(McSweeney’s, 2012) 
There’s no way to be measured about this book—it’s simply fabulous in a particularly ingenious way. All you can do is rave. Legault had a lovely, odd idea, and he executed it with uncommon intelligence, humor, and flair. The concept behind the book is a poem in itself: to translate each of Emily Dickinson’s 1,789 poems into a tight, pressured phrase or two, thus taking the sharpest, pithiest of all poets and sharpening her while un-pithing or de-pithing her—or whatever that opposite would be. Great concept. Which overflows—an internal pressure is created that often emanates into several lines, and some of the poems go off on their own impacted trajectories, while others explode into tiny, bright ephemera, but throughout them all, the sharpening and the de-pithing remains. Returning to the subject of “intelligence, humor, and flair”— because that is where the real zeal of this work lies—it’s perhaps “flair” that most drives the work—but what does that really mean? It can’t be defined, and because of that, it can continue producing its rippling, vibrating effects—and because words fail it, we see the gesture; it’s flippant and truly in flight at the same time:
          There’s this guy that comes around knocking on people’s doors
          around six thirty each day, wearing this red and gold fur-lined
          cape. I think he’s homeless and sleeps down by the lake sometimes.
          Or else he’s the sunset.
Humor is another of the book’s engines, yet it’s a singularly heartbreaking sort, working both in its own right and in the service of a deep sadness and delicate compassion that it underscores through contrast. It’s in this collision of emotions that the reader senses Legault’s deep love for and deep understanding of Dickin-son’s project. No classically respectful address could have achieved this, for it's only through his irreverent humor that he comes to live with Dickinson, not remaining on the surface of the text as with normal reading practice, but permeating it in an active reading that turns the text on its ear, while yet maintaining its balance. As Legault observes in his introduction, “Emily Dickinson wrote in a language all her own; thus the need for this English version of what she meant.” He goes on to say that while he renders her work into “Standard English,” he keeps its foreign beauty intact. It’s true, and he does it by approaching it through the absurd, which, poised as it is right on the line between the familiar and the foreign, thus being perfectly understandable and yet also undeniably uncanny, gives us access to her inner strangeness figured against a background of relative normalcy that makes that strangeness stand out in detail and color. For all its levity and blatant contemporaneity, it’s a seriously deep reading of the work, one that parallels the originals, keeping close to Dickinson’s central themes. For instance, 

                                                                    Rather arid delight
                                                                    If Contentment accrue

                                                                    Make an abstemious Ecstasy
                                                                    Not so good as joy —

                                                                    But Rapture’s Expense
                                                                    Must not be incurred
                                                                    With a tomorrow knocking
                                                                    And the Rent unpaid —


                                                                    God is a terrible landlord.

And even more than in Dickinson’s work, the themes here build up, becoming characters, interacting, creating conversations that turn into scenes, even dramas, uniting the whole in a single, long sweep, out of which a few additional themes emerge, themes one could argue are latent in Dickinson’s text, ready to spring under the proper provocation. For instance,
                                                                    How dare the robins sing,
                                                                    When men and women hear
                                                                    Who since they went to their account
                                                                    Have settled with the year! —
                                                                    Paid all that life had earned
                                                                    In one consummate bill,
                                                                    And now, what life or death can do
                                                                    Is immaterial.
                                                                    Insulting is the sun
                                                                    To him whose mortal light
                                                                    Beguiled of immortality
                                                                    Bequeaths him to the night.
                                                                    Extinct be every hum 

                                                                    In deference to him
                                                                    Whose garden wrestles with the dew,
                                                                    At daybreak overcome!



                                                                    Zombies don’t like ornithology.

Zombies play a central role in Legault’s Dickinson, bringing her investment in and interrogation of death into a day-glo light, but one no less central for that. And every time the zombies appear, they remind us of how writing keeps a life beating—at least the lives of the best writers: we feel Dickinson’s presence still today, and as a writer, in ways, she’s more active than ever. Just as each new translation of an earlier work results, not in a new text, but in a new perspective on an old one, this one returns us to Dickinson, an enlarged Dickinson, a more complex Dickinson that is very much alive. As Legault says at the end of the introduction: Emily 










                                                                                                —Cole Swensen 

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