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Emily Dickinson and her contentious family

LIVES LIKE LOADED GUNS: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds, by Lyndall Gordon. Viking, 491 pp., $32.95.

Why can't we leave Emily Dickinson alone? Since her death in 1886, the iconic American poet remains just as elusive and unknowable, still an obsessive object of scholarly scrutiny. The legend of the hermetic woman in white persists.

In various iterations, Dickinson - who left behind nearly 1,800 unpublished poems - has been cast as a lesbian, madwoman, passionate genius, feminist, lonely spinster and scorned lover. Each new biographer seems intent on "rescuing" her from earlier portrayals.

Lyndall Gordon's "Lives Like Loaded Guns" arrives just nine years after "My Wars Are Laid Away in Books" by Alfred Habegger, an excellent and lively portrait of Dickinson.

Gordon's account, however, is the first to explore fully her mysterious bouts of chronic illness, and her brother Austin's toxic adulterous relationship with Mabel Loomis Todd. The author examines the explosive feuds that erupted in its wake, revealing the long-lasting, grievous consequences.

The Dickinsons were a highly prominent and influential clan in Amherst, Mass. Entangled in a "lethal mix of passion, jealousy and rage," they'd be perfect candidates for a reality TV show were they alive today.

Although Austin's affair with Mabel isn't news, Gordon tells the whole story, casting Mabel Todd as a conniving, ambitious villain - the "Lady Macbeth of Amherst" who wrested control of Dickinson's work, cultivating the legend of the poet as a feeble creature.

The young, married Mabel arrived in Amherst in 1881 and initially befriended both Austin and his wife, Susan, who was Emily's confidante and most important reader. According to Gordon, Mabel fantasized about Susan's death so that she could become Austin's wife.

Mabel recognized Dickinson's genius, but her heavy-handed edits of the poems distorted them, rendering them sentimental rather than transgressive. The Todd-Dickinson descendants would battle over claiming the "real" Dickinson long after the poet died - not to mention fighting for royalties.

Gordon's biography also offers a major revelation: evidence that Dickinson suffered from epilepsy. The author makes her case partly through prescriptions that Dickinson received (the papers still survive) and reinterprets poems such as "I felt a Cleaving in my Mind - " to describe the poet's condition.

She writes that "sickness is a more sensible reason for seclusion than disappointed love." Epilepsy carried a stigma, and Gordon explains that because diagnosis was "rarely uttered, still less put on paper, there's little chance of explicit evidence." Decide for yourself, but it's a compelling theory, and epilepsy did exist in her family.

"Lives Like Loaded Guns" is a remarkable achievement that deconstructs the image of Dickinson so entrenched in literary history. Gordon, a gifted storyteller, charts the ugly family dramas not to exploit them, but to prove how truly damaging they were to the poet's legacy. And Dickinson is shown as a woman whose withdrawal from public life was a willful means of control, rather than mere helplessness.

"Rare Emily Dickinson died - went back into a little deeper mystery than that she has always lived in," Mabel recorded, rather astutely, in her diary in 1886.

This fascinating biography will inspire readers to return to Dickinson's vastly rich poems and letters - and it's her work for which she should be remembered, after all.

Emily Dickinson in full bloom

Serious Dickinson fans should head directly to the Bronx for the final day of "Emily Dickinson's Garden: The Poetry of Flowers" at The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx River Parkway (exit 7W) and Fordham Road (718-817-8700, nybg.org). Visitors can read favorite poems about flowers, birds and trees (10 a.m.-6 p.m.) and Georgetown prof Judith Farr delivers a lecture / slide show on the poet's own "Garden of Eden" (at 4 p.m.). All-garden pass admission is $20.

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