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Review: A poet is revealed through 10 key days of her life

Last Updated Feb 25, 2020 at 11:23 am EDT

This cover image released by W.W. Norton shows "These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson" by Martha Ackmann. (W.W. Norton via AP)

“These Fevered Days,” W.W. Norton & Company, by Martha Ackmann

Once again, Emily Dickinson is having a moment.

The reclusive 19th-century poet was the central figure in last fall’s “Dickinson” on Apple TV Plus, portrayed as a gender-fluid proto-feminist, or, as the tag line would have it, “Total rebel.”

In recent years there have also been at least two films – “Wild Nights With Emily” (2018) and “A Quiet Passion” (2016) – plus a major exhibition at New York’s Morgan Library (2017). And let’s not forget the 1976 Broadway play “The Belle of Amherst,” later made into a TV movie.

Even if you think you don’t know her, you do: “Hope is the thing with feathers …,” “Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” “Because I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me ….”

To understand why she has been a perennial object of fascination at least since her death in 1886 at age 55 – if not during her lifetime – pick up a copy of “These Fevered Days” by Martha Ackmann, a short, highly readable telling of her life and the extraordinary, path-breaking body of work she left behind.

Ackmann, a former president of the Emily Dickinson International Society who taught a Mount Holyoke College seminar in the same rooms where the poet wrote, states at the outset that the book is not meant to be a “comprehensive, cradle-to-grave biography.”

Rather, Ackmann aims to convey a sense of the poet’s rich interior life and her evolution as an artist by dramatizing 10 formative moments of her life on the day each occurred. Remarkably, she pulls it off.

Readers may quibble with some of her choices – beginning each day’s account with a detailed weather report, for instance, or her premise that on each of the days selected, the poet was different at 10 p.m. that night than she was at 10 a.m. in the morning.

But by the end, you’ll be a believer, in part because of Ackmann’s grasp of her subject – both the mountains of scholarship on Dickinson as well as the poet’s historical and cultural milieu – and Ackmann’s own formidable gifts as a storyteller.

“Emily Dickinson has been called everything from `the outlaw of Amherst,’ `the best friend of reclusive English majors,’ and `an intellectual terrorist,’” she writes in the introduction. “There is no doubt she is a towering poetic voice. But there’s something else about her too. Emily Dickinson reminds us what it’s like to be alive. And when she does – she takes our breath away.”

This book will too.

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Ann Levin, The Associated Press