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. . . in "There's a certain Slant of light" the human world is everywhere apparent, as finitude is everywhere apparent. The consequence is oppression. The human world manifests itself in the experience of division, the division of the heavenly from the earthly as well as of the internal from the external. It further manifests itself in the production of "Meanings," and in the concern with how meanings are produced. And as division itself might be regarded as a master trope of the human world, division is no less apparent in the indirectly voiced desire to make meaning visible—to externalize meaning where it is imagined meaning could have form that might be recognized, apprehended, even possessed, as objects are apprehended and possessed. Finally, the human world is apparent in the serial manifestations of indirection, of affliction, of personification, of death. In these various ways, the poem is saturated with finitude, as the preceding poem was purified of it.

The personification of the landscape is an alternative, as it were, to the naturalization of the self. And such an inversion of the previous poem, this rejection of its terms, is apparent in the fact that light waves become sound waves, which become waves of heaviness and pain. Thus everything is personalized, translated to the person, and then confined or trapped there, as in the previous poem liberation from personhood was precisely what was celebrated. Yet whatever invades the speaker is also perceived as alien to her even as it is seen to penetrate her. So the indifference—the "sovreign" "Unconcern" of the previous poem-becomes the "internal difference" of this one. In fact, light is cast down and codified as the "Seal Despair," which itself hardens further into "the look of Death." One way to understand such causality is to say that the light, internalized, registers as despair and is understood as death. Another way to understand it is to see that this figure in the poem—this making of death into a figure that cannot be dispelled—is what death looks like when it is personified, when it is made to have a meaning as small as a person's meaning. In line with the trivialization, "the look of Death" does not quite displace the anthropomorphic "face" of death (as in the previous poem "Competeless" does not quite displace "completeless"). For death in "There's a certain Slant of light," reduced to human size, is almost given a countenance. Thus "the Distance" from death or from the "look of Death" (from how death appears when it has a "look," almost a demeanor or expression) is no distance at all.

I have noted that something is being worked out in the two poems about an ability to adopt nature's indifference to the self (with the consequence of immortalizing the self) and an inability to adopt that indifference which results in death's personification. But what shall we further say about the proximity of these poems? Is one a repudiation of the other? Does the second more neutrally correspond to the other as an opposite point of view? And how can these poems so closely identified be read as anything but retorts to each other? Or would it be more accurate to say that they are in effect two parts of the same poem? For as distance is experienced in the first of the poems, distance and hence immortality, distance is denied in the second of the poems. Hence death is regarded. In the context of the whole fascicle, the poems reiterate in various ways the questions: Can loss be naturalized or always only personalized? How is the recompense for loss to be conceived? From the vantage of "Of Bronze—and Blaze—," there is no recompense and no necessity for recompense, nothing—or nothing worthwhile—being understood to be lost. From the vantage of "There's a certain Slant of light," everything is determined to be lost, as anticipation or anxiety determines it, even as what exactly is feared lost is unspecified, and impossible to specify. It is impossible to specify since there is no distance on the experience as well as no specified distance on the look of death. Thus in some crucial way, clarified only by the fascicle context, the poems in proximity illuminate distance, making distance the subject—as it is achieved by the speaker in one poem, as it fails to be achieved by the speaker in another—a subject that can only be seen to unfold across the space of two poems no longer understood as discrete. For the poems represent different understandings of what distance is—when it is achieved and when it fails to be achieved—making everything that follows (the experience of loss, the anticipation of death, internality itself) functionally, and therefore radically, subordinate to this subject which it is the task of the poems in conjunction to redefine. Such a redefinition is no small accomplishment, for it transforms the poems taken singly—as Romantic "insight" poems—into representations that probe the conditions and consequences of perception, giving conditions and consequences governance over all. Then perception itself and the celebrated "internality" of "There's a certain Slant of light" are only a consequence of a certain way of seeing, of a certain vantage, that can in fact be regulated and that, when regulated, (savingly) dehumanizes. With reference to such regulation, the mechanistic rhetoric of the fascicle's last poem (P 292), "If your Nerve, deny you— / Go above your Nerve . . . Lift the Flesh door—," can no longer be seen as enigmatically self-annihilating. For, like "Of Bronze—and Blaze—," it proposes an escape from the mortal position seen in both cases to be a diminutive position to which there is a real alternative. So a rereading of two poems in proximity within the fascicle, poems no longer quite discrete, requires a rereading of all the poems in the fascicle and of the fascicle as a whole.


From Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson's Fascicles. Copyright © 1992 by The University of Chicago.