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Clement, Lesley D.: "The Last Resort: Death and Liminal Spaces in Children’s Picture Books on Emily Dickinson"

The Last Resort: Death and Liminal Spaces in Children’s Picture Books on Emily Dickinson

Lesley D. Clement, Lakehead University

When the painter in Roberto Innocenti’s The Last Resort (2002) visits the establishment that gives this picture book its title, he seeks inspiration from a number of characters based on fictional and actual personages. Finally, when all seems lost, a figure clad in black with her hair down enters – perhaps “before she took to wearing all white,” the Afterword tells us. She recites two lines of poetry: “We paused before a House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground –.” This is the inspiration that the painter, Innocenti himself, has been seeking. Emily Dickinson as the muse of poetry is a frequent figure in text and image of both adults’ and children’s literature. What makes Innocenti’s figure so unique is not only her black-clad figure but also the conflation of her as poetic muse with the poem itself and with the subject matter of her poem, the grave. The solidity of the skirt of her dress and its shadow suggests a tombstone, and the location and lighting both suggest a liminal space, somewhere betwixt and between life and death.
While there has been apprehension among Dickinson scholars of a perceived risk that her poetry will be relegated to the nursery, this apprehension has generally been challenged by those who raise this concern in the first place (for example, Barbara Mossberg [1983]; Ingrid Satelmajer [2002]). In this presentation, I will address the suitability of Dickinson’s poetry as a mechanism to introduce the concept of death to child readers through the picture book format, especially in more contemporary examples such as Jane Yolen’s The Emily Sonnets: The Life of Emily Dickinson (2012), illustrated by Gary Kelley, and Isabelle Arsenault’s My Letter to the World and Other Poems (2008). The concept of liminality can be applied to multiple elements of these picture books; however, this presentation will focus on liminal spaces that invite the child reader into an encounter with death. This is not the safe and snug encounter of the early pictorial versions of Dickinson’s life and poetry but encounters that reflect a concept of “knowing childhood,” as developed by Anne Higonnet (1998) and Judith Plotz (2001). This presentation will focus on liminal spaces in pictorial representations of Dickinson’s life and poems created through images such as thresholds and graveyards, gaps generated by text-image interanimation, frame-breaking, and the interstices of page turns.