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“Abyss (from The Emily Dickinson Series).” Janet Malcolm, 2013.

“Abyss (from The Emily Dickinson Series).” Janet Malcolm, 2013.

Emily Dickinson, arguably one of America’s foremost poets, is characterized by critics as able to capture extreme emotional states in her greatest work. Recent dating of her poems offers the periodicity of her writing as a behavior that can be examined for patterns of affective illness that may relate to these states. The bulk of Dickinson’s work was written during a clearly defined 8-year period when she was age 28–35. Poems written during that period, 1858–1865, were grouped by year and examined for annual and seasonal distribution. Her 8-year period of productivity was marked by two 4-year phases. The first shows a seasonal pattern characterized by greater creative output in spring and summer and a lesser output during the fall and winter. This pattern was interrupted by an emotional crisis that marked the beginning of the second phase, a 4-year sustained period of greatly heightened productivity and the emergence of a revolutionary poetic style. These data, supported by excerpts from letters to friends during this period of Dickinson’s life, demonstrate seasonal changes in mood during the first four years of major productivity, followed by a sustained elevation of creative energy, mood, and cognition during the second. They suggest, as supported by family history, a bipolar pattern previously described in creative artists.


John F. McDermott M.D.

“Crater (from The Emily Dickinson Series).” Janet Malcolm, 2013.

“Crater (from The Emily Dickinson Series).”  Janet Malcolm, 2013.


Dear Diana,

your birthday balloons or Valentine’s Day balloons

were scattered along four miles of McGrath State Beach,

as a few plovers and stilts scurried up and down the surf,

turkey buzzards ate something up in the dunes

toward the oil field, two pelicans flew directly at us,

swerving of course at the last second, easily, without

any change of angle, posture or expression,

(one flew north with torn breast red from a

distance, flesh hanging open) and we came upon two

sea lion pups, less than a year old, separated

from the others, separated from each other, starving

and looking up at us fearfully as we walked toward them,

one lifted large wet eyes on a thin neck and sniffed,

the other yelped and fled from its resting spot

down into the waves. All the way I collected the Mylar

balloons, tore each open and stuffed it

into a plastic bag. Only one carried your name.

It came to me that you were 4 years old, your

round chocolate face dimpled with glee,

surrounded by family and these bobbing

helium-filled emblems of their wobbling joy.

As we hiked the three miles up to McGrath Lake

and its rafts of sea birds, waves rolled in, waves

rolled on. Stalking up from hard-packed sand

I’d fetch another one of your withered globes.

19 total, so maybe you’re not 4—maybe you’re

21 (the other 2 still float in the ocean)

and my corny imagination presents me with

this heart-shaped image of you at 21, chasing

your 18 or 19 year old lover, teasing you,

a $20 bouquet of big shiny wishes in his fist

to make you chase him, to make you love him,

—as laughing, you do—he skips away as the sea

wind buffets these notional tokens of fantasy

and desire about you both, as he catches you

in his arms, strands of the long ribbons trail

in that wind when he catches you and loses

them, they fly up with your squeals and delight

—your delight rising to the skies. That’s

how I think of you as I walk barefoot at surf’s

edge. Your balloons, a kind of plastic deadly

to sea life, rode the sea wind like specks

of fantasy and desire trailing periwinkle ribbons

from a civilization playing out fantasy and

desire across the continent, floating out

over the sea to wither with cold and drop

into the breaking waves, still partly inflated,

washed up on miles of shoreline. They stuffed

the plastic bag to bursting, Diana. Withered

flags or feathers of your delight and bright desire.

And what about those two shotgun shells I found?


balloon bump

One guy showed us his tiny sculptures made of tissue paper, saliva and semen. One guy wrote a novel, the same novel that he kept showing me about a once famous child actor who had been his partner who died of AIDS around 1990, rewriting and revising the same manuscript for twenty years. One guy I’m sure still lives with his aged, infirm mom who he dutifully cares for and still writes noir stories he sends out to unknown on-line publications. One woman, the major poet of the city and basically the poet laureate of the city, died ill and broke out in the desert. One woman wrote brutal hilarious stories about dead-pan sexual relationships that I urged her to publish, but she did not. One woman, I should have called her back immediately, left a message on my phone machine saying she had a manuscript she wanted to show me, but committed suicide. One guy published about fifteen years ago a tiny edition, a few hundred copies, of a little poetry book which nobody saw and no one remembers. Sometimes I see him in Trader Joe’s. Another guy I see around seems like a good guy but never talks about books or poetry, instead he asks for favors, recommendation letters or referrals, or money for some project or other. One guy asked me to write a recommendation letter, and wrote me from the mountains thanking me for helping him get the gig; someone said he was drunk at a gathering, talking shit about my work. There was also the Paraguayan Korean poet, who I pointed out in a recent magazine photo to someone who didn’t recognize her; I said she’d gotten married, and the last time I saw her she was drunk outside Ave. 50 Gallery. A journalist we used to talk with about writing in bars or cafes wrote a cook book; the last time I saw him was with a script writer who wrote a little poetry on the side who had recently returned from Cuba, with a Cuban wife no less (supposedly she was making his life hell), who kept trying to turn the conversation into a lament for the death of Communism, but the journalist and I were talking poetry and how poetry related to the journalist’s cook book. The journalist left the city to become a professor up north. I did not see or hear from him after that, but I had dinner with an interesting poet in the Bay Area who said he was his nephew.


February 2015