I told my soul to sing: finding God with EMILY DICKINSON by Kristin LeMay
In the struggle with faith, doubt and discovery Emily Dickinson finds a unique place in the writing of poetry. In this new book, I told my soul to sing by Kristin LeMay, the author seeks to capture Dickinson’s widening struggle with the things of God, and in turn, tells her own story. LeMay divides the chapters in the book by larger themes; belief, immortality, mortality, doubt and prayer, and many other themes. Rather than make a weighty conjecture about Emily’s belief for or against Christianity, LeMay seeks to draw out her struggle with God while listening to her poetry revealing this same struggle.
In the first chapter on Belief, LeMay brings to the surface a most illuminating point about conversion in Dickinson’s life. She writes, “Let me say that again: Emily used her poetry as a means for her own conversion…To borrow the traditional language of the church, poetry was Emily’s means for working out her own salvation…Emily wrote poetry, “ ‘I work to drive away the awe,” Emily explained, “yet awe impels the work” (27). Earlier in the text, LeMay describes that Emily never formally gave a profession of faith for her fear of “being deceived into a false profession due to the excitement in the air” (22). The artistic
Emily wrote poems of turmoil amidst poetry which elicits praise or trust. In the chapter on doubt, LeMay provides a grip of the Apostle’s Creed in which she guesses at how Emily might have answered with two sections, one concerning belief and one about doubt (44). We get a hint that LeMay might be close to Emily in these categories of belief and doubt. I don’t disregard doubt and its place in the life of every Christian but I think to say it negates belief misses the mark. LeMay has on the doubt side of the chart the virgin birth, the resurrection, ascension, judgment, the church, forgiveness of sins and resurrection of the body. I’d like to look at this in Dickinson’s writings to see if there is an explicit place to go in her writings for a chart like this. Nevertheless, to not believe the linchpin of Christianity, the resurrection is a little like not believing in the Quran for a Muslim. It’s confusing to say that the least that one can profess belief in Jesus Christ without the resurrection.
One of my favorite sections in the book was on God, where Emily writes about how we speak of God as everywhere but act like he is a sudden guest in our gatherings. “She notes our collective silliness: God can neither come nor go…..But it’s not God who’s missing and must be found. Emily is right: “that stupendous” never goes away” (125). This is a most peculiar thought, the notion of the omnipresence of God and the seemingly ludicrous way we treat him like a surprised guest at our homes. Even the world God created bears witness to his presence but we treat him as an amused spectator. In the poem Lemay mentions, it seems that Emily is pointing out that people expect a sudden rush of revelation that God is here but treat him mostly like a guest that’s rarely around. I think LeMay captures something of the genius of Emily’s poetry, not pushing and pulling it apart but allowing the words to wear on our present thoughts.
Overall, I enjoyed this book as it pushed to re-read Emily Dickinson and her creative mind. Rather than solve the riddle of claiming Dickinson a heretic or saint, she seeks to reveal the struggle Emily had with traditional forms of belief. LeMay identifies with Dickinson in her use of language for the divine, in her reticence for acknowledging the full weight of creeds, and the struggle for belief, which provides a unique kind of book. I hope this book allows others to see the way poetry can be an expression of wrestling with God and his world.
Much thanks to Paraclete Press for the review copy of this book in exchange for review.