrors his own; its production is the highlight of his long career.

But the question remains—Just who was Emily Dickinson? How account for her extraordinary brilliance, given the late Puritanism in Amherst, Massachusetts, that seeped into the warp and woof of life, against which she stormed?

Among the scholarly studies of this poet, Richard B. Sewall’s The Life of Emily Dickinson (1974) presents a multifaceted perspective and affords readers their own take on this woman. By piecing together her correspondence and poems with those in her immediate world, as well as by substantiating his findings with newspaper articles and public records, he contextualizes her. We hear her voice and wonder at its sagacious humor. Fortunately for us, Emily’s pen was rarely idle and her letters, preserved.

But Sewall’s presentation of Emily’s world is unique: it bears his imprint of having been Professor of English Literature at Yale University for forty-two years. Volume I devotes single chapters to the principal players in Emily’s life: grandparents, parents, siblings Austin and Lavinia, Susan Gilbert, and Mabel Loomis Todd—all in relationship through correspondence. And Volume II contains the life of the poet, even further nuanced.

It has been said that the definitive biography of Emily Dickinson has yet to be written, and it must be done by a woman scholar.

There is hope, as Emily proclaims in poem # 314:

 

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“Oh no! —Would look at that? —That’s me! —I can’t believe that!” It tickles, unmercifully, the heart, the mind, even the gut.

Even the presentation of these nine essays is a hoot. No serious authors use the color orange for their book jackets. Sky-blue graces the inside covers, the title page, the chapter titles, and page numbers; it also highlights the first letter of the word in each chapter’s opening paragraph. Lavender replaces the usual black print in the text.

Who is behind these reversals?

It is Anne Lamott, a prolific author, now in her sixties, “with bad hands and feet.” Again, she leads her readers into the intricacies of her seasoned psyche found on each page of Hallelujah Anyway – Rediscovering Mercy (2017). Wide-eyed, she does not flinch from life’s setbacks. Her soldering spirit enlists humor, the “wise counsel of teachers with flashlights,” the fruits of Eastern and Western spirituality, and the courage to change, with others, often—all within the mystery of heart-mercy that forgives and offers relief.

Anecdotes flesh out this process, often messy and unseemly.

Such tickling pries open the clinched heart and plummets it within deep prayer wherein mercy resides. We breathe, again.

 

 

Yes, there is another book out on Donald J. Trump, one that relates this phenomenon to the global epidemic of narcissism—admittedly a disturbing read. In my take, the book exposes this malignant crud incrementally poisoning the human psyche; its challenge is to recognize and transform our individual and collective narcissism—a tall order, indeed.

To facilitate this process, two psychiatrists Leonard Cruz and Steven Buser invited Jungian analysts, psychologists, and academics to contribute essays on narcissism that later evolved into A Clear and Present Danger – Narcissism in the Era of Donald Trump (2016). These essays evolved into a multifaceted picture of this disorder, with resonance in mythology, psychology, literature, relationships, gender, and world history. Ours is not the only era that has been adversely affected.

Against this background the authors also referenced Donald Trump, the then Republican candidate for the Oval Office and his supporters through depth psychology’s collective and personal unconscious; in both lie the roots of narcissism, a noxious energy that undermines relatedness and obliterates spirit in any expression. Such clarity afforded me a respite from the overwhelment that had been eating me alive.

However, the concluding essay by Clarissa Pinkola Estes lands the book on a positive note. We are precisely the leaders these dark times call for. Do not lose heart.

 

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