America was white hot. It seemed that we, the people, couldn’t hold our country. Or, perhaps, the country just couldn’t hold all of us. Misunderstanding, disaffection, recrimination, accusation, bloviating, and lies: a swirling smog of rhetoric cloaked us all. What words could possibly cut through?
In the depths of the American Civil War, years of death in and years of death yet to get out, Emily Dickinson wrote: “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun— / In Corners—.” Her words resound akin to a shock. The spare lightness of each phrase—just two or three words—hangs potently in the air. Dickinson described a life spent in the corners of rooms. Corners are the place for wallflowers and bad children. Corners control and banish; they confine and shame. The image of a life stood in corners is recognizable in today’s America: to those of us whose selfhood is unvalued and to those of us whose critical and intellectual work comes from the outside.
While historically, art critics have acted as favored gatekeepers to explain or direct avant-garde art, the need for that form of art criticism has waned. What would it look like to write as a critic of the corners? Who is that audience? What is their language?
John Berger and David Levi Strauss have been such critics. Berger’s concern in his criticism is for those on the fringe or lost or thrown by the wayside, like immigrants, itinerant workers, revolutionaries, and rural populations. Berger “rejects the designation ‘critic’” for Strauss, instead calling him “a poet and storyteller as well as being a renowned commentator.” I call him teacher. The teachings of Strauss, and others at SVA, such as Michael Brenson, Nancy Princenthal, and Ann Lauterbach, continue to reverberate and resonate. The fundamental skills of close looking and precise, specific writing show a way forward for criticism.
And so, to the loaded gun.
Each of us in our life has creative potential. Danger and risk exist both in its expression and inexpression. As the poem progresses, Dickinson writes as the gun, her life no longer just loaded, but a life where the gun is fired. A gun that is no longer in the corner: “I guard My Master’s Head” with “the power to kill, / Without—the power to die—.” There is a troubling ease in her adoption of power. Resistance and defiance are difficult to maintain. So, resistance and defiance must be the urgent impetus of critical writing.