Millennial Emily: Reimagining a poetry icon

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The cover of "Emily."

News flash: Emily Dickinson is alive and well and as brilliant as ever — at least in a new novel by local author Holly Nadler. In “Emily in the Here and Now,” the 19th century poet is reanimated through some mysterious process (referred to on the book’s back cover as “weird science”), and finds herself not only faced with the disorienting experience of resurrection in another century, but also menaced by a team of government agents and scientists determined to control their “experiment” by any means possible.

Part fantasy, part light comedy, and in large part action/adventure, Ms. Nadler’s book is a highly entertaining tribute to a woman whom she clearly idolizes. The book’s protagonist (and Emily’s guide to the 21st century), Lucinda Sheldon, is author of a book on Dickinson’s relevance in the modern age, and a confirmed “Emily head,” a term she coins for rabid followers of the poet. It’s clear in reading Ms. Nadler’s latest that she is as much of an Emily head as her heroine.

Throughout the book, the author throws in lines of her idol’s poetry where appropriate, as well as bits and pieces of autobiographical information, making the book an excellent introduction to the work and the life of the famous American poet. A few other writers, including the obscure poet and mystic Thomas Traherne, are also mentioned during the course of the adventure, providing the reader with a further education in English lit.

However, the book never bogs down with literary discourse. Instead, the story is mainly a playful romp with college professor Lucinda escorting a surprisingly game Dickinson on a mad chase throughout New England, trying to evade the bad guys. The two heroines are assisted along the way by Lucinda’s three eccentric ex-husbands — a wisecracking comedian, a reclusive screenwriter, and an English professor with a mobster past. Luckily for Lucinda, she has maintained friendly relationships with her three exes, and each has something different to offer the two fugitives. Another major player in the adventure is Lucinda’s faithful service-dog reject, Dukey.

Ms. Nadler has a great ear for language. What could have been an awkward attempt at emulating the voice of an educated, well-to-do Victorian woman comes off as entirely believable. The fictional Dickinson speaks with the language of her day, as well as with the voice of a poet, even when discussing such things as the action of a blender: “Everything is rent into the abyss before it’s blended and thrust up again. Is that not the perfect metaphor for the apocalypse?” Or the seeming magic of the Internet: “What about that German gentleman we contacted on your stereopticon screen?”

At one point, the fictional Emily actually throws out a few lines of verse based on her 21st century adventures. While purists may consider this sacrilege, Ms. Nadler truly nails Dickinson’s style. She remains true to her subject’s voice throughout, capturing her cadence as well as her use of metaphor and other poetic devices perfectly.

The author clearly had some fun with her reanimated heroine’s introduction to the 21stt century. Though for much of the adventure the two leading women giggle over shared jokes and Emily’s unique take on the modern world, the author also manages some serious speculation on the nature of isolation and its relationship to creativity. Dickinson is arguably the biggest enigma among the literary giants of the past few hundred years, having died in relative obscurity. She left behind little in the way of documentation of her inner life, aside from what can be intuited from her poems. For someone whose work was so intimate, Dickinson seems to have been very guarded regarding her personal life. Academicians and others can only speculate about the poet’s extreme isolationism and her possible romantic interests.

This makes Dickinson the perfect subject for Ms. Nadler’s fertile imagination. She creatively fills in the blanks on things like Emily’s relationship with her mother, the nature of her close friendships with a number of older men, and most interesting, the true object of the poet’s affections. For years, scholars and others have pondered the question of who it was who inspired Dickinson’s many love poems. In “Emily in the Here and Now,” Ms. Nadler concocts a passionate love story that has the ring of truth and, also, seems entirely in keeping with the not-so-prim-and-proper Emily that the author presents us with in her novel.

Ms. Nadler is best known for her books on the supernatural. She has published three collections of ghost stories (two involving Vineyard hauntings, and one on ghosts of Boston). With her newest book, Ms. Nadler considers a living-dead specimen of another type and, in doing so, she brings all of the wit and humor of her ghost tales to this paean to a legend.

The far-fetched premise aside, “Emily in the Here and Now” never lapses in its reverence for its eponymous heroine, despite the fact that the author has taken more than a few liberties with the facts of Dickinson’s life. 

All in all, it’s a fun — and educational — read, with plenty of action for fans of that genre, along with lots of fodder for the literary-minded.