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Playing with Sexual Identity: A Study of the Selected Poetry of Emily Dickinson


Playing with Sexual Identity: A Study of the Selected Poetry of Emily Dickinson

Moumita Pal

Bankura University

Bankura, West Bengal, India



“This was a poet - / It is That / Distills amazing sense / From ordinary Meanings -” – Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was that poet. The proposition that Dickinson’s explicitly erotic poems may have been composed for a woman, stunned the academic circle when Rebecca Patterson in 1951 published The Riddle of Emily Dickinson. Patterson contends that the essential love and poetic inspiration of Dickinson’s life was a lady, namely Kate Anthon – a contention which gives rise to some withering censorious reactions. Nowadays, almost after seven decades, academic evolution on Patterson’s breakthrough divulgence has made the homoeroticism in Dickinson’s poetry and letters difficult to overlook. However, the centre of attention has transposed from Kate Anthon to Dickinson’s lifelong friend and sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson. The publication of Smith and Hart’s Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson ought to take out any doubt concerning the long-lasting intimacy between Emily and Susan Dickinson and forever bury the myth of an inconclusive rift between them after Susan’s marriage to Emily’s brother Austin Dickinson in 1856. The astonishing ingenuity of Dickinson’s approach doomed her poetry to incognizance during her lifespan yet her bold appraisal in composition, her tragic vision and the scope of her scholarly and passionate consideration and exploration have since won her acknowledgement as a writer of magnificent, peerless and of highest order. This dissertation primarily centres Dickinson as a lesbian poet illuminating the patriarchal society which restrains women. It displays how the self-identified lesbian poet Emily Dickinson gives ample evidence to help the way that she has been keen on women more than men. Her poetry has frequently studied from a queer perspective due to her reference to specific women throughout her life.

Key words:

Homoeroticism, Queer, Lesbian, Passion, Sexuality, Relationship, Marriage, Female-friendship, Love, Desire

          Born in America, one of the greatest masters of short lyric verse, Dickinson has composed nearly 1800 poems in the course of her lifespan. Different individuals observe the poetry of Emily Dickinson in different ways. A few people consider Emily Dickinson as one of the most noteworthy writers of America. And then there are so many other people who criticise her poetry for being unusual and too complicated to understand. For Dickinson, regardless of whether a poem is genuine ‘poetry’ doesn’t rely upon its utilization of meter, rhyme, refrains or length of the line, but rather on the practical physical sensation made in the reciter by the words of the poem; the chilling feeling in the marrow of the bones or the stunning blow to the mind that the reciter encounters in the act of perusing Dickinson’s poetry. Dickinson’s enthusiasm for creating such a sensation makes her poems unorthodox, radical and beyond ordinary. Dickinson’s poems primarily consist of four major themes -- death, agony, nature, and love. A large number of her poetry describes death as a suitor, yet a despot. Concerning nature, she didn’t for the most part consider nature as kindhearted mother-figure. Her veneration for nature consistently overlapped with her love-lyrics. However, while reading her love-lyrics readers may discover homo-erotic elements in those poems. There is abundant verification to help the way that she may have been interested in females. Her lyrics often analysed from a queer perspective in light of her numerous references to a specific woman for a mind-blowing duration. In poems like, “To own a Susan of my own” (poem 1401); “Wild Nights - Wild Nights” (poem 269); “Her breast is fit for pearls” (poem 84); “I cannot live with you” (poem 640), she directly addresses a woman in a romantic approach.

          Unorthodox, intricate, intimidating, confounding, significant, and provocative: these are some words that describe Emily Dickinson’s work. Dickinson resisted all poetic rules and accordingly invented unique poems that permitted her to express emotions and thoughts in dramatic, though often baffling, style. The dash – the trademark of Dickinson’s writing, breaks the lines separated, compelling the reader to pause and reevaluate and giving a noticeable physical space for contemplation, inviting the reader to fill in the gaps. Dickinson’s whimsical utilization of punctuation especially ‘the dash’, serves nearly as a sort of melodic documentation that directs the cadence of the lines. According to R.P. Blackmur, Emily Dickinson was an extraordinary poet who has written in her own idiosyncratic style. Some critics and scholars like R.P.Blackmur, Peter Nesteruk, Roxanne Harde also have given various thematic studies of Dickinson’s writings. Roxanne Hardeinin her article “‘Some – Are like My Own – ’: Emily Dickinson’s Christology of Embodiment” talks about Dickinson’s tangled emotions about her Christianity and the issues that would engross her religious compositions for the rest of her life. According to some more moderate claims about Dickinson’s sexuality, Martha Nell Smith in the book Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson argues that Dickinson’s love for Susan, who was her sister-in-law, neighbor, and life-long friend, was an enthusiastic commitment for a lifetime and she loved her very passionately. Susan herself was conscious about that, in fact, she found some of Dickson's letter to her “too adulatory to print”. Smith further argues that Dickinson’s connection to Susan, often expressing her wanting to pair and kiss her darling and envisioning orgasmic fusion with her, talks a sensual as well as a heart-warming endearment. Smith has dauntlessly arrested that the expression “lesbian” is apt. for portraying Dickinson’s affection for Susan. She contends that confirmation of a sexual relationship is pointless for applying the term to such a candidly serious and sensually charged bond. In a letter to Sue in 1852, as found in Mabel Loomis Todd’s Letters of Emily Dickinson, Dickinson writes,

Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to? ... I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel that now I must have you – that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast - …

    Why, Susie, it seems to me as if my absent Lover was coming home so soon. (215-16, no. 96)

          In Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, Ellen Louise Hart, and Martha Nell Smith present ample proof that Susan Dickinson was indeed the very core of the writer’s enthusiastic and imaginative life. Smith and Hart presume in this collection that the connection between Emily and Susan transcends the adolescent crush, which was typical at that time:

As this correspondence shows... Emily and Susan's relationship surpasses in-depth, passion, and continuity the stereotype of the “intimate exchange” between women friends of the period. The ardour of Dickinson’s late teens and early twenties matured and deepened over the decades, and the romantic and erotic expression from Emily to Susan continued until Dickinson’s death in May 1886. (xiv)

Another critic Lillian Faderman in his anthology Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature from the Seventeenth Century to the Present, incorporates extracts from the letters Dickinson wrote to Susan and to Kate Anthon, another lady to whom she had an enthusiastic connection, and a dozen love-lyrics that could be deciphered as homoerotic in disposition. Again, Paula Bennett’s treatise shows even a more significantly provocative proposition. In poems like “I had been hungry, all the years” (poem 76) and “In winter, in my Room” (1670), Bennett contends Dickinson’s portrayal of male sexuality reveals her to be terrified, awed and finally, repulsed by it. Paradoxically, Dickinson’s lyrics identifying with female sexuality couldn’t be more frank, prolific and energetic. The examples Bennett uses to represent Dickinson’s responsiveness to female sexuality incorporates “Wild Nights - Wild Nights” (poem 269); “Come slowly - Eden!” (Poem 205); “I tend my flowers for thee” (poem 339).

          Therefore, by shifting our understanding of Dickinson by setting her on the uninterrupted succession of lesbian existence, we can begin to appreciate her resourcefulness in opposing the compulsory subservience of women under heterosexism and understand the wellspring of her productive and distinct innovativeness. This paper proposes the gender perspective and lesbianism in the selected poems of Emily Dickinson.

           In the age of nine, Dickinson entered Amherst Academy, which was established to furnish religion instructions. Furthermore, it is in this school that Dickinson got open doors for building new kinships. Dickinson, in a newsy letter about the school, wrote that there are some most charming young women in school and she ought not to call them anything but ‘women’, as for her, women they are in every sense of the word. These words reveal Dickinson's pride in her companions as well as a proto-feminist emphasis on addressing them as “women”. Some of her most loved young women were Helin Fiske, Abiah Root, and Helen Hunt.

          By a careful reading of Dickinson's poems, one can understand her perspective on women suppression through marriage in this patriarchal society and the reason for keeping herself aloof from committing to marriage. Simone de Beauvoir’s famous saying that ‘one is not born but rather becomes a woman’ is actually appropriate for Dickinson’s poetry and mirrors her approach in dealing with issues like sex and marriage. And such an approach helps in understanding how nineteenth-century American male-centred ideology and culture oppressed women, and also the socio-sexual discrimination endured by women through marriage. Women at that time, valued as an instrument of childbirth and her duty in marriage is to provide men with sexual pleasure and to take care of his household. However, Dickinson's perspective on sex and marriage is greatly affected by her mother Emily Norcross, who according to Dickinson was a battered lady and whose will had been subjugated by her husband’s constant authority and admonishment, giving her to “perpetual invalidism”. The relation between her father and mother was one of Victorian male dictatorship and female subjugation, which was typical at that time. Marriage according to Dickinson is the death of a woman’s individualism and her desires, as she forfeits her life and longings to her husband, home and to the patriarchy at large. She was very much delicate to the subordinate status of a woman after marriage and investigated her social defencelessness and deficiency. Dickinson observed the social structure very minutely which is based on sexual hierarchy where a woman has a compliant existence under her husband’s domination. In her writing, she also expresses gender-discrimination and the oppression of women in this male-centric society. Therefore, Dickinson's keen analysis of the compromised freedom of a woman as a wife shows why she herself decided to be “The wife - without the sign!” (2) and “without the swoon” (6) as she declares in her poem “Title Devine - is mine!” (Poem 1072).

          Like many other poems of Dickinson, the poem “Title Devine - is mine” is a kind of protest against the social gender-discriminatory treatment of a woman where she is treated as a type rather than an individual. Dickinson condemns the contemporary existing male-centric culture and system in which women are oppressed under male domination in marriage. Dickinson invalidates such male-driven thought of marriage as inappropriate and anti-progressive and demonstrates the ignoble position that women hold in the male-dominated society. In this poem, “Title Devine - is mine” Dickinson expresses her personal choice of being spiritually married to poetry rather than to any male which will destroy her autonomy. By spiritually marrying poetry she could be able to maintain her sovereignty and safeguard her integrity, instead of being subjugated in a conventional marriage to a domineering man. In the poem, the narrator is apparently a newly married who shows up very much exhilarated for all the accolades and titles the marriage has showered upon her: “Title Devine - is mine! / The wife - without the sign!” (1-2). However, the initial segment of the poem ends with a gloomy account of ‘cavalry’ which reminds us of the place where Jesus Christ was crucified: “Empress of Cavalry” (4) -- indicating that a woman who has chosen to become spiritually wedded to poetry faces extreme hardship and struggle like Christ in Cavalry in a symbolic level.

          In the early nineteenth century, for a woman it was allowable to work as a nurse, teacher or governess but not as a scholarly woman, specially, whose composition was so elliptical and intricate. But “Belle of Amherst” set out to carry on with her life as per her own rules and not by any typical norms and standards. Perpetually questioning and lastly deserting any hope of a conceivably eternal association with a personal God, it is not astounding that Emily Dickinson endowed her attention in mundane, human connections. She had numerous crushes, but never married and exhibited exceptionally abnormal conduct of her time. Dickinson's view about marriage in the male-centric society and her own struggle for individualism and autonomy often conflicted with her profound want for real, consequential communion with others, and these clashed desires particularly affected her associations with the male. Wanting to be regarded an equivalent, but additionally aching to be acknowledged, Dickinson always stood up for herself above the opinions and judgments of her male companions. The profound and significant intimacy that Dickinson got from her female friends was an extraordinary and essential part of her enthusiastic life. From the works of certain commentators like Lillian Faderman, it has turned out to be quite extensively recognized that Emily Dickinson had a strong and significant connection to women in her life. Yet there still exist inconceivably the individuals who read Emily Dickinson regarding the spinster-in-white identity, built by early critics. Secondly, the individuals who do recognize her as a lesbian. Lesbianism, as described by Adrienne Rich, is “a sense of desiring oneself; above all, of choosing oneself... a primary intensity between women, an intensity which in the world at large was trivialized, caricatured or invested with evil.” (69)

          Some feminist critics scrutinise Dickinson’s writings through her relationship with females, while likewise thinking about the verse’s homo-erotic components. The thought and elucidation of Dickinson as lesbian have continued to develop since Patterson first hypothesized this interpretation in 1951. Presumably, Dickinson wrote more than 1800 poetry that we have and of which more than half were addressed to a lady. The most important friend in Dickinson's life was a woman, namely Susan Huntington Gilbert, who, according to some critics like John Cody, Ellen Louise Hart, Martha Nell Smith, Paula Benett, Judith Farr and Lillian Faderman, was one of the most significant and focal, if not only, sexual relationship in the poet’s life. She was the beneficiary of more of Dickinson’s poems and letters than any other correspondent. Some poems are so evident as to utilize her name, such as, “To own a Susan of my own” (poem 1401); the ‘Dollie’ lyrics are nevertheless a pseudonymous step influence. Other love lyrics like “One Sister have I in our house” (poem 14) depends on topographical and anecdotal data for their association with a specific lady.

          In the poem “To own a Susan of my own” she bluntly declares that she desires to have Susan as ‘her own’, not belonging to any male. In the third line the poet infers the idea that people believed that a male and female were bound to be together: “as the Lord intended” (3) -- what she basically saying here is that she couldn’t care if she relinquishes her entitlement to the domain of morality or might be even to the domain of Paradise, God’s acceptance or adoration. The relationship with Susan gives Dickinson the ecstatic ‘Bliss’ for which she is willing to ‘forfeit’ other ‘Realm’, maybe even a place in the almighty's kingdom. This lyric shows how, for Dickinson, it is justified and worthy of betraying the Almighty only if she is allowed to have the ecstatic joy of being with her Sue.

          In another poem “One Sister have I in our house”, Dickinson recognises that as indicated by biological or natural standards, she has one sister, Lavinia -- the “only one recorded” (3). However, this poetry demonstrates that the moves one makes and not the qualities in one’s blood, define genuine sisterhood. Regardless of Sue’s disparities, she turned out to be immovably appended to the poet's heart. Sue’s solicitude, companionship, understanding, and love, rise above mere biology, causing her to have a place with Dickinson as a sister as Lavinia or even more than that. But at the same time, the analogy of Susan with a star in the sky is romantic and sentimental: “I chose this single star - / From out the wide night's numbers - / Sue - forevermore!” (25-27) -- while Dickinson by all accounts playing the role of Astrophel to her Stella, which, as per the feminist critics, is a conspicuous reference to an erotic relationship between these two women.

          By a close scrutiny of Dickinson’s love-lyrics and letters, many critics, feminists in particular, convincingly argued that Dickinson was in love with Susan from the time when both women were in their early twenties, in 1950s. Dickinson’s verse is broadly elusive and unique, her meaning is seldom so strict as to include an immediate encounter with the sensual world. Nevertheless, various poetry has seen to pass on a solid component of same-sex longing. Like in the poem “Her breast is fit pearls”, the poet takes us to three parts of her darling: breast, brows, and heart – giving us the hint of her enthusiastic but disturbed relation with her once best friend and afterwards sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson. According to the poet, her darling deserves pearls yet the writer is not able to acquire them. A diver must dive into the ocean; a hidden sexual picture that alludes to the issue of same-sex love. Divers should likewise be fearless, expert and physically fit. But the poet would presumably be ineffective regardless of whether she attempted or not. Plunging for pearls isn’t her quality. Secondly, the image of brows which signifies the character, will, and knowledge. The cherished is worthy of being a ruler, to have squires, to be managed the tribute due to a ruler. But, in any case the poet is unassuming and modest,a typical individual, not part of the respectability, and in this manner without a peak or ensign. Thus, accepting her own deficiencies, that she is unfit to add to her beloved’s magnificence or her majestic nature, so at that point the poet swings to what she can grant. And to do so she turns to the heart, the seat of adoration and warmth. Here the writer is only an unassuming “Sparrow” who can make a “sweet” and lasting nest: “Sweet of twigs and twine / My perennial nest” (7-8). Though it is an extremely female endeavour, yet a lot hearty, eminent and more profound than offering pearls or a courtier’s devotion. The poet has no peak not just on the grounds that she isn’t a ruler or woman but since she is a basic sparrow as opposed to a fancier winged flying creature.

          In another Dickinson’s immensely erotic poetry “Wild Nights - Wild Nights” (poem 269), the woman’s oppressed female sexuality enthusiastically pines to encounter the rapture of sexual satisfaction with her beloved. The poem talks about the strong enthusiasm, hidden desires and innermost feelings of the speaker. She states that the nights she fancies to spend with her beloved are going to be her actual opulence. The poet here compares wild nights of love and passion for being on an ocean during a wild tempest. Here Dickinson explicitly expresses her sensual longings for a woman or rather for her Sue. In the opening stanza of the poem, a tempest seems to be raging, the oceans in a ferment from the breezes. If the speaker were with her darling, there would be stormy nights of their own creation, conceived of enthusiastic indulgence: “were I with thee / Wild Nights should be / our luxury!” (2-4) -- the word ‘luxury’ in Emily Dickinson’s time meant sensual delight. In the next stanza, the poet states that the breezes can’t avail against “a Heart in port” (6), means a beloved can transcend life’s beatings, provided the steadiness given by love and affection. In the last stanza, the poet gave the reference of Eden, the biblical garden, where Adam and Eve lived. Here the speaker is in a boat, rowing over an envisioned ocean. Rowing is no doubt a sensual activity, a rhythmical development that may have understood as sexual. Furthermore, the ocean can be understood to mean the emotion or enthusiasm. In the last two lines of this stanza, the speaker uses words like ‘tonight’ which refers to the immediacy and ‘might I’ which indicates the wishful thinking. The speaker is energetically anticipating this time when love and satisfaction will be accomplished when the body and the soul will be one -- attained through mundane intimacy and bonding.

          Dickinson delighted in a long relationship with Susan both before and after they became sisters-in-law. However, the relationship cooled altogether after Susan's marriage to her brother Austin as some critics like Cody, Pollak and Faderman contended. But in contrast, critics like Far, Bennett, Smith and Hart argued that the intimacy between these two women was cherished until Emily’s death in 1886, although occasionally they can’t help contradicting with the idea of defining the relationship as ‘lesbian’, as at that time the idea of ‘romantic friendship’ between women was socially accepted and sanctioned which caused even contemporary critics to excuse the possibility of conscious physical intimacy or eroticism between two women of Dickinson’s epoch. Susan never lost her place of focal significance in Dickinson’s life and graceful manifestations. Almost as well recorded as her affection and desire for Sue, is Emily Dickinson’s feeling of betrayal and loss at Susan’s wedding to her brother Austin. Many of her poems hint at this feeling of loss and heart-breaking. In the poem “Had I known that the first was the last” Dickinson expresses sexual rapture expressively. The cup and the lip comprise an analogy for the connection between the sexual subject and the object of want: “Cup, it was your fault/lip was not the liar” (5-6). It is difficult to dissect the experience or assign blame when the relation shatters. This lyric depicts not only lament, yet in addition, recommends frailty in light of the fact that the object of her aspiration or desire has been carried away by someone else.

          The loss of her most dear one was so intense for her and she felt so deprived that Dickinson began to transform her deprivation into innovation. Perhaps, poem 640, “I cannot live with you” is the most firmly tied to Susan. It expresses a deliberate determination to relinquish something desired. Often considered as Dickinson's one of the best love lyric, this poem expresses the despair of Dickinson after her beloved Susan united with Austin, Emily Dickinson’s brother. All through the poem, the speaker breaks the literary tradition of love. The nullification of the first line undermines the conventional love entirely. As per the traditional notion of love, one would live with her beloved, die with him and would pursue him to heaven or to hell. But the writer is declaring the opposite here that she can’t live with her darling. Besides, the speaker additionally expresses that she cannot die with her beloved as well because death is a private act and for the gaze of “the other” intrudes: “To shut the Other’s Gaze down – /You – could not –” (15-16). Hereby the “other” Emily is referring to the apparent rival who must be her own brother Austin, with whom her beloved Susan got united.

          Dickinson in this poem unequivocally utilizes and puts emphasis on the word “life” since it is brimming with rules and complexities that shield us from communicating our inventiveness and freedom. She loved Susan so beyond a reasonable doubt and passionately that it even surpasses her love for Jesus, which might make the Almighty angry and they got separated. Dickinson manifests that if they wanted to be together in life, they would need to give up their passion of love which would invalidate the purpose of life. However, two young people of similar sex living together would have been nearly unheard of and would have brought disgrace upon the family. In Dickinson’s time, the term ‘lesbian’ didn’t exist. Furthermore, society thinks of the heterosexuality as the only normative sexuality while marginalizing and dismissing various other choices of sexual longings and practices, which are thrown outside the frontier of normality or sanity. Homosexual individuals were treated as aliens around then. However, it is not evident that whether the poet is disallowed from loving and continuing the intimate relationship by external conditions (for instance, Susan’s wedding to Austin) or whether she herself chooses the detachment which the restrictive state of mind “It would be life” (2) indicates. Whatever be the case, despite the fact that the writer gives up something desired, she left with misery that is very much significant.

          In transfiguring the deprivation of her beloved into poetry, Dickinson skillfully destabilizes the social norms that depreciate and strives to hinder her longings. The poet defiantly indicates that in spite of the fact that her amorous pursuits might be halted, yet, the vitality that offered ascend to them persists. Even if she fails to have sexual pleasure with a woman, she can engrave her erotic desires in her verse. The poem “I would not paint - a picture –” projects the delight of encountering art in sensual terms. She encodes in the indisputably exotic language (‘delicious’, ‘sweet’ and ‘sumptuous’) and figures, the phases of delight: “Enamored - impotent – content” (19).  Dickinson’s emphasis on being both the maker and the beneficiary of enjoyment has a striking erotic indication of self-produced euphoria - masturbation, that is concerned with play and not with ejaculation. It is not necessary to mention that the sensuality is not orgasmic, as the poem closes with a splendid image that conflates the sensual with the literary. One of Dickinson’s extraordinary blessings as an artist is her potential to depict abstract ideas with concrete images. In many of Dickinson’s poems, conceptual thoughts and material things are combined together to elucidate one another. This poem is no exception. The use of the word “Bolts” supplicates lightning bolts and constructional bolts, an image that aptly depicts the robustness of her poetry. The sensual perusing of this poem can be grounded in Dickinson’s utilization of the concrete image of fingers. A huge number of Dickinson’s codes are derived from customary signs - characteristic symbolism, specifically flowers, water and honey bees; images of wealth, gold and jewels. Of course, these symbols allude to female sexuality, even in heterosexual poetry. Dickinson’s creativity lies in her unique use of figures, like fingers, which is at once so quotidian as to be conventional and ideal for connecting poetry and sexuality. Fingers, apparatus of the artist and implements of the lover, particularly lesbian, are responsible for the “rare - celestial – stir” (6) that “Evokes so sweet a Torment” (7) - literary as well as sexual.

          But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Dickinson didn’t love men; her love lyrics to men are very much discussed and even controversial. After all, she composed those enthusiastic “Master letters” to an obscure male recipient, so she probably been bisexual as some critic claims. She had many male mentors throughout her life: Benjamin Franklin Newton, Samuel Bowels, Reverend Charles Wadsworth, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Among them, Higginson had the greatest influence on Dickinson. Although there is much proof that she was enamored with men on certain occasions, there is an equivalent amount of, if not more, evidence that she indeed was a bisexual person. In fact, her lesbian poems are more complex and passionate and have obvious references to homo-erotic elements. This paper tries to explore this complex lesbianism in the selected poems of Dickinson, though there are many other poems in which the same issues can be evident, for example, “Within my reach” (poem 90) , “My nosegays are for Captives” (poem 95) , “They put us apart” (poem 474) , “Her sweet Weight on my Heart a Night” (poem 518) , “Now I knew I lost her” (poem 1219) , “Frigid and sweet Her parting face –” (poem 1318) , “To see her picture” (poem 1568). But there are some critics who reject the term “lesbian” as they believe that female friendship in Dickinson’s era was somehow passionate but absolutely free from any sexual connection. But from the obvious erotic references in Dickinson's poems and her explicit declaration of her desire to indulge in sexual pleasure with a woman, such ideas can easily be defended. Therefore, in spite of being a reserved person, the personal life of Dickinson has a quite clear reflection in her poetry; her calm, yet furious lifestyle brought to life some of the most splendid poems in existence, that makes her position as a poet unique and laudable.

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