Letters from Siri Hustvedt to Emily Dickinson


You say you felt a cleaving in your mind. Me too. You say you tried to match it. Me too. You say you could not make it fit. Well, I’m not sure how I feel about this part.

I question your claim that you could not make it fit. Do you mean that you could not match the two different parts of your brain? And why do they have to match, anyway? The two parts of your brain can be different and they still would both be you. Maybe they do not have to fit. My body does one thing and my mind another- does that mean they are not both me?

Or perhaps you’re talking about your present self versus your previous self? I have experience with that too. Once I started shaking, I became the Shaking Woman. At first I thought the Shaking Woman was outside me, an invader hijacking my body. I thought that in those moments, I was not me. But the Shaking Woman is me when I shook. After the fact, I acknowledge that was me as well. And perhaps this was true even before I shook. The Shaking Woman was inside me all along. If she comes from within me, how can she be external to my identity? How can I call her an invader?

I do not have to make it fit: if the Shaking Woman comes from within me, I do not need to reconcile her existence with my identity as I see it. Because I just know she fits, in the same way I know you do too.




Dear Emily,

Charlotte Perkins (who you know I absolutely adore!) had once said in her short story The Yellow Wallpaper “It’s as good as gymnastics, I assure you. I start, we’ll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion.” Charlotte, as always, is inevitably right. My life hinges on uncertainty. It’s the only thing that I’m certain of. One minute yes I’m absolutely sure, and sure as hell, the next minute I’ve been wrong this whole time! Which, when you think about it, is only natural really, since names for diagnosis’ change so often with our perception, and science is only a piece of the puzzle. We shift. Jenga is not so much an analogy but a rhythmic waltz played with the boards of our perception of health. Yes, it’s a disease, no it’s not. Maybe you’re ill and maybe you’re just faking it or maybe you can change your mind if you just try hard enough. Can pain go away with the thought of simply willing it away? Can you change yourself to a doctors whim because they tell you that you’re ill, that you exhibit X, Y, and Z? Who knows. But it’s probably best if we don’t. If a doctor has to convince us thoroughly, if there’s some visceral separation of our own morals from theirs, we may need to reconfigure some conclusions. For example, today, more women’s heart attacks go undiagnosed because they exhibit different symptoms from men. The same goes for stomach and respiratory issues, ADHD, Asperger’s, anxiety disorders and depression. Time changes, perceptions change, and even our symptoms vary. The diagnosis of yesterday is the prognosis of today. The body electric, the tremors oscillating, the slope eternally shaking…pinball machine’s become all too relatable, it’s enough to make your head spin, isn’t it?   

Speaking of, then there’s Lewis Carroll, I mean Charles Dodgson, (but we all have our pen names for a reason.) I was amazed, in my earliest travels I never heard his struggle with migraines referred to as a disease. But my God! All those bright, horrible flashes, the spiraling room and strange little men. The lightening bolts and the fracturing, it’s been going on for ages! And so many women suffer from this, especially. Obviously it has gained a more robust status since 1982, to say the least, but it’s still not treated enough. When you think about it, the aural migraines, the shaking, the shrinking of dear Alice, well it all seems connected somehow. Like Keats and Yates and Thoreau; transcendentalists, automatic writing, divinity gleamed, are all different names for the same thing. How do we really know anything? If a young woman today collapses from a migraine or a heart condition,  if I shake from seizures or anxiety, the question isn’t even which one is it, but what isn’t it?

Virginia Woolf is the manic depressive, the bipolar, the anxious, the insane.  She is all these things and she is none, she is half of them, and also ten more other different ones. She herself said “my depression is a harassed feeling. I’m looking; but that’s not it- that’s not it. What is it, and shall I die before I find it?” I have to think, especially in the vein of hysteria and its reputation in the medical field, isn’t this what all women think at one point or another when trying to get help from a doctor? In the metaphorical sense, of course. Let’s say its your knee; fractured, bruised, sprained, amputee, or simply broken. Or your heart; tachycardia, weak heart, clotting, aneurism, asthma. There’s a world of I don’t feel well or somethings wrong or somethings different and it persists and persists and persists despite the neat little names, cumulating to a simple I don’t know or I I can’t be sure. It isn’t the thing with feathers, but the blur of ethers that says, sometimes I am peaks and sometimes I am valleys, but neither are my true nature. In this aspect, its vitally important I say I am a shaking woman, (to describe whatever the hell is going on, that is) because women’s health is such a difficult topic, such a stigmatized one at times. We used to tell housewives to practice smiling in the mirror when they were in the throws of grief. To say I am uncertain despite extensive research is to say a definitive truth. To say I don’t know myself, no one truly can, I am inside my own body so I know something first hand. Yet those who diagnose me, they’re always convinced of something else, of my own misgivings, my own hysteria, or misunderstanding.  Is this then the real fault? If so,  I hope to advocate, whether something has a name or not, that it retains a certain validity, a validity that isn’t always afforded to women in relation to the self.

Still, maybe I should have started this letter differently. Maybe I should have started it “Dear Emily, is this a world of Virginia’s that we should stop trying to label and perhaps start trying to listen to instead?” I often wonder…and even here you say it the best, (and darling, you do always say it best.) “In the short life that lasts only within an hour- so little is within our power.” This is true for so much of women’s history in many more ways than I wish.

But for a moment, there is also hope. (Your favorite subject alongside death, I know. )You write, I write, Charlotte and Woolf, on and on. We’re all trying. Researching and studying and feeling and above all, trying to let them know this; in paving a path for our uncertainty, in giving it a tangibleness, in giving all the shaking women back a history of their own nerves, we find something. We find the place where the patient in question starts to retain self, retain answers, retain a road to discovery, and above all, retain a a certain power that finally brings us all closer on some level to understanding of the sempiternally undefinable self.

Apologies about my driving, time travel is sometimes like that. All the best with your gardening. Do try to get out of the house more often!


Dear Dickinson,

              Sorry to disturb you from your grave knowing full well that you will never receive my letter, but I have something important to discuss. As I have written before, the importance of dreams shows a reality that is unfulfilled in real life. They manifest to show hidden desires and complications. “A sick neck served as the perfect dream image of my symptom: From the chin up, I was my familiar self. From the neck down, I was a shuddering stranger.” Dreams is important to the reality of a person’s life since it allows repressed memories to come back into the surface of one’s mind. I believe that the dream is trying to convey that I am projecting my terminal illness as my father’s terminal illness and embodying the illness to my body. In your poems, you write and express your thoughts about the unreliability of life and death and the translucent barrier between dreams and reality. I wonder about meeting you face to face to discuss the meanings of the relationship between reality and dreams and relating them to find more about the root of my terminal illness and the importance (or distinction) between the two. All this research to find the truth and I am getting nowhere.





Dear Emily,

Your works have been an inspiration of mine, a creative outlet where the shoes I’m told to stand in actually fit. Reading you work and seeing the world through your eyes feels so familiar. “One need not be a chamber to be haunted” is one of the most relatable lines I have ever read. Our bodies are often our most fearful confinements. It’s the only thing we can never truly escape. I feel as though in both our works we share with the world our very disassociative natures. “A division among systems of ideas and functions that constitute the personality.” We are no fixed people. You are not just Emily Dickinson just as I am not simply Siri Hustvedt. We are so much more, consumed by both the bad and good which is what makes us, us.



Sonnet Transations

Here are your sonnet translations. I didn’t include Shakespeare’s versions here, because they’d make things clunky. But you can find them on Open Source Shakespeare.


Baby I want to get in your pants
You smell of lavender,
Skin like silk,
You look strong, and stoic
You go by Z, they, them
Youre driving me nuts
Do you got em?
Can you wear a tither shirt?
I see you in my fluid dreams
My love for you is lucid
–Ayesha Rahman


I hate my life.
I’m always sad,
I’m trapped.
I just want to be with him.
He is my dream.
Though I can’t be with him.
Because I love money,
And I love my crown.


Am I still Ill, will croon the nasal voice of 80’s Alternative Rock,
and carve prognosis from ancient stone,
giving myths back a taste of their own medicine,
giving me back a piece of my own mind.

Am I still ill like that fated arrow twisted between Artemis’ lean hands
when she wants to be spiteful, and oh how she is spiteful tonight!
She brims with vinegar and bursts with nettle,
A noxious Nefertari of her craft.

The notched feathers hit their mark,
Cupid falls away as a precursor,
and all I want to ask is,

What vile ardor grows
from the birchwood of my lungs?

Bark turned to rot, body turned in torpor,
words lost in stupor, pallid nerves to lust…

Must this feeling insist?

Must the image of such divinity persist,
and leave me resigned to wander, torn asunder,
urgent care, ambulance,
colloquial ambivalence,
as I wretch the prescription
out of clasped hands and scream:

“Not sick! Not true! Not all the time!
Not forever…just for you.”

Just for you, says the doctor, pacing in their stuffy room,
delivering their clipboard sermon with a scowl.

Just for you, Pandora will sprinkle her black plague,
and banishes you to Hell.
Just for you, Poseidon will drag your water logged corpse,
and leaves it at the bottom of a nameless well.

Dante, Virgil, Rimbaud, Verlaine,
bow to Hades with that brooding gloom,
and all warn of what comes when following,
but I still followed, following the lovers to their certain doom.

Finch, magpie, raven, crow,
Ichor, splendor, Tartarus, undertow.

Bird song, sing-song, come along now, my dear,
just one bite…

Bird song, sing-song, all wrong,
the crimson cracked open in spite…

Show my true vices, mimicry Persephone,
I ate the seeds, but thou didn’t love me.
–Maggie Cappozzoli-Capota


All beautiful things have faults
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud
Men make mistakes, including me


“STOP! Don’t take another step! That portal will send you far back in time!” the scientist yelled.
The historian smirked at the scientist as he leaned in closer to the machine. The scientist shook with fear as he knew not the consequences.
“I am not for this world, I do not see beauty here, I’ve only dreamed of living in history.” boasted the historian as he got ready to jump in.
“PLEASE! You don’t understand, you can never come back, I haven’t gotten that far with the machine”.
‘So be it” the historian leapt into the portal like a tree frog that was desperately drowning.
As the historian grew older in his new time, after all the talks with famous philosophers, scientists, and prominent figures in history, he realized his old time truly was beautiful, and he missed traffic.
–Victor Diaz

#44 (from memory)

If the dull substance of my flesh were my thoughts
Painful distance will not stop me
Despite how far away thou are.
Thou stays far limits
My feet will always go
No matter how far from me
My thoughts can jump from land to sea
As soon as they find the place thou are
It kills me that I am not thought
I can’t leap large miles to get to thou
There’s too much space between us
I must wait at time’s feet with my moan
I have to follow nature’s elements
But I will still cry heavy tears.
–Vanessa Mangru

#130, Hindu-English Hybrid

My ohrat ki ahkke sun ki jaise nai hai;

Coral zada laal hai, then her lips;

If snow sufade hai, then why onka breasts dull hai?

If baal wires hai, phir khala wires sehr pe grow karti hai

I have seen roses damasked, laal aur sufade,

Lekhan phool ghal pe nai hai;

And some perfumes are more delightful

Then my lover’s breath

Mujko ache lahkta hai unke awvas sunne, lekhan

Jo music hai, zada pleasing hai;

I never saw a goddess walk away;

Maira pyar, jab chalte hai, treads on the zameen:

Lekhan, by Heaven, mujkho lakta hai ke maare pyar rare hai

Kisi ko compare nai karti.

When I glance at the clock and time that is gone,
I watch the ugly night stifle the beauty of day.
Colors fade and I am not very fond
that your golden curls have grayed.
Trees once lush with green leaves
in the heat of summer protected the herd,
Now gathered in bundles of twigs and weeds.
Winter is born as the memory of summer is blurred.
What really is your beauty
As it will soon be lost too.
All good things leave eventually
Replaced by others that will fade just as soon.

The cruelty of time can be stopped by nothing
therefore create something to prove your life was worth living.
–Salia Hovanec


Don’t let the ancient winter destroy your summer beauty.
Keep your youth and your radiance with you while you still can.
Pass on your great looks before you die.
I mean if your so beautiful then it shouldn’t be hard to get a woman to sleep with you and have your children.
Making a little you would be amazing and should make you happy.
Hell, if it makes you happy, pass on your beauty to ten little versions of you.
Don’t die.
Don’t be selfish.
You’re much too beautiful to die, and after all, you wouldn’t want to leave your children deprived of your beauty, would you?
–Shaneeza Rahim

Key-Word Translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130
Her eyes shine nothing like the sun, dull as dirt
Her lips fade away into the nothingness of her face
Her breasts are as shiny as the mud, not even the sun
If hairs be snakes, then snakes grow from her head
Roses do not compare to she,
Her cheeks do not compare to red roses
How I wish the smell of perfume would be hers,
But when she opens her mouth, my nose runs around
When she speaks, my ears beg to shut,
For her voice is unpleasing to me.
Never have I seen her look like a Goddess
For she walks like a giant instead.
Yet to heaven I promise, there is none other than her for me,
Nor would I dream to compare her to another.
–Kim Quiles

Are you a woman? You’re better:
More beautiful, more sweet, more reliable.
And yet, you were made to pleasure women.
So does that make you a man?
It doesn’t matter- you can have me however you want.
I’m impressed you hold interest for all,
despite the fact that you were “first created”
for women.
–Mykki Weinstein

#40 (personal translation)

I loved a lover who loved another.
Bothered not bothered.
–Emily Abrams

#1 #154

The little Love-god lying once asleep
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
Whilst many nymphs that vow’d chaste life to keep
His tender heir might bear his memory:
The fairest votary took up that fire
Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel,
And so the general of hot desire
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Came there for cure, and this by that I prove,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
–Jordan Foresta




Nativity, to


Crooked glory

his gift confound



on nature’s truth


despite his cruel hand.
–Kaitlin McDermott

Sonnet #55

Nothing and no one can live forever,
Only the written word can truly stay.
Through all the hardships man may endeavor,
Just know that here on paper you will remain.
–Minire Boljevic

Give me a wild rose any day
than the glass rose on display,
For unique and natural I prefer
than the thousands behind the counter.

Blind love eyes
Behold see not
Beauty it lies
Best take worst
Eyes corrupt looks
Anchor’d men ride
Falsehood forged hooks
Judgement heart tied
Heart think plot
Heart world’s place
Eyes seeing not
Truthful foul face
True eyes erred
False plague transferred
–Nick Armont

Paul Legault

Paul Legault is a New York-based writer, designer and co-editor of Fence. Projects include books, translations, essays, exhibitions, and publishing. His books include Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror 2 from Fence Books,The Emily Dickinson Reader: An English to English Translation of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson from McSweeney’s, The Other Poems: a series of 14-line plays also from Fence, and The Madeleine Poems from Omnidawn. His book Lunch Poems 2 will be out from Spork Press this spring.


Some of his recent publications include “An Interview with Peter Gizzi for the National Book Foundation ↝ “The Walt Whitman Reader” in Hello Mr. ↝ “Not Heat Flames up and Consumes” in Ain’t Bad ↝ “De Imagine Mundi 2” in The Awl ↝ Literary Adaptation: Writing Through Rewriting for Poets House ↝ The Literary Magazine in America at the NYPL ↝ A Brief Anthology of Quotations for Vice ↝ “The Tower” in The Third Rail.

It’s exciting that such an inventive and prolific contemporary poet will visit our class! You can find a lot more information about Legault on his website.

Seo-Young Chu on Lyricism

What makes a lyric poem “lyrical” is a constellation of interrelated attributes that have characterized Anglophone poetry from the Renaissance (if not earlier) to the present. Lyric poetry is frequently soliloquy-like. Lyric voices speak from beyond ordinary time. Lyric poems are inhabited by situations and tableaux transcending ordinary temporality. Lyric descriptions are charged with depictive intensity. Lyric poetry is musically expressive. Lyric poems evoke heightened and eccentric states of consciousness.

–Seo-Young Chu, Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation (2010)


This is the course website for Jason Tougaw’s section English 242: Literary History (Spring 2018). You’ll find all our course materials here.

Note: It’s likely I’ll make changes to the syllabus as the semester develops. What’s here will be more up-to-date than the printed version.

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