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Originally published Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 7:08 PM

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Book review

'Lives Like Loaded Guns': Emily Dickinson's dazzling talents and guarded secrets

A review of "Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds" by biographer Lyndall Gordon — a mesmerizing biography of Emily Dickinson, the American poet whose legacy collection of stirring poems set off a long fight for control of her literary estate.

Special to The Seattle Times

'Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds'

by Lyndall Gordon

Viking, 489 pp., $32.95

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

With most biographies, death marks the end of the story; in Lyndall Gordon's mesmerizing "Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds," a poet's death is like a rock tossed into a pond, leaving disturbed water in its wake. Dickinson, who spent much of her life quietly writing poetry in her room, died in 1886 at the age of 55. Rarely leaving her Amherst home, she published fewer than a dozen poems in her lifetime. Her death set off — to use a phrase from a Dickinson poem, also borrowed by Gordon for a title — a loaded gun. Who would control the unpublished poems — nearly 1,800 — left behind? Who would introduce this shadowy figure to the world, and own her legacy?

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Gordon, a British scholar and superb literary biographer who has previously turned her level yet lyrical gaze to Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë, Mary Wollstonecraft and others, here is fascinated both by the poet's life and by the ripples created by her death — which grew to the size of vast waves. She describes the feud that rose over ownership of Dickinson's poems — led, remarkably, by the poet's sister-in-law Sue Dickinson on one side and Sue's husband's mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, on the other. Continuing to future generations (and shading, Gordon says, many previous biographies of the poet that "told it slant"), the feud played out like a Shakespearean drama, filled with vivid characters who'd be at home on any stage. Todd, a flamboyant faculty wife, has a showgirl flair that jumps off the page.

Considering Emily Dickinson's popular image as a passive, virginal recluse, you might think the poet might disappear from these pages, slipping into the shadows behind more colorful figures. But Gordon, closely reading the poems, letters and impressions Dickinson left behind, creates something new: a woman for whom stillness "was not a retreat for life but a form of control." She argues, persuasively, that the poet had a secret, and that secret was epilepsy: a plausible reason, at the time, for seclusion. (Several of Dickinson's relatives, Gordon points out, were known to suffer from seizure disorders; she also describes Dickinson's medical history, which complies with current treatments for epilepsy, and numerous passages in the poet's works that seem to describe seizures, in metaphoric code.)

Confined to her father's home, where she lived her entire adult life with her sister Lavinia (brother Austin and wife Sue lived just "over the hedge"), Dickinson found the freedom to write poetry — those dazzling, trademark bursts of meditation on life, death and nature, laid out in hymnlike form and punctuated by idiosyncratic dashes. (With each dash, writes Gordon, it's as if "something nameless is breaking through the crust of words, as though language were a crater, unsafe and stirring.")

This Dickinson, a fiery redhead, is anything but passive; she writes passionate letters to a man she loves, slyly observes the world's oddities from her perch ("Much Madness is divinest Sense — /To a discerning Eye — "), and takes a firm stand against her brother's adultery. You wonder what this woman might have made of the lawyers and court trials and furor that continued for decades over her poems, found after her death locked in a cherrywood chest in her room. Other truths were locked there, too; Gordon, admiringly and wisely, hands us a key.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic

for The Seattle Times.

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