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July 03, 1988|ELENA BRUNET

EMILY DICKINSON by Cynthia Griffin Wolfe foreword by R.W.B. Lewis (Addison-Wesley: $15.95) The biographical events of Emily Dickinson's life are few: Born in 1830, Dickinson attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Mass. She left her native town of Amherst no more than 12 times during her life. Only about 20 of her poems had ever been seen by anyone but herself before her death in 1886, when her sister, Lavinia, uncovered a locked box containing 1,775 poems and fragments of verse bound together by string.

The first third of this remarkable 600-page work is devoted to the Dickinson family: a difficult father; a married brother with a young mistress; an engaging younger sister who, like Emily, never married; a mother whose incapacitating stroke demanded full-time care, which Emily gave happily.

Dickinson's reputation as a recluse is defied by the voice in her poems--an extraordinary vitality that suggests not poems jotted down for herself but poems that demand an audience. Through Cynthia Griffin Wolfe's close readings of the poems in the second part of the book, Dickinson's iconoclasm comes clear: Rather than finding benevolence and harmony in her God, "the poet discovered principally malice, capriciousness, and the terrifying drive toward extinction." Similarly, her love poems speak not of consummation but of eternal denial and separation from the loved one: "Parting is all we know of heaven, / And all we need of hell."

Dickinson's work implicitly challenges the expected behavior--submissive, self-effacing--of 19th-Century women. She skillfully maneuvers to avoid a frontal attack with her language, preferring "the silent knife of irony, . . . the cool calculation of an assassin."

THE RED WHITE AND BLUE by John Gregory Dunne (St. Martin's Press: $4.95) The subject of this sweeping novel is as large and dramatic as our recent history, refashioned and transcended into fiction. Thus the Broderick family (Irish, Catholic) sounds a lot like the Kennedys--the father, Hugh Broderick, is a self-made billionaire who has served as an adviser to a number of presidents. His daughter, Priscilla, marries the brother of the President of the United States and has a longstanding affair with the President himself. We read of a Latin labor leader who sounds a lot like Cesar Chavez; of an actress who visits North Vietnam during the war; even Jimmy Hendrix makes a cameo appearance.

Jack Broderick, in turn a San Francisco reporter and a Hollywood screenwriter who, by his own admission, is "more comfortable as a spectator than as a player," is the narrator of John Gregory Dunne's novel. The most compelling of Dunne's characters is Jack's ex-wife, Leah Kaye (the first of three), a radical attorney whose specialty is the defense of murderers.

Dunne gauges the changing mood of our times. His portraits of '60s civil rights activists are brilliant, especially as time passes; they begin to seek power, fame, money; and the mood shifts from altruism to selfishness.

NO MORE HEROES Madness and Psychiatry in War by Richard A. Gabriel (Hill & Wang: $7.95) According to Richard A. Gabriel, "the rates of psychiatric collapse among soldiers (in U.S. wars) have exceeded the number killed in action." His book is a call to understand that no soldier, no matter how well-disciplined or tough, is immune to the psychic ravages of the battlefield. "Given enough time in combat," Gabriel writes, "every soldier will eventually suffer a mental collapse."

"No More Heroes" is by no means an antiwar tract. Gabriel served for 20 years as an intelligence officer in the Army. Now a professor of politics at St. Anselm College, he has turned a historian's eye--if a somewhat academic and plodding pen--to the conditions that have plagued not only returning Vietnam veterans but also veterans of earlier wars.

DAM-BURST OF DREAMS by Christopher Nolan; introduction by Marjorie Wallace (Ohio University Press: $9.95) A collection of poems, stories and plays by the young Irish author of "Under the Eye of the Clock," winner of Britain's Whitbread Book of the Year Award.

Christopher Nolan's writing is remarkable in that these pieces were composed when he was still a teen-ager (he is now 22) and also because a severe injury at birth left him spastic and mute, incapable of conversation or expression, until he was 11, when the drug Lioresal relaxed his crippled muscles, enabling him to write with the use of a unicorn stick, to tap out words on a typewriter and later a microprocessor.

The dramatic history of the young author aside, these pieces are utterly original and extraordinary in their own right; "Dam-Burst of Dreams" is not a work of juvenilia or a curiosity. His vision is remarkable in its clarity, his language dense, comical and heartbreaking. As Nolan himself writes:

"Pity the man in failure, / Love the man who's mad, / Make music with the man that's happy, / Marvel at a lonesome-child's hand; / Outstretched in those innocent fingers / Is a lively benediction's grace, / Make careful study, make mercy chime, / Love the tear, dry the face, watch the smile."

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