PAGE FIVE  -  Dashing Genius: 
Emily Dickinson and the Punctuation of Cognition
Intro | Page Two | Page Three | Page Four | Page Five | Page Six | Works Cited
      State of Wondrous Multiplicity
Importantly, Dickinson ends the epistolary sentence and the poem with dashes; the poet withholds closure because she cannot personally resolve the ongoing struggle between her desire for unquestioning faith, her suspicion of divine trickery, and her trust in only the knowable. She leaves readers immersed in an identical state of ongoing wonderment:
Wonder ­ is not precisely Knowing
And not precisely Knowing not ­ 
A beautiful but bleak condition 
He has not lived who has not felt ­
In this first stanza of Poem 1331, Dickinson seems to comfort us. Follow the associative beauty of the mind, even without obtaining clarity and final answers. Even if we as readers feel frustrated by the absence of clear-cut solutions, Emily Dickinson thrived on far-reaching, limitless explorations of the mind. She felt freedom when safely locked inside her room because the undisturbed self could move anywhere, associate anything. 
On one of the tiny scraps of poem fragments, compiled by Johnson almost as an afterthought to the third volume of letters, Dickinson scribbled: "As it takes but a moment of imagination to place us anywhere, it would not seem worth while to stay where it was stale ­ " (PF 66). This single statement explains her decision to retreat from society, from daily emptiness, from unquestioning routine. The line concludes with a dash moving towards alternatives, along alternative routes to knowing. Similarly, as Ian Watt describes, "Sterne didn't want unity or coherence or defined direction, at least in any conventional sense; he wanted multiplicity . . . " (48). Sterne used experimental typography to move "backwards or forwards or sideways, not in straight linear paths" (48). 
In another poem fragment, Dickinson seeks equal circumvention: "Did you ever read one of her Poems backward, because the plunge from the front overturned you? I sometimes have ­ A something overtakes the Mind ­" (PF 30). I suspect she refers to her own poetry, writing in the persona of her only audience: herself. Take her advice. Reverse the dashed ending. The Mind overtakes something and everything -- overturning conceptions and plunging into poetry. 
By diving inward for poetic inspiration and probing an interior with the vastness of genius -- as grand as sky and sea and divinity -- Emily Dickinson learned more about the capacity of the mind than countless neuroscientists counting synapses. But her dash only gapes open briefly; we must leap through quickly and fearlessly for any hope of comprehension. As Jane Donahue Eberwain writes, "To read Emily Dickinson is an exhilarating experience; to write about her a humbling one" (1). A tiny mark dashing between words conjoins complex meaning, requiring pages of explication to decipher but leaving us worried that the significance escaped. Following her private code of cryptic associations probably requires greater familiarity with our minds: solitude, contemplation, reflection, exploration, imagination, and creation. John Locke studied his mind through meticulous philosophical reflection. Laurence Sterne played in his mind through audacious fictional digressions. Emily Dickinson dwelled in her mind through introspection and possibility. We should do the same.
Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner