19 May, 2014Issue 25.2PoetryVisual Arts

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“Excuse Emily and her Atoms”

Judyta Frodyma

Gorgeous-NothingsEmily Dickinson The Gorgeous Nothings
Edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin
New Directions in association with Granary Books, 2013
272 pages
ISBN 978-0811221757




In 2000, Billy Collins published a poem entitled “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” in a collection of the same name. Tastefully, he does exactly what the poem says, speculating (though in jest) as we have all done at one point, about Emily’s delicate sexuality. After her tippet and her bonnet, he removes

the long white dress, a more
complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
buttons down the back,
so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
before my hands can part the fabric
like a swimmer’s dividing water,
and slip inside.

The dress is of particular importance not only because it has survived, but because it contained, we are told, a pocket. The editors of Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings, textual scholar Marta Werner and visual artist Jen Bervin, use this minute detail as a linchpin for their collection of Dickinson’s “envelope poems”. All 52 of them, each one meticulously displayed in this volume—back and front—were written in pencil, probably a miniscule, two-inch stub of a pencil similar to the one that Dickinson sent in an envelope to Samuel Bowles. The dress pocket, full of scraps and pencils and loose ends, thus becomes a kind of envelope. The reverse, as Werner and Bervin would have it, binds the two together: “an envelope is [also] a pocket.”

The Gorgeous Nothings is a rather unusual collection, in the worlds of both literary studies and visual art. It is best expressed as an “exhibit in book form”, in the words of Susan Howe. However, it is also more than that; it brings the literary archive, in particular, literary ephemera, to the household coffee table. By providing a life-size, full-colour image of every one of Dickinson’s envelope “scraps” on a crisp white sheet, we are presented with an almost-touchable version of something which only a handful of people would have ever seen in real life—and which, for the sake of preservation, only a handful of people will ever need to see.

Gorgeous Nothings envelope

With this austere page design, the book is in part a project in digitalisation, accessibility, and dissemination of one of the most private poets in American history. And yet to have her poems next to a copy of National Geographic: The Photographs, or Works by The Bouroullec Brothers strikes one as somewhat sacrilegious—though perhaps only to a literary scholar.

This is not to say that the work has not been religiously put together. The editors have gone as far as to justify their choice of typeface (Century Gothic) and size (fifty percent of the manuscript) for the transcriptions of the envelopes, “with the aim of a clean, legible text to act as a key into—not a replacement for—the manuscripts”, offering the readers a “typographic ‘map’ to consult”. Each envelope or flap is portrayed such that its folds and edges seem to come off the page; the images have a three-dimensional quality so that, by flipping the pages, the reader/observer can seemingly handle the manuscripts themselves. With a few exceptions, the images are positioned such that they align front and back and are alone on the page, surrounded by no marginal or textual notes. By making the transcriptions half the size of the envelopes, the editors wanted to represent their belief that “Dickinson’s manuscript is the primary space to read her work and is the highest authority on all questions.”

Gorgeous Nothing transcription

And indeed, Dickinson’s manuscripts are the ones that speak. Her handwriting, however, is sparse, light, and, according to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her correspondent and later publisher, “the fossil tracks of birds.”

If the volume seems to border on fetishisation, it is because it has at its core two competing themes, each one vying for the reader’s attention. The first is that of a searching hand: the textuality and physicality of reaching into the dress pocket and pulling out one of these long-lost scraps. The other, which Higginson’s comment touches on, is flight. This latter theme the editors make more explicit, opening the volume with an epigraph in the form of one of the envelope seals, which reads:

One note from
one Bird
Is better than
a million words

Putting together an innovative collection like this one raises the inevitable issue of what to do with the sheer proliferation of Dickinson’s poetry. She wrote a total of 3,507 pieces before her death at age 55, none of which were published during her lifetime. Thus, the chosen 52 envelope texts, not part of her fascicles or poems in letters, represent a strange sort of unity. “Does form envelop everything?” Susan Howe asks in her Preface. One cannot tell if she is serious or if she is punning. Yet it is a unity, and one that works in an unconventional and scholarly way.

Yet to assume that because the poems are on scraps they were written in haste is incorrect. Admittedly, some of them must have been—the changes in her handwriting indicate speed. But it is obvious she took the time to carefully cut open the envelopes, unfolding them from their original purpose as a container to a more elusive and unconventional shape. This was meditated. Many of the poems also indicate meticulous contemplation, writing and re-writing, coupled with a strong personal story and emotional attachment. However, only one such example is elucidated in the afterword. Perhaps this is because it is the only one which provided background information to both the compositional history and the context.

The envelope containing the phrase from which the collection takes its name, “The Gorgeous Nothings” (A 821/A 821a), has a touching back story. The line “Clogged / only with / music like / the Wheels of / Birds” appears in two drafts of a letter to Helen Hunt Jackson, who died before Emily could post her words. Dickinson was so taken aback by the death, that she pinned the envelope, the editors argue, to mimic the shape of a bird. A touching thought, though occasionally, the commentary tries too hard, evoking the imperative: “Look at it here, flying on the page, vying with light.” Or, upon describing the same envelope: “One vertical crease bisects the documents, turning the halved envelope into a dimple diptych (this bit is fine) that resembles the hinged wings of the bird the holograph is becoming.” This sort of poetic attempt to convey the subtle force behind Dickinson’s work, and at the same time to defend the minutiae of the scraps, runs the risk of diminishing their effect by over-compensating for their size. The poetic prose falls in the crack between academic and public writing, providing the reader with neither an editorial note nor an artist’s commentary.

Dickinson’s poetry speaks for itself. The flaps and envelopes sometimes present self-contained poems, sometimes mere fragments of thought. Without fail, they are all undeniably Emily Dickinson:

We introduce
To Planets and
to Flowers
But with
Have Etiquettes
And awes

Another reads:

The Ditch
is dear to the
Drunken man
for it is not
his Bed – his
Advocate – his
Ediface – the
How safe his
fallen Head
In her disheveled
Sanctity –
Above him
is the sky

Turned on its side, the flap of this poem concludes: “And Honor / leagues / away -“. We know nothing of the “Drunken man”, or of most of the content. The editors made a great effort not to attempt at including too much biographical detail when it is simply not present in the poem-scraps. Instead, they have left the idea of poems written on the vehicles of someone else’s letters an indication of an “archive of longings”. This is the only logical way to group them together.

Yet the volume questions this grouping by producing an index—several, in fact—organised by the most unusual headings: the “Index of Envelopes by Page Shape” includes “Flaps and Seals”, “Arrows”, and “Pointless Arrows”; there are indexes for “Columns”, “Pencilled Divisions”, and “Envelopes Turned Diagonally”, and a very gleeful pull-out index of all the letters, in miniature photograph, as they appear in the collection. It initially seems almost comical to have a picture-index for such a volume, but it is essential to navigating through the uncategorisable works. The poems themselves do not offer anything by which they can be strung together: no dates, names, or other flags, except for their physical existence on the backs of envelopes. They demonstrate Dickinson’s fluidity just as, oftentimes, her “writing fills the space of the envelope like water in a vessel or funnels into the triangular shape of the flap.” Their size does not diminish them, and she was well aware of this, writing on one, “Excuse / Emily and / her Atoms / The North / Star is / of small / fabric / but it / implies much / presides / yet”. Though what she would have thought of her pocket-scraps being published as she wrote them is a whole other matter. For her, the idea of publication was as “foreign to my thought as Firmament to Fin”. Perhaps to make her case, on the verso of “her Atoms” envelope, she pencilled:

A Fir
for all
A Mir
acle for

Perhaps that is what The Gorgeous Nothings provides: firmament and miracle where one least expects to find it.

Judyta Frodyma is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St Catherine’s College. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the The Oxonian Review.