Emily Dickinson wrote, “My business is circumference.” What a wonderful image and phrase, and so Dickinsonian in its simple but powerful directness. (And what a master of the small she was. She described herself as “New Englandly”—her language pared down to essentials, her verses modest in size. As Barbara Novak points out, “Modesty and understatement are not necessarily incompatible with vastness. As Gaston Bachelard has suggested, ‘The cleverer I am at miniaturizing the world, the better I possess it.'”)

For Dickinson, being the circumference is to circumambulate around the mystery at the core of life, to be an ambient witness to what we may not understand completely. Dickinson—and many of the Transcendentalists who lived in nearby Concord—is drawn to an “urge towards empowerment through dematerialization” (Novak’s great phrase).

More from Novak’s book, Voyages of the Self:

She was, it seems to me, quote often precisely that blend of Puritan and Transcendental so frequently found in the American self. When she writes “There is no first, or last, in Forever,—It is Centre, there, all the time”—she is very close to Emerson’s soul that “circumscribes all things” and to his idea of the mind which “with each divine impulse…rends the thin rinds of the visible and infinite, and comes out into eternity.”

This tendency towards dematerialization is a common trope in Western thought, not just among Transcendentalists. It’s an old problem, that mind/body split, and it stands in high contrast to the concept of the Dark Feminine as embodied by the Black Madonna. While the Emersonian model is achieving wisdom and transformation through a lifting up and out of the body, the Dark Feminine achieves its brand of transformation by going down deep into the experience of the flesh. The Dark Feminine (in any of her many manifestations including Kali, Lilith and Crow Mother, for example) is both creative and destructive at the same time. This is not a tame or well behaved woman.

From an interview with Andrew Harvey in The Moonlit Path:

The birth in Her was simultaneously the destruction of all fantasies and an initiation into the divinity of the body, and the divine secrets that consecrated, Tantric love reveals about the body and physical life when transfigured by spiritual passion…I have experienced how She is the birthing force of authentic divine humanity. What She does to birth it is to destroy all the fantasies that block the transcendent as well as destroy all of the fears, loathing, self-hatreds, and all of the terrors of the body that block the glory of the flaming out of the body’s own most sacred truth…

If you are addicted to transcendence, you may have a certain kind of realization of divine Being, but you can never have the realization of divine becoming that belongs to the Mother and is the Mother’s supreme gift…the Black Madonna requires the most searing imaginable abandon and the most extreme imaginable plunging into the total embrace of Her conditions.

The fierce and fleshy presence of the Black Madonna is in complete opposition of our timid Belle of Amherst, trussed into her famous white frock and living in self-imposed isolation. The paradox is that I am drawn to both. Deeply. My passion for Dickinson is life long. Twenty years ago I became fascinated with the Black Madonna and made pilgrimages to her sacred sites in France, Switzerland and Spain. Once touched by that wildness, if only peripherally, you just can’t go back to living small.

The pull between these two transformative energies is something I feel constantly in the studio. From the out of body ascent upward to the deep dive into the dark contours of the flesh, paintings emerge for me by toggling back and forth between these two poles.

12 Comment

  1. Maureen says:

    You continue to fascinate me. Next time you visit I’ll have to share with you my copy of “Sampler”, w/ Dickinson’s poems and artwork by Kiki Smith.

  2. george wingate says:

    Matters Spherical

    the light and the dark are one
    when all the colors make white
    and all colors make black

    we westerners, we know what we know (we have a choice)

    and chronology is here now, and at the beginning and at the end.

    this one scratches his head

    and affirms.

    it’s a love fact, the BigTime trajectory by the (little) people…

  3. I love this post. I feel those pulls between the flesh and the spirit, too, and I think Walt Whitman sought the same balance in his poetry. He worshiped the body – ALL bodies – but still sought to liberate the soul, to open it up to the great vastness of the universe. And I think he succeeds in uniting the two; reading his poetry gives me that feeling of total unity, at least – the feeling of being both very much in my body and yet spread out, air-thin, across space and time.

    A snippet from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

    What is it then between us?
    What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

    Whatever it is, it avails not – distance avails not, and place avails not,
    I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
    I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it.
    I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me.
    In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,
    In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me,
    I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution,
    I too had receiv’d identity by my body,
    That I was I knew I was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.

    Again, wonderful post! Loved reading it.

  4. Maureen, I would be very interested in the Dickinson/Kiki Smith connection. Ever see the pieces by Lesley Dill that merge image with Dickinson poems? Some of the most successful mergings of art and word I’ve ever seen.

    George, love your appropriately poetic response. You are a blend of poet and artist after all.

    Heidi, thank you for the essential coda on this topic as represented by our beloved WW. Without him our 19th century heritage of American thinkers/artists would be a bit bloodless and detached, don’t you think? Well chosen excerpt too.

    Thank you all. It’s a topic I continue to be fascinated by.

  5. A thoughtful and articulate meditation on an intriguing topic.
    “Voyages of the Self..” is in the mail, btw. Very interested to read Novak’s take on Pollock-Olson in particular. A bit obsessed w/ Olson 🙂 Many thanks for getting that on my radar, Deborah. Great posts!

  6. Diana says:

    Compelling conversation to go deep within yourself while exploring the unimaginable infinite. So glad I stopped by…

  7. Diana says:

    and the image is fierce!

  8. Thanks Walt. I will be interested to hear your response on her chapter about Pollock-Olson. Love them both.

    And thank you Diana. Yes, she’s no SWT (Sweet Young Thing)!

  9. Amen!

  10. Anon says:


    Ha ha!

    Get an idea in your head: “Emily Dickinson was an avatar of Kali.”

    Google image search: “Emily Dickinson” to see her face.

    Kali looks back!


    By the right of the blue election!


  11. Anon says:

    “The fierce and fleshy presence of the Black Madonna is in complete opposition of our timid Belle of Amherst”


    Then perhaps maybe not.

    I don’t know.

    Not according to google image search tonight at least.

  12. I like your approach! Thanks for this, I’m always interested in what happens with turnarounds and upsidedowns.

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