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Zero Dark Emily

By Jerome Charyn
Guest Columnist
New York, NY, USA

Jerome Charyn and Chloe (Credit: Jorg)

[This is an Exclusive offered to readers of Stay Thirsty Magazine. It is Jerome Charyn's imagined reincarnation of Emily Dickinson in the 21st Century, as a CIA analyst.]

If I were some prince of astral projection and could thrust Emily Dickinson into our own furious and chaotic landscape after 9/11, I would have her come back with the full glory of her freckles and red hair as a CIA analyst, a kind of poet who has to connect all the dark dots, dipped in blood, with the magic wand of her own mind. Let's assume she's an analyst with the exotic name of Maya, who has worked for the CIA ever since high school and has no other life; Maya isn't a typical spook, of course. She's a ghost on the screen, played by Jessica Chastain in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (2012), a tale about the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. We first meet Maya in Pakistan wearing a black mask. She's in a torturer's tent, a CIA black site. It's only when she's outside the tent that we can see her "hat" of red hair, while her freckles are hidden for the sake of the camera, I suppose. But she has Emily's lips, mouth, and long fingers (from the first daguerreotype), and we can almost imagine her in the poet's iconic white dress. Yet we aren't dealing with the Belle of Amherst here.

"Washington says she's a killer," the CIA section chief in Islamabad reveals to us. He isn't too happy to have Maya around. She's become a monomaniac, hunting her own white whale—bin Laden. She hunts with the artistry of an oracle, looking at all the constellations of al-Qaeda names and faces, like a terrifying ganglia of nerve cells, while the men at her station are caught in the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to keep their jobs as the ground under them constantly quakes. Maya is used to volcanoes. Al-Qaeda agents try to kill her and can't. They blow up the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, and she walks out of the rubble.

Daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson,
c. early 1847

Maya wanders to various black sites—from Poland to Pakistan—wearing a black wig, and has to tease some meaning from all the misinformation. Finally a five-year old tip leads her to the whereabouts of Osama's most trusted courier. Threatening, cajoling, screaming at her section chief, she pinpoints the courier to a secluded fortress in Attatobad, less than a mile from the Pakistani Military Academy, and believes that Osama is holed up in there with his wives and children. She's used her own tradecraft, all the witcheries of espionage, against the tradecraft of Osama and his lieutenants.

She flies to Washington in her quest to convince the CIA that Osama is inside the fortress. Once more, she's surrounded by male adversaries and analysts. They stall her with their own tradecraft: none of them wants to risk his ass for Maya's sake. "I'm the motherfucker who found this place, sir," she tells the CIA Director, played by James Gandolfini with a bit of Tony Soprano's swagger.

"It's her against the world," says one of the honchos about Maya. But her persistence—her madness—prevails. The White House approves a strike on the fortress—it's zero dark thirty in military parlance, "thirty minutes after midnight," or the darkness and deep cover of a clandestine attack. Osama, whose code name's Geronimo, is brought to Islamabad in a body bag. It's Maya who's called upon to identify the corpse. She opens the green bag delicately with her long fingers, like bin Laden's phantom lover, and confirms the kill. Next, we find her in a transport plane that looks like the belly of a whale. There are no other passengers. She's the only one on the manifest. As always, Maya is alone. An attendant asks her where she wants to go. She doesn't answer him—she can't. The entire film has been a study of Maya's face, caught between agony and repose. Suddenly a tear falls, but the face doesn't soften. She's the witch who has won, with leaps of her imagination and her stubborn will. Recruited out of high school, a child of 9/11, she has a particular genius—the poetry to capture and kill Osama bin Laden.

Dickinson's tradecraft wasn't that dissimilar. She had to live her life as a secret agent. She hid herself in that white dress, masked her bisexuality, while her language molted like feathers and could make her words liquefy. She was an enchantress, a witch, whose intellect and imagination had utterly isolated her. She could serenade Susan, share some of her poems, but never her tradecraft. She shared that with no one. She may have scribbled poems in the pantry, recited them to her little cousin Loo, but she really wrote in stealth, and it was always zero dark thirty at her lozenge-like desk upstairs. She was a captive unto herself, her own prisoner of war, who pulled lightning from the chaos in her head, danced on her toes, broke down syntax like bits of crockery, and then reassembled the broken bits in a way no one had ever done before.



Jerome Charyn


Jerome Charyn is an award-winning author with nearly 50 published works to his credit who is known for his inventive and prolific chronicles of real and imagined American life. His latest book, A Loaded Gun – Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, has garnered high praise from Joyce Carol Oates, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and Library Journal in advance of its release.

All opinions expressed in this article are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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