Category Archives: Gun Lit

Gun Lit: My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun

Emily Dickinson with gun

The first time I read “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun,” I was left with the impression that the poem’s speaker was using the gun as a metaphor for her own potential, a potential for action and impact that was unlocked by another person–“The Owner”–but that the speaker is the more powerful of the two.

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
By Emily Dickinson

 

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –

 

And now We roam in Sovreign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply –

 

And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through –

 

And when at Night – Our good Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head –
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow – to have shared –

 

To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –

 

Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without – the power to die –

The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition ed by Ralph W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999) via Poetry Foundation

But when I went to find criticism/commentary on the poem, I was greeted with this comment from Brooklyn College professor Lilia Melani:

Most readers feel the power of this poem, which is based on rage. The speaker compares her life to an unused loaded gun and finds joy in fulfilling its purpose to kill. Even if you have never felt a rage so violent that you felt destructive or explosive, can you imagine what such a state must feel like? Does this poem convincingly portray such a rage?

I was like “what? rage? where!?” I associate rage with unchecked ferocity, wildness. But this poem felt controlled. Cold. Precise. Do other people see rage in this? I wonder if it is because of my own personal experience and associations with firearms– I can recall almost viscerally how it felt to hold a gun when I was learning how to fire. I felt very strong and empowered and morally capable since I didn’t feel the urge to shoot anyone. But I knew that I could if I wanted to. I felt very good. Competent. And that is the feeling I get from this poem.

“My Life had stood” is probably one of my favorite poems. There’s a fair amount written about it being a representation of Dickinson’s internal struggle with the power of her writing in an age where poetry was not seen as feminine. If you’re interested in reading more, here’s a medley of excellent criticism compiled by Karen Ford.

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Gun Lit: My Mother Contemplating Her Gun

Revolver by Pearson Scott Foresman

Illustration by Pearson Scott Foresman

Today’s Poem of the Day from the Poetry Foundation has remained in my mind since it appeared in my inbox this morning.

Nick Flynn’s “My Mother Contemplating Her Gun” evokes some powerful and pertinent impressions of the role of firearms in our lives — guns as objects to be feared and to ward off fear, the marvel that such a small thing as a bullet can unmake a person.

And there’s something else here, too, that I can’t quite name but continues to resonate. Something to do with agency and mortality. I’ll have to mull it over.

My Mother Contemplating Her Gun
By Nick Flynn

One boyfriend said to keep the bullets

locked in a different room.
                                    Another urged
            clean it
or it could explode. Larry
thought I should keep it loaded
under my bed,
                     you never know.
            I bought it
when I didn’t feel safe. The barrel
                         is oily,
             reflective, the steel
pure, pulled from a hole
                      in West Virginia. It
could have been cast into anything, nails
along the carpenter’s lip, the ladder
to balance the train. Look at this, one
                        bullet,
                        how almost nothing it is—
             saltpeter   sulphur   lead   Hell
burns sulphur, a smell like this.
                        safety & hammer, barrel & grip
             I don’t know what I believe.
I remember the woods behind my father’s house
          horses beside the quarry
stolen cars lost in the deepest wells,
the water below
            an ink waiting to fill me.
                      Outside a towel hangs from a cold line
            a sheet of iron in the sky
            roses painted on it, blue roses.
Tomorrow it will still be there.

“My Mother Contemplating Her Gun” © 2000 Nick Flynn. Reprinted from Some Ether with the permission of Graywolf Press, St Paul, Minnesota. Source: Some Ether (Graywolf Press, 2000). via Poetry Foundation

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