Claudia Yukman

Claudia Yukman: On 754 ("My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--")

The object status of a subject within a narrative is dramatically played out in Dickinson's frequently discussed poem, "My Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun -- ." In this poem the subject fears the permanence of the text as much as death, or rather, fears the overdetermination of her subjectivity by the text more than "the power to die."

[. . . .]

The term "identified" elsewhere in Dickinson's poetry and in her culture at large refers to the conversion experience that authorizes the Christian to view his or her life as typified by the narrative of Christ's life. To be able to tell this story, like learning language, permits the individual to be a Christian to another Christian and to herself. Dickinson's poem is told by the object it is about and thus gives expression to the object positions we all occupy within social-symbolic codes. The Christian narrative form in this poem is enacted as the object/instrument life of the gun. The master gives dramatic form to the prior narrative, or master story, which confers identity on the gun. The "Sovereign Woods" designate the limits within which both the master and gun are free, an analogue for the freedom invented by, but limited to, the Christian narrative. But during the process of the poem the object (the gun) increasingly takes on subject status. Already in the second verse the gun speaks "for" the master, which is to say she perceives her function as an extension of his power: his will and figuratively, his voice. But in the mountain's reply to this speech the gun experiences her own singular effect on the world. In the third verse she no longer acts for the master but describes an exchange between herself and the mountain. There is a greater equality between the gun and the mountain than between the master and the gun because they respond to each other's alterity or otherness. Interestingly, this situation of alterity and reciprocity is represented as the elision of narrative (in the loss of a syntactical antecedent to the pronoun "it") in the line "It is as a Vesuvian face / Had let its pleasure through." In recognizing the alterity symbolized by the "reply" of the mountain, which entails that it recognize its own otherness, the gun experiences an identity distinct from her purpose in the master's life (or the master story). In the fourth verse, though she still serves her master by "guarding his head," the gun expresses preference for the pleasure her autonomy and alterity allow her."'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's / Deep pillow -- to have shared -- " to guard the master's head.

But perhaps more significantly, in the next to the last stanza she speaks of herself as bodily. In effect, the master disappears, his story, the prior narrative, eclipsed by the difference rendered as the gun's increasing embodiment.

To foe of His -- I'm deadly foe --

None stir the second time --

On whom I lay a Yellow Eye --

Or an emphatic Thumb --

Again, as was the case in "I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died," the narrative frame is broken by the bodily frame of experience. The object of the story becomes a subject at the same time it comes to perceive itself as bodily. Given this reading of the poem, the ambiguity of the ending, "Though I than He -- may longer live / He longer must -- than I -- / For I have but the power to kill, / Without -- the power to die -- " (like "to see to see") represents the difficulty and relative success Dickinson has in creating a text that will preserve a relationship of equality between herself and her reader, imaged in the exchange between the gun and the mountain within the poem. Dickinson is using a text to free herself from the restrictive and destructive freedom of the Christian narrative frame. We, her readers, come upon her poem as a prior text, which we may read as our master story because it is prior. The danger of inventing a new relationship between writer and reader is suggested in the figures of the gun and the mountain. They are both images of potential violence, and their unchecked pleasure or power, if we take the allusion to the volcano Vesuvias literally, would ultimately be desructive of life. In other words, there is a danger in escaping one form of identity only to become mastered by another. In our desire for identity we bring the words we read, whether those of the Bible or Dickinson's poem, to life. The words that liberate us in turn become the limits of identity. Dickinson's works demonstrate that the only way to prevent oneself from being "framed" by language is to keep writing one's way out.

From "Breaking the Eschatological Frame:  Dickinson's Narrative Acts." Emily Dickinson Journal Vol. 1, No. 1 1992. 

Claudia Yukman: On 465 ("I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--")

Not only does the frame of the conversion narrative enable us to categorize a great number of Dickinson's poems, it also provides insight into some of her most formally singular narrative poems, namely, those in which a subject addresses us from beyond the grave. Our unbounded subjectivity can only be perceptible at moments of extreme crises that exceed systems of explanation and semiotic codes. Birth would be one such extreme, but since an infant does not have the dual persepective language gives, perhaps the most primal scene at which the duality between our socially constructed selves and our embodiment can actually be witnessed or narrated is death. In "I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died," Dickinson employs the Christian narrative model, with its particular eschatological frame of experience, to tell of a deathwatch such as I have cited above, but her narrative fails to produce the reality that the Christian narrative represents.

I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died --

The Stillness in the Room

Was like the Stillness in the Air --

Between the Heaves of Storm --


The Eyes around -- had wrung them dry --

And Breaths were gathering firm

For that last Onset -- when the King

Be witnessed -- in the Room --


I willed my Keepsakes--Signed away

What portion of me be

Assignable -- and then it was

There interposed a Fly --


With Blue -- uncertain stumbling Buzz --

Between the light -- and me --

And then the Windows failed -- and then

I could not see to see --

The narrative that creates this drama is about "that last Onset -- when the King / Be witnessed -- in the Room -- ." For the witnesses in the room, the dying speaker's countenance and her last words will necessarily represent either Christ's presence or absence. The subject's life might be described as a narrative life; in other words, the subject has become the object of a narrative, her subjectivity reduced to the portion of a life that can be narrated as the story of Christ's coming. The authoritative "sense of an ending" created by the prior narrative (the second coming) is reflected in the secular ritual of redistributing one's property before death as well as by the religious ritual of the deathwatch. Both institutions recognize a dualistic self. The speaker of this poem knows herself through the narrative version of identity as "portions assignable" (material, bodily) and unassignable (unknown, soul). In effect, by writing a will she divides herself from earthly life. As the text of a dualistic self the will reflects back to its author the difference between bodily and spiritual life. Once the will is written, the author is past writing and this earthly life. The remainder of life is lived in an inferential space between a body and soul at least provisionally identified with sensory perception. The account of this scene, which I have just given, might have been told by anyone in the room, even before entering the room, because the Christian narrative precedes and formulates the experience of this community of witnesses. But with the intervention of the fly, the point of view can only be that of the subject of the enounced. In her experience the narrative frame breaks down. The random presence of the fly usurps the place of the king; the unexpected, meaningless event, seen within the narrative frame, becomes the significant event. The random significance of the fly thus points to the random significance of the narrative frame itself. The fly prevents the speaker from seeing the light; it distracts her from the appropriate (Christian) sense of an ending. But the fly is only an externalized form of the fact that the body of the speaker itself interrupted the narrative, as the speaker experienced from within her body what there was in the room beyond the narrative. The body, it turns out, like the soul, is a portion of the self that cannot be signed away. In fact, while the thoughts of the people in the room have been organized by the Christian narrative, unreferenced bodily presence has also pervaded the room: the anonymous, plural "Eyes" and "Breaths." Given the two competing frames of experience, the Christian narrative and the body, there arises an ambiguity in the last line of this poem, which can be formulated as two questions: was there more to see -- a world beyond experience -- and, how is it that the speaker keeps speaking after she claims she "could not see," presumably meaning she died, since she goes on to say "to see" again? This second "to see" repeats the gesture of the entire poem; it exceeds the limits of narratability itself -- to represent a speaker who speaks after death. The body as self or as object in relation to God cannot serve as a sign of God's presence because the individual's experience of being embodied has become its own reality -- a sign of itself. The experience of being embodied has lost its referent; subjectivity is only articulated as bodily presence. Dickinson is writing about the unreferencing of the body from forms of subjectivity other than itself. This daring gesture figuratively places experience before meaning and language as sign before language as signifier, but in doing so it also attempts to realize through representation a more radical shift: it embodies the self before constructing that embodiment. While I would hasten to add that the body is functioning as a sign rather than some essential body, it is not functioning as a sign within the system of signs that is the Christian narrative. The Christian narrative recognizes a self that has a body and a soul. Dickinson's text recognizes a subjectivity that cannot be split into this dichotomy. Like the body, the text must register presence and the gesture of writing, but it need not delimit either. The question for interpretation is what is it to be alive (as symbolized by the fly) rather than what is the meaning of being alive (as symbolized by the King). "I heard a fly buzz when I died" is told after death, where there can be no writing according to the Christian narrative's frame of experience. If it does not tell us what happened after death, constricted as it is by its relationship to the prior narrative, the poem nonetheless, as a text, exists beyond the death in exactly the eschatological space the Christian narrative invents. In many of her narrative poems situated around a death, Dickinson distinguishes the Christian representation of death from the sensations she experiences as a witness of death (and we experience as readers). These distinctive poems are situated at the scene of death neither because Dickinson has any peculiar fascination for death, nor simply because she is using stock conventions also to be found in the poetry of her contemporaries. Dickinson uses the convention of the deathwatch as a way to consider the self at a moment when its culturally-assigned significance is weakest, and she does so in order to escape the Christian narrative frame. [. . . .] The object status of a subject within a narrative is dramatically played out in Dickinson's frequently discussed poem, "My Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun -- ." In this poem the subject fears the permanence of the text as much as death, or rather, fears the overdetermination of her subjectivity by the text more than "the power to die."

From "Breaking the Eschatological Frame:  Dickinson's Narrative Acts" Emily Dickinson Journal Vol. 1, No.1, 1992.