The MS of My Kin

by Janet Holmes
Shearsman Books 2009
Reviewed by Mike McDonough


Many Mornings

holmes cover

It turns out Emily Dickinson is the best correspondent reporting today from Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems she became an expert on asymmetrical warfare when she started sewing those little poetic IEDs and storing them in her trunk. Since she had only her life to give, she found that it was more effective to stockpile homemade bombs made out of paper, ink and thread. Many unsuspecting souls have been wounded by them since.

By focusing on material dated from 1861-1862, Janet Holmes’s skilful erasures place our most accomplished literary terrorist right at the onset of the Civil War (America’s greatest oxymoron) while also holding up a mirror to Cheney & Bush’s “War on Terror.” Holmes’s re-settings are often startlingly timeless. As Susan Schultz notes, Dickinson’s poetry is so compressed and gnomic, that it comes to us “nearly pre-erased.” Hewing to this magic, Janet Holmes’s poems rarely feel tortured. I like the open closure Holmes achieves, preserving a sense of Dickinson’s taut rhythm, while the deliberately composed blank spaces help the reader visualize the force field surrounding each of Dickinson’s words. The book is not a flashy gimmick or Emily “through a glass, darkly.” Taking advantage of powerful self-correcting digital optics, Holmes projects a Dickinsonian matrix in wide-screen plasma HDTV without fracturing the original or overly distorting its shape.

The loudest authorial intrusion (other than the book’s awkward title) is in the notes, a pointed litany of specific references and occasional speakers for the poems that I did not necessarily hear. Though Holmes is keenly aware that hers is a willful project, this final litany is the only conspicuous betrayal of Dickinson’s sly, timeless power. The speaker in these erasures is such a consistent presence that it seems more productive to imagine that Dickinson speaks all of them. Dickinson’s poetry puts the architects of war on trial without needing to name names. She is quite able to speak as a terrorist, or Donald Rumsfeld, or a mother who has lost her son to war, because she knows war’s justifications and its cost to the soul. Her extreme verbal compression burns the lie from every rhetorical sentence, leaving only bones. Tom Raworth’s blurb is absolutely right: “war is war and its words are already written.”

The two poets are eager co-conspirators. Dickinson’s idiosyncratic and strategic capitalization slyly assists Holmes’s contemporary torquing. With the help of Holmes’s selective projections, we can see how Dickinson drafts her readers, recruiting sleeper cells of individual souls, “loaded guns” against the apparently omnipotent status quo. Nothing can replace or improve on Dickinson’s work, but happily that isn’t the point. Holmes’s erasures give us a smart take on the experience of reading Dickinson today— an artful eclipse that lets us see the corona of the sun, and a mirror inevitably reflecting that we are the readers of whom she was so provocatively and passionately aware.