Book Review: The ms of my kin

The ms of my kin

This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman.

When calling to mind an image of Emily Dickinson, many a student of English will conjure the oft-indoctrinated notion of Dickinson, the reclusive genius, disconnected from a society that misunderstood her; more eccentricity than author – at least to her neighbors in Amherst, Massachusetts. However, when her writings (to call them prolific would be an understatement) emerged, history and lore about the poet had to be recontextualized, rediscovered, and reinvented. During her lifetime, the poems that did surface were published anonymously, often under editors whose changes to the text concealed any hint of the original voice of the poet even further. With the first edition of Dickinson’s poems published in 1890, a few years after her death, the literary community had to come to terms with some forty notebooks full of poetry that very few had seen. To add to the mysticism surrounding Dickinson, she had asked that her correspondence be destroyed – a request that steeps the Dickinson persona in a cult of poetic personality that is rivaled by few in Western literature. Her poems have a strong voice but seem voiceless. They have a strong sense of their time, but are timeless. Though Dickinson’s work has been erased, her presence pervades the erasures of The ms of my kin, though not intruding. At a certain point, though the reader is aware of her, she fades into the white space on the page.

The ms of my kin

The ms of my kin
Janet Holmes
Shearsman Books, 2009
170 pp.

Janet Holmes, in composing The ms of my kin raises a new image of the poet, one known to scholars, but relatively unacknowledged in the traditional teaching of Dickinson – that of her as wartime poet; an opponent of injustice, a participant in the movement for abolition and keenly aware and sensitive to what was occurring in the world outside of her in Amherst. And, to invoke the notion of history in light of Holmes’ approach to erasing poems from 1861-2 is to expose history for its own eccentricities, its odd justification of it’s own events and the denial of its cyclical tendencies. Often, as the adage goes, those that write the historical texts traditionally part of the “canon” of the narrative of history are written by the victors, the vanquisher, in their own voices and in their own conditions. The fulcrum of Holmes’ erasure robs history of these rights of expropriation and subject them to appropriation. For Dickinson’s time, the conflict at-hand was the Civil War – a conflict that, while between our own kin, was also a conflict that drew the world in. Nations vied to support the party they saw to be the victor and were economically dependent on the outcome. In our time (and Holmes’ text), it was been the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that have caused internal divisions (though not leading to internal armed combat) and have, in a similar context, embroiled and incorporated the world around us.

What Holmes has done reverses the process: history is called to account for the fact that it repeats some of its worst behaviors.

The voices that speak her erasures of the Dickinson texts include all sides and ask questions about the nature of victory, what constitutes the identity of an “enemy” and even what we define as an “ally,” similar to the way that families were turned on each other in Dickinson’s time. These people, their literal kin, had to ask these same questions. In contemporary context, the “kin” that Holmes addresses is that of the global society that has allowed us to shrink the globe into a closer world community. For Holmes, the speakers of these poems are prisoners from Abu Ghraib prison, the Republican Party, Donald Rumsfeld, Osama Bin Laden, journalist Daniel Pearl, among many others that are, as voiced by a character in the Tectonic Theatre Company’s second Laramie Project play – Laramie Project: 10 Years Later – more like us than unlike us.

Holmes places the note that summarizes these voices after the text, allowing the reader to make their way through the erasures without any concept of the voice or few (if any) explicit call-outs to who might be behind these words. It is an homogenizing effect, and one that has been intrinsic to Dickinson scholarship – the directness and continuity of the voice, often interpreted to be Dickinson’s own. For Holmes, she has merely substituted one concrete identity for another, preserving the power of the voice of the manuscripts, but drastically changing the context. In the face of the suffering of the uniform humanity of the text, Holmes writes, in the closing lines of the last erasure, “The/Danger/Is//—opon the soul//To go without/challenging Despair,” the call to the lesson of history that applies to us all; the reason for many conflicts and their brutality. Above all, the ignorance of despair is what breeds the disaffected, restarting the cycle all over again as the character of “Despair,” in all its forms, will reappear and will, as the poet exhorts the reader, must be challenged.

The mere breadth of the themes addressed is astonishing for a set of erasures that are a definition of minimalism from a poet’s manuscripts that are characterized by their original minimalism. From the never-ending blood lust of vicious leaders,

“They//who overcame//’Defeat’ //stood—whispering//the Flesh//wants//more”

and the relative indifference of disaffected, hegemonic cultures,

“Society—//Unmoved— notes//an ample nation//in//pain—//And turned” to political corruption “Mine— the Election! // … Mine— A steal!”

Holmes’ text turns Dickinson’s work over and over on itself extracting vast differences from texts that are so close in both time and original motif.

Similar to Tom Phillips’ A Humument, the book follows a well-wrought narrative structure. Whereas Phillips has the protagonist Bill Toge, Holmes has assembled a cast of characters such as the aforementioned “Despair” and others such as “Blood/the puppet” alonside generic constructions of “The Man” and “The Woman”. Being cast as specific names and roles in the ending note of the text proves these out as archetypes that are essentially hollow bodies whose roles can be adapted to any age in which the text is cast. In a hundred years’ time, these roles could easily be made into a list of other individuals and forces contemporary to the age in which the book is being read. What Holmes’ refers to as the “The Cruel—similing— world”, is a cyclical construction that will repeat its own atrocities and injustices, merely in the form of a different cast of characters. As they recur, the grand rondo that is the path of the text plays.

The creation of this non-linear narrative betrays a deliberate hand that is unlike any other in found texts, evoking a meta-thematic play on the manipulation of Dickinson’s work as well as a solid narrative consistency that calls up notions of Reddy’s Voyager in both tone and method. Though partly owed to Dickinson’s own consistency and tight, coherent pursuit of themes, the critical eye that Holmes has for how these topics repeat and how she tracks them through this narrow sample of work demonstrates a laudable method that makes reading The ms of my kin that much more natural. As words weave across the page and make large leaps through the field of the page, this normalizing and iterative approach to erasing Dickinson’s text continually calls on the reader to take up the challenge not to turn in indifference to the world, to take up the challenge and ensure that we don’t enter a world that is “one//not//meant//For//us//again.”