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In "I’m ceded—I’ve stopped being Theirs—" Dickinson makes an explicit rejection of one of the initiation rituals of patriarchal religion, that is, baptism. The power of this institution's control over language and identity is acknowledged in her specific rejection of "The name They dropped upon my face." In a typical Dickinsonian move, however, she builds a syntactical ambiguity into the stanza with the fourth line: "Is finished using, now." Are we to read it as she is finished using the name now? Or that it (the name) is finished using her now? In either case, use of the name is done with now, but the ambiguity of agent/object in the line creates a complexity rich in implications, by the simple omission of a pronoun. For Dickinson, such clear-cut binary distinctions need to be problematized. Tellingly, her rejection of the religious rite and its power to name is juxtaposed in this stanza with her rejection of the female socialization process, indicated by the dolls of childhood and the women's work of threading spools. The three systems of social control are mutually supportive, and Dickinson is well aware of the interconnections among the power of naming, the dogma of traditional Christianity, and the social construction of "femininity."

It is interesting to note the role that "They" play in this as well as in other poems. Although Dickinson is using a seemingly ambiguous pronoun by not providing us with a proper referent, it soon becomes very clear that "They" are her own family members. "They" are the ones who name her and have control over the things of her childhood. The most significant part of her relationship to "Them" in terms of sexual politics, however, is that "They" have tried to own her, and it is this possessive power that is the first ground of her rejection: "I've stopped being Theirs—." This resistance implies, again by the use of a political term (ceded), the definitively political nature of this rejection. Even as we can deduce that in this poem "They" represent the people who would have the most immediate control over her life, her family members, the ambiguity of the pronoun serves a further purpose. In colloquial terms, "They" is often used to represent the power structures of society itself. "They" are the legislators of life, the unseen yet fully felt powers that institute an oppressive ideology. It is a given that Dickinson would have experienced "Their" interdiction even if she had left her close family circle, whether "They" took the form of a husband, lover, minister, politician, or editor. In short, "They," when taken as the agents of sexual and linguistic oppression, are everywhere in the world at large, and the only space where "They" can be denied the right of occupation is within Dickinson's own mind.

Throughout the second and third stanzas here, the issue of choice becomes central to the poem. Denied choice in the original baptism, she is now asserting her own power and right to choose. As in 613, "They shut me up in Prose—," it is "With Will to choose, or to reject," that she will overcome the control "They" have imposed on her being. Now conscious of her ability to choose, Dickinson will choose the "supremest name," that of a poet, enabled to name herself. In this choice she is "Called to my Full—" and although the phrasing here is incomplete (full what? potential? being? name?), it is clear that her choice gives her a sense of plenitude. Yet this plenitude is marked by irony. For it is the crescent moon, the Arc of Existence, the incomplete whole that can be "filled up." The sense of plenitude that Dickinson conveys here is not based on completion and closure, but is born out of incompletion, potentiality, a sense of plenitude as an ongoing process, as amplitude.

Defiantly crowned and crowing from her "Father's breast—," literally, the "heart" of patriarchy and its religious dictates, she will (consciously) choose to be "A half unconscious Queen—." The oxymoron implied here indicates to some degree the complexity of Dickinson's vision. For consciousness—awareness of her power to choose—involves also an awareness of the unconscious, and its power to inform both life choices and the powers of poetic vision. If a poet refuses to acknowledge the power of the unconscious in her life, she will cut herself off from one of the most important sources of poetic knowledge. It is with this both/and vision, of living in the space between and beyond the dichotomous distinction conscious/unconscious without deeming these two states to be mutually exclusive, that she has full power. In an appropriation of sexual imagery of mate power, she names herself as "Adequate—Erect," even as she chooses the "Crown" of a "Queen," a decidedly female image. By blending the genders implied by these words of power, Dickinson is subverting the distinctions between genders, a move that is relevant to her choice to be a woman poet. In choosing such a crown, she is choosing her own laurels, the crown of a poet, once again empowered only by her "Will to choose, or to reject." In choosing to be such a Queen, she will maintain power over herself with a self-given name and role, not one bestowed on her by others.

In a final ironic twist to this poem, Dickinson again selects a strange locution to represent her choice. The last line ends with a dash, implying an indeterminate outcome. But the phrase preceding this "final" dash "just a Crown—" creates an indeterminacy of meaning. Does "just" mean "such," as in "just the crown such as I've been discussing?" Or does she mean "only," as in "I could have chosen a role even more powerful than that of poet/Queen, but in all my modesty, I will limit myself to choosing 'just a Crown?"' True to her strategy of slanting the truth even as she tells it, Dickinson's line can sustain either interpretation.


From Queer Poetics: Five Modernist Women Writers. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Mary C. Galvin