For Proust,” Susan Howe writes in her Preface to The Gorgeous Nothings, “a fragment is a morsel of time in its pure state; it hovers between a present that is immediate and a past that once had been present.”
The fragments Howe is specifically referring to are the envelopes left behind by Emily Dickinson, fascinating slips of paper scrawled with the poet’s distinctive script (handwriting that one of Dickinson’s correspondents compared to “the fossil tracks of birds.”)
Poet and artist Jen Bervin understands this tension between past and present, as well as between text and object, better than most. Her own art practice beautifully explores this interplay. Her 2004 book of modified Shakespearean sonnets, Nets, is a classic in the world of erasure poetry, and strips the bard’s famous lines “bare to the nets,” chiseling away at the familiar sentences to reveal surprising new poems.
One of my favorite projects by Bervin is The Dickinson Fascicles, a series of six large-scale embroidered works based on composites of the punctuation and variant markings in Emily Dickinson’s fascicles (or homemade booklets). Dickinson’s editors often changed the poet’s line breaks and eliminated the crosses, dashes, and markings on her original manuscript pages; printed editions of her poems have never included these markings.
“It seemed to me that what she was doing was much more interesting that what was being done to her,” Bervin tells Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker. For her project The Dickinson Fascicles, Bervin honored the poet’s original manuscripts by carefully stitching each erased punctuation mark in red thread.
Dickinson’s manuscripts and ephemera have also fired the imagination of literary scholar Marta L. Werner, as Holland Carter details in his New York Times review:
In the mid-1990s, while examining Dickinson material in the Amherst College Library, the literary historian Marta L. Werner came across a small, irregularly-shaped collage cut from recycled 19th-century envelopes and covered with writing in Dickinson’s unmistakably hieroglyphic script.
Enchanted, Ms. Werner started a search for similar items in other collections and found dozens, long familiar to Dickinson experts but never examined as a group. Most were less elaborate than the collage. Some consisted of semi-intact envelopes that had been gently pried apart at the seams and flattened out. Others were fragments: torn-off corners of envelopes, detached flaps.
Whatever their configurations, the pocket-size papers shared one feature: sentences, stanzas and entire roughed-out poems pencil-written by Dickinson herself.The Gorgeous Nothings, published by Christine Burgin/New Directions, is a work of art in its own right, and Bervin and Werner are the perfect editors for Dickinson’s envelope writings.
Introductions, elaborations, and indices are confined to the beginning and end of the book, leaving Dickinson’s fascinating “slips” free to float on the crisp white page, much like an art work on a gallery wall. Thoughtfully designed transcriptions on the adjoining page ensure that each piece can be appreciated both visually and textually.
As Carter explains, “although a number of Dickinson manuscripts have been reproduced in print since the 1950s, this is the first book devoted to full-color, actual-size facsimiles of a specific body of her work….Shapes rather than words are the first things that register. And even when the words start to come into focus, the book’s design encourages us to think of them first as components of visual objects. Are they art? Sure. Why not? But they are something else — poetry — before that.”
“Viewing these ‘envelopes’ as visual objects,” Howe writes in her introduction, “while at the same time reading her word for sound and sense, one needs to seize upon luck and accidents—slips on paper slips.”
“Many of them converge,” Bervin explained to me this week via email. “I could point to the obvious ones like The way hope builds a house or One note from one bird in the shape of a wing [see below photos], but more than that, I’m interested in the way Dickinson sculpts words in and across the different planes of paper, at angles, enjambing slightly. If you simply think envelope, it’s easy to miss the dynamics. Remaking a model of one of those envelopes from scratch will show how truly unusual the compositional approach is. They’re a joy—utterly Dickinson. In terms of thrift, in this era, stamps had grills or perforated interiors so that the cancellation ink would penetrate the stamp. People would wash and reuse them otherwise. My sense of ED is that she really enjoys the materials—read through her letters and you’ll see that relish for the world pretty quickly—her poems take that beyond beyond.”
Bervin first saw a manuscript written in Dickinson’s own hand when she was pursuing her master’s degree in poetry and the experience “changed everything.”
“Seeing the manuscripts shows me what a brilliant architect of space Dickinson is in any state of mind,” Bervin says. “I think of her poems as quite visual to begin with—but they really must be seen in manuscript to understand how time works in the poem. It’s utterly necessary. And especially with the variants—how they are positioned or multiple gives an exciting glimpse into Dickinson’s mind in process with a poem.”
You don’t have to be a long-time Dickinson fan to appreciate The Gorgeous Nothings. The volume appeared on my list of Gwarlingo’s Favorite Books list for 2013, not only because Bervin and Werner have done such a wonderful job collecting and presenting Dickinson’s material, but also because this is one of those rare, printed books that perfectly balances content with design. A digital version could not do this collection justice.
Book and poetry lovers alike will want to add this volume to their libraries. Here is a glimpse of what you will find when you delve into this 255-page gem…
Join the Gwarlingo Community
Gwarlingo is member supported and relies on contributions from readers like yourself to remain ad-free. Thanks to all of the readers who have contributed to the Gwarlingo Membership Drive so far. Instead of selling out to advertisers, I’m “selling out” to my readers instead! More than 260 Gwarlingo readers have contributed so far. If you haven’t donated yet, you can check out my video and all of the member rewards, including some limited-edition artwork, here on the Gwarlingo site. Donors who give $50 or more get an interactive profile on the Gwarlingo Member page. Members are also featured regularly in the Gwarlingo email newsletter.
Further ExplorationCheck out the Gwarlingo Store–a handpicked selection of books, movies, etc. of interest to writers, artists, teachers, art lovers, and other creative individuals. A portion of all your purchases made through the Gwarlingo Store portal, benefits Gwarlingo. Prefer to shop online from an independent? Visit the IndieBound Gwarlingo portal here.