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McAbee, Leslie: "'Memories of Palm': Dickinson’s Tropical Commodities and Unstable Geographies"

“Memories of Palm”: Dickinson’s Tropical Commodities and Unstable Geographies

Leslie McAbee, University of North Carolina

In several poems, Emily Dickinson stages cross-cultural encounters between Anglo-American and tropical representatives, the latter of which are often identified as foreign commodities or distant laborers. However, Dickinson envisions a disruption of cultural and geographical order or, in other words, a more fluid global geography that brings the distant and the near, the foreign and the native into immediate confrontation. In light of the actual trade in “exotic” goods for American consumption, what purpose does Dickinson’s poetic rehearsal of these commercial encounters serve? I argue that Dickinson makes a case for the universal relevance of all people, creatures, and things to one another and encourages a heightened awareness for worlds beyond U.S. borders. More importantly, however, Dickinson also denies the American or European consumer’s dominance over his purchase, and she does this by granting her exotic commoditized people and creatures dramatic global mobility. The captive leopard of “Civilization—spurns—the Leopard,” for example, travels back to “her Asia” in her “Memories--of Palm--,” despite her displacement in the Western world. In “The Malay took the Pearl,” too, Dickinson brings the African/Malay pearl diver across the continents to confront the aristocratic “Earl” speaker by way of the Earl’s own psychological distress. For Dickinson, the East and West must meet but not under the assumption of Anglo-American and European predominance. As proof of this point, she gives her foreign representatives the power to roam, free themselves of commercial repression, and meet their Western counterparts on equal terms.