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2018 MLA Sessions

“Of Strangers is the Earth the Inn”: Still life, Scale, and Deep Time in Emily Dickinson

This year’s EDIS session at MLA, “Of Strangers is the Earth the Inn,” will feature a cluster of papers sounding the intertwining motifs of still life, deep time, and scale for reading Dickinson in the shadow of the anthropocene.

Chair: Marta L. Werner, Professor of English, D’Youville College
Isabel Sobral Campos, Assistant Professor of Literature, Dept. of Liberal Studies, Montana Tech
Zachary Tavlin, PhD candidate, Dept. of English, University of Washington
Amy R. Nestor, Assistant Professor of Literature, Dept. of English, Georgetown University—Qatar
Keith M. Mikos, Lecturer, Dept. of English, DePaul University

For questions about this panel, please contact Marta Werner @


“just a Life I left”: Still Life Painting, Emily Dickinson, and the Anthropocene
Isabel Sobral Campos, Assistant Professor of Literature, Dept. of Liberal Studies, Montana Tech

Looking at objects has been the purview of still-life painting, an interest which has relegated the genre to a relatively marginal status within the field of art history. This marginality is connected to the humility of the subject matter and to the decidedly gendered nature of many scenes represented in such painting (the domestic being overwhelmingly the territory of the genre). I will examine Emily Dickinson’s poetry through the lens of still-life. By this comparison, I seek to show the relevance of both the genre and Dickinson’s poetry to environmental thinking in the era of the Anthropocene. My intention is not to graft onto Dickinson’s poems twentieth-first century environmental discourse but rather to show her poetry’s potential for a new ecological awareness so urgently needed. On the other hand, by assuming that still life painting is a genre that reveals the environmental and ontological conundrums that characterize modernity and that still plague our epoch, I am suggesting that a comparison of Dickinson’s poems with this genre will distill these preoccupations further.

There are two ways in which still life may inform us about Dickinson’s poems. Firstly, her poetry shares with still life paintings commonly found topoi. In this sense, the content of the poems—their conceptual focus—corresponds to concerns found in the paintings, particular in those belonging to the vanitas subgenre. Secondly, approached as compositions of images, Dickinson’s poems relate to the tableaux of still life for they reflect similar intimate domestic scenes: the interior, decontextualized spaces filled with things and without people. Although Dickinson’s multiple poems about flowers rarely, if ever, depict them cut off from their natural environment to be placed on a vase, many flower poems replicate the “close up” detailed-oriented form of the still life. Without a doubt, many other poems concerned with flowers and broadly with nature approach the wide breath of landscape painting, rather than the humbleness of the detail. St. Armand, Farr, and others have examined this connection. The noteworthy link between the intimacy of still life and many of her poems remains unexamined, however. As I hope to show, its significance should not be overlooked. Ultimately, the connection between still life and Dickinson’s poems serves to uncover the ecological thread existing in her poetry as much as reveal the ecological dimension of still life painting.

Still-life presents the compositional field freed from the aegis of the human subject’s all-controlling gaze. It shows things (dead matter, debris, waste) left to themselves and no longer under the sway of function or purpose. Yet still-life painting also presents decomposing processes, for example, of flowers or food as animated. Certain Dickinson poems, in their imagery and topoi, accomplish these same things. Ecology seeks to bring into the open these often snubbed relationships to the small. What we see better, we do not destroy as readily. Or at least philosophers from Adam Smith to Emmanuel Levinas have us believe that when face-to-face with the pain of others, empathy triumphs over self-interest.


Plashless as She Sees: Dickinson’s Glancing Stitch
Zachary Tavlin, PhD candidate, Dept. of English, University of Washington

Taking its cue from much contemporary psychoanalytic, feminist, and art historical theory, Dickinson criticism concerned with vision is often beholden to some notion of “the gaze.” Most commonly, readers of Dickinson locate the gaze in gendered form. On the one hand, Dickinson’s many “veils”—whether articles of clothing, windows, natural barriers, the enclosure of her house and room, or more generally her singular and private writing practices—serve to mask the body of the female while generating a secret space wherein she can explore, through poetry, her body and her mind on her own terms. Much can and has been said for such devices and their strategic role in producing lyrics relatively immune to the critical male gaze (often associated in the poet’s life with Thomas Wentworth Higginson), and Dickinson’s unique ability to carve out a hidden (ad)vantage on the matter of her period’s stifling gender norms. But this essay aims to recover a neglected and unexplored dimension of Dickinson’s poetic vision, her “glance,” that depends upon advancing the cause of the body at work and play, rather than the anxious necessity of dis-embodiment by veil or frame.

Considering some of Dickinson’s animal poems alongside the motion studies and hunting and boating pictures of her contemporary Thomas Eakins, I will attempt to make the case that both artists cast their aesthetic activity on the side of the animal whose “lines” of flight (like the line on the page or on the canvas) leave not marks on the natural world nor anthropomorphic forms given over to ocular mastery but traces to be followed out by the glance. Ultimately, both Dickinson and Eakins provide us with mere optical fragments out of the dense fabric of deep time, which is meant to be enough, and indeed must be if we are to re-define our place in the world as lighter, nimbler, and more indigenously receptive. More generally, recovering Dickinson’s glance allows our readings to move out from and back into the text, operating according the rhythms of the glance itself: out into the world and environment surrounding Dickinson’s Amherst and in to the workbench, ultimately relating the activity of animal seeing to the concrete material practice of the poet herself.


“Disclosed by Danger”: Dickinson, Darwin, Time
Amy R. Nestor, Assistant Professor of Literature, Dept. of English, Georgetown University—Qatar

The Soul’s distinct connection
With immortality
Is best disclosed by Danger
Or quick Calamity –
(Fr. 901)

Immortality, in Emily Dickinson’s time, was best understood as part of a Newtonian universe: a determinate system governed by a small collection of laws—perhaps not fully known but trustingly regular, invariable, a place in which life, in its passing away, would find itself, at last, at home. In most of Dickinson’s poems, however, immortality offers no such promise: it is threaded with a Darwinian concept of the event as a rupture in time—thus even as she holds to Eternity in the abyssal arc of her doubting, she finds there no home, only movement and certain indeterminacy.

Existing scholarship has tracked the empirical details of Dickinson’s knowledge of the sciences of her day, tracing it from the textbook of her youth to her later readings in The Atlantic Monthly and other periodicals in which contemporary debates played out their most minute details. No existing scholarship, however, has undertaken an investigation of the point at which the new knowledge of unknowable Deep Time, the ever-shifting shape of uncertain Eternity, and the sense and shape of Dickinson’s poetics intersected. My paper will open out of that intersection, taking up both the significance of contemporary scientific speculation to Dickinson’s poetics and that of the poetic dimension within the work of Charles Darwin.

Beginning with immortality, eternity, this paper will ricochet back, in its final pages, to their beginnings in life—for while much has be written, beautifully and insightfully, about Dickinson’s understanding of death, little has yet been said about her understanding of life, what it is to be in the world in its complications and variegations, her ontology. To plumb Dickinson’s concept of life, of being—as figured, primarily, in its most lively forms, those of nature—is to plumb her conception of the time within which it exists, again with Darwin, as no longer a Newtonian production of sameness, as rather a pulsion forward into differencing, endlessly open to the accidental, mortal though it be.


Keith M. Mikos, Lecturer, Dept. of English, DePaul University, will serve as formal respondent to the panel. Contact:

Technology needs for this session: A projector to show images (pptx).