Silence Fell: Poems by Josephine Dickinson
Reviewing Josephine Dickinson's work calls for a certain delicacy, thanks to her remarkable life. At age six, Dickinson became completely deaf, the result of a disease. Despite this, she has forged a career as a musician, composer, music teacher, and poet. Beyond this, she moved in her late thirties to a small Cumbrian town, Alston, where she fell in love with, and married, Douglas Dickinson, a sheep farmer more than twice her age. Her American debut collection, Silence Fell, draws from two books published in Great Britain, Scarberry Hill and The Voice, and, is organized into a shepherd's calendar that records the couple's life together on the farm.
I don't mean to suggest that Dickinson should be reviewed gently, or less rigorously, because of her deafness. And I think it's possible to be a little disquieted by the extent of Houghton Mifflin's emphasis on this fact in their promotional materials for the book. But, at the same time, her poems occasionally have images that will strike many readers as odd. For example, one poem begins, "There was a darkness in the air, / I looked and saw it speak." Aaron Belz dismisses this couplet scathingly: "A generous reading might construe this as complexity; a less generous reading interprets it as a horrific combination of synesthesia (sensory mix-up) and the pathetic fallacy (personification of natural phenomena)." But the charge of synesthesia makes the problem plain: To a deaf person, "saw it speak" is not necessarily a synesthetic image. This isn't a question of political correctness or sensitivity: The question is whether Dickinson can be allowed to follow her own distinctive modes of perception, recording them as precisely as she can, or whether she must translate those perceptions into a different language. Dickinson is a deceptively plainspoken poet. On the one hand, no poet who rhymes "shitty" with "skitty" can be accused of pretentious diction. Yet it's also the case that her deafness combines with her assimilation of her husband's Cumbrian speech patterns to make her lines more suggestive or enigmatic than it perhaps appears at first sight.
Silence Fell is, in a very concrete and practical way, a book about learning life on the farm. This is a land with "peaty gleys / and podzols," with "gaps where the new lawn needs / chocking with ballast," and, especially, a land with lambs and ewes. Not since Far from the Madding Crowd have I read such detailed accounts of shearing and butchering of sheep, and genuine shepherds probably haven't gotten so much attention from a poet in centuries. Sometimes, Dickinson treats such scenes almost as a journalist would: "First one foreleg / he slit and broke off at the joint, then the other, / then slit to the middle, down with a zipping sound, / and the lower legs the same." At such moments, Dickinson reminds that she herself was once new to the farm, and registers the alien, nearly anachronistic unfamiliarity of these tasks.
Other times, though, the metaphorical dimension of the farm chores on Scarberry Hill is clear, as in a poem like "Heart," which hangs on a comparison between the reflex beating of a lamb's heart after it's been butchered and the poet's own organ. As Dickinson presents it, the life of the farm and the life of the heart is a seamless cloth: When Douglas and Josephine Dickinson walk out in an evening, "checking rows of this and that, / which seeds have failed to show up," we're reminded of the beneficent gardening she believes he worked on her: "when you spilled your seed / on my heart from above and below, my heart remembered."
The strange magic of their relationship is the primary theme of Silence Fell. When they married, Douglas was in his eighties, and Josephine in her forties. In his foreword to the book, Galway Kinnell quotes the poet as saying that her husband "took me into his life of sheep and the harshness of rocks and weather and the beauty of trees and rivers and healed much that was wrong with me at the time." He goes on to observe that "Josephine tried to be a traditional northern wife, [and] cared for Douglas as he faded away." On the one hand, many mourning wives idealize their husbands; on the other hand, the poems offer a steady view of the constraints such a relationship implied. If Douglas could wonder whether Josephine is "satisfied" (in "The Red and the Blue"), she could also find herself watching him "frown / with the effort of concentration against / a tide of feeling." In "Annunciation," she addresses her husband, noting that "You are cruel. / But your words are true... You're something else-- / beyond goodbye / or true or false." Meanwhile, in the same poem, he is so much the patriarch that he "stand[s] at table writing THREE / GELD CHEVIOT EWES FOR SALE / D. D. I ponder writing J. and D., / but thereby hangs another tale." To no small degree, Silence Fell is an attempt to answer the self-posed question, "How Can I Explain to You That He Was Real?"
Ultimately, the poems' extreme idealization of Douglas is somewhat limiting, or, rather, it can be hard to see what pangs are worth such costs. He tells her, "You'll keep yourself in / and you'll keep your cats out. / And if you do? / I will love you. / If you eat of this bread / that I give to you." Even under such limits, though, the densely realized world that Dickinson imagines is consistently interesting and evocative.
Silence Fell: Poems by Josephine Dickinson