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Unsettling Emily Dickinson

The co-editor of The Gorgeous Nothings talks about the challenges of editing the iconic poet.
Image courtesy of The Frost Library, Amherst College © Amherst College.

Years ago, when scholar Marta Werner turned 22, she received a birthday present that she calls life-altering. It was a copy of Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. “I had no idea that a work of scholarship could take this form—and could embody such freedom,” Werner says. The editors of poetryfoundation.org recently spoke with Werner about her collaboration with Jen Bervin on The Gorgeous Nothings, why she’d prefer to distance herself from the term “envelope poems,” and why Emily Dickinson’s work remains so relevant today.

Can you talk about the publishing history of Emily Dickinson?

Yes, but I’d like to go back to a moment before that history begins so we can see what is at stake in that history. And so, perhaps, we can imagine a counterhistory.

According to Dickinson’s niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Dickinson’s “only writing desk [was] … a table, 18-inches square, with a drawer deep enough to take in her ink bottle, paper and pen … [and] placed in the corner by the window facing west.” This image of Dickinson’s desk is so familiar to her readers, so imprinted on our imaginations. And yet the desk can only be a supreme fiction.

The instant we begin to picture it, we realize it could not have been Dickinson’s writing desk—at least not her only desk. How could the delicate table have withstood the weight of her books? How could it have tolerated the pressure of her hand in the “white heat” of writing every day across the days of more than 30 years? And how could it have accommodated the thousands of leaves of blank paper Dickinson turned into manuscripts?

Just past the image of the pristine writing desk another, more unruly image is forming. I see the desk laden with volumes, open and closed—the family Bible; the novels of the Brontës, George Eliot, Charles Dickens; Ruskin’s Modern Painters. I see it covered with rows of botanical specimens: Jasminum, Calendula officinalis, Digitalis. And beyond it, I see the room that gives the desk space, filling with papers. There are stacks of them on the table, on the floor, on the bed.

She moves them. Others living in the household and coming from outside of it move them. The wind moves them. Time moves them. My imagination moves them.

I see, of course, only what I see in the mind’s eye. For, like Bianchi, like everyone, I have arrived too late: I do not catch Dickinson in the act of writing.

I do not see how she arranges and stab-binds the gatherings of poems we call fascicles, or how she archives them, whether with other bound gatherings only, or intermixed with loose sheets and fragments. I do not see how, or even if, she distinguishes among poems, prose, and passages of indeterminate genre. I do not see her search for a poem written years earlier to revise or only to reread it. As she herself wrote, there is so much more I “cannot see to see -”

Just as I do not see the room as it appeared while Dickinson lived within it, I do not see it in the days and months following her death, when her papers were discovered, sorted, some destroyed, and others disseminated.

I do not see the clearing away of her effects, nor do I know if this process was carried out systematically or at chance’s hands. I do not know if those entrusted to the task worked patiently or were overwhelmed by what they found. Was there, as the story goes, only a single locked box containing thousands of poem manuscripts? Where has this (Pandora’s) box and its key gone? And if there was only one box, containing the poems, where were the letter drafts and fragments? Was one box actually many boxes?

After all the manuscripts have been carried away from Dickinson’s room, questions whirl in their place and do not settle.

All the editions of Dickinson’s writings are also attempts to “settle” the work. And it’s for that reason that I work on unediting her writings. It’s a way of unsettling them—though not, of course, the way Dickinson may have unsettled them.

The poems and other writings in The Gorgeous Nothings were all in print by 1958. A careful reader can find them in Johnson’s Poems (1955) and in his Letters (1958). But you’d be surprised to know how many people think that the writings in The Gorgeous Nothings are new discoveries. Even people who know Dickinson well can’t recall seeing them before. And of course that’s because they haven’t seen them—they’ve only read them. Somehow, for reasons I don’t wholly understand, reading in manuscript is fundamentally different from reading in print. For some people—myself among them—it’s a kind of further seeing. It’s my hope—and Jen Bervin’s too, I’m sure—that The Gorgeous Nothings functions like a kind of light-table for these writings.

How did you first encounter Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems? Who first called them “envelope poems”? What does that mean?

I’ve been aware of Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems for many years—at least since the mid-’90s, when I was working a lot in the Amherst College archives on Dickinson’s late drafts and fragments. At the time, I was fascinated by the various different constellations of documents that seemed, at least momentarily, to coalesce—poems pinned together, poems marked by cancellations and cross-outs, poems on envelopes, etc. Of course I don’t mean to suggest that these constellations or sets were conceived of as such by Dickinson—I have no idea how she organized her papers, and, beyond those she stab-bound into fascicles, there’s no readily discernible organizational schema. I just mean that when you look at documents for a long time—in an intense, even myopic way—you start to see things. Literally! The mind seeks formal principles—even where there may be none. I saw—and still see—all kinds of different sets and orders of Dickinson’s writings.

I’m not sure who first called these writings envelope poems. And, in some way, I’d like to distance myself from the term. It’s perhaps one of the hallmarks of Dickinson’s writings that they defeat the bibliographical and descriptive terms we use to talk about them. “Envelope poem,” then, is just a kind of shorthand we’ve used to identify writings—largely but not invariably in verse—composed on envelopes or envelope parts. The earliest of these envelope writings was probably composed around 1864, the date Ralph Franklin assigns to the last of Dickinson’s fascicles, and a small handful of other envelope texts belong to the same decade. The remaining envelope writings—or writings on envelopes, as I prefer to say—bear approximate composition dates ranging from 1870 to 1885. These writings were composed, then, in the aftermath of the fascicles and in a late period in the trajectory of Dickinson’s writing when, I believe, she was testing differently and for a final time the relationship between message and medium.

The envelopes are one of the many makeshift and fragile textual homes Dickinson imagined for her late writings. When I look at them, I think of Simone Weil’s moving words, “Vulnerability is the mark of their existence.”

That such documents survived—that they were saved—always amazes me.

What draws you to her work? And particularly her manuscripts? What’s it like to handle her manuscripts? To see her handwriting?

Writing is such a “reportless” place—the word is Dickinson’s, and it comes from a poem—indeed, a manuscript—that I love and that begins: “In many and reportless places – one feels a joy….”

While writing or thought is reportless, the manuscript is the material trace of that process and, I believe, of the joy that attends it.

When we review the history of our experience of the modern manuscript, we find that a specific vocabulary emerges, one suggestive of intimacy. Again and again, we find references to the “face” or “physiognomy” of the manuscript. In the earliest, least critical accounts of the manuscript, it was imagined as a reflecting glass by which we might see directly into the mind of the writer and the creative process. In extreme versions of this story, the manuscript might even appear as a surrogate for the writer.

Now, of course, very few manuscript scholars would subscribe to such beliefs. Today, we see manuscripts as cultural artifacts—not intimate keepsakes but artifacts estranged from us by distance and time. But this very distance—this alienation—also makes them readable in new ways. For me, the manuscript is a marvelous zone of inquiry. It reports something of the reportlessness of Dickinson’s compositional process—something about the disorderly dynamics of writing.

I’m painfully aware that no written document can ever translate completely the immaterial path of thought into material signs, but Dickinson’s manuscripts do permit us to follow that path, sometimes a short distance, sometimes much farther, and where the signs break off or become unreadable, where we come to a dead end, that too tells us something about the horizon of writing and the limits of any interpretation.

By abandoning the idea of the manuscript as mirror and, with it, our search for depth, we may begin to traverse its surface and decipher the traces inscribed upon it. When we do this, we encounter what the textual scholar Louis Hay has called the “third dimension” of the text, the passage of writing traced through time, the multiple, contradictory decisions made during the process of composition and registered in part in the spatial play of the hand across the paper.

And we see new things—things we didn’t see before. Signs of speed and of slowness often appear on the manuscript of the draft. In Dickinson’s case, accelerations in thought are marked in the slant of the writing or the blurring of ink or graphite. And sometimes we can also see a slowing down of composition, as if she was making her way more uncertainly, moving like a “stranger through the house of language.” There’s a beautiful draft of Dickinson’s poem “As Summer into Autumn slips” in which she compulsively reworks a passage, repeating and substituting the words “thought” and “shaft,” and when I look at these marks on the page, I can almost see her trying to redynamize the trace of writing. Gabriel Josipovici said that writing is “something that is happening … at the cross-roads of the mental and the physical.”

I think this is true. And beautiful.

The manuscript doesn’t necessarily encourage a teleological reading, either. For me, at least, the manuscript promotes a reading that wanders—and wonders. It compels us to attend to the minutest and most unrepeatable gestures of writing—to writing losing its thread sometimes in liberated strokes, sometimes in scribbles and erasures. For me, anyway, the draft tends to disturb the very idea of the still, absolute text, revealing it as only one possible realization of a matrix that precedes and sometimes follows it. Its interest lies in the uniqueness of its itinerary and its awareness of contingency.

I called the manuscript “reportless.” The poem I drew that word from reads: “In many and reportless | places | We feel a Joy – | Reportless, also, but | sincere as Nature | Or Deity - || It comes, without a | consternation - | Dissolves [Abates – Exhales -] – the same - | But leaves a | sumptuous [blissful] Destitution - | Without a Name - || Profane it by a | search – [pursuit] we cannot - | It has no home - | Nor we who having | once inhaled it – [waylaid it] | thereafter roam.”

But you have to see the manuscript—the way the final lines roam around the edges of the paper.

You’ve spoken about the work you did with Susan Howe at Buffalo—can you tell us about that again? How has Susan’s work inspired yours?

For my 22nd birthday, in 1987, a dear friend gave me a copy of Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. We were first-year graduate students then, in the English department at SUNY Buffalo, and Buffalo’s long connection with radical poetics made this an appropriate, perhaps even an expected, gift. But for me, My Emily Dickinson was a revelation. As an undergraduate at Ithaca College, I had read widely in poetry, but also conservatively. I’d never heard of Howe, and probably my former teachers had not either. More to the point, I had no idea that a work of scholarship could take this form—and could embody such freedom. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this single book changed the course of my work on Dickinson and very likely the course of my life.

The next year—to my great delight and terror—Howe came to Buffalo to teach a course. She was then about the age I am now, which is rather strange to think about! The course she taught focused on early American literature, and at its center were documents—17th-century captivity narratives and conversion narratives—most composed by women, most composed in extremis. It was riveting. Howe was always prepared. I think she must have spent hours and hours, probably days or weeks, writing her lectures. And when she spoke, she was moved by a kind of intensity and nervousness and conviction all at once that was profoundly compelling. She was—she is—fierce and fragile. She’s always at the very edge of thought.

I was unbelievably privileged to be her student. And it was just sheer luck. I never felt that I deserved the attention she gave me. There were so many others whose claims were greater—so many others who knew so much more about poetry than I did (or do). But she stayed with me, pressing me forward. She could be a harsh mentor—because she expected one’s artistic and scholarly commitments to be absolute—but she was also generous without measure.

When we finished The Gorgeous Nothings, I drafted the acknowledgment to her. It follows the formal, official acknowledgments to the libraries that gave us permission to study their collections, but it’s a private message, too, and one that conveys, I hope, love.

It reads:

 “In the Dickinson archives where I have worked, I have sometimes fancied that an unseen hand guided my own, sifting the documents, holding one or another up to the light. That hand belongs to Susan Howe, whose original discoveries among Dickinson’s manuscripts encouraged these further forays. To her, whose felicitous joining of historical inquiry with poetic speculation transformed forever the landscape of Dickinson scholarship, I owe the deepest debt: ‘Sweet Debt of Life – Each Night to owe - / Insolvent – every Noon’ (Fascicle 15).”

What do you think Dickinson’s intention was in writing these poems? 

I have no idea! But then again, I don’t really believe in a textual practice that seeks out authorial intentions. Perhaps I’m enough of an old formalist to imagine that these intentions are beside the point. Or perhaps—and this seems more likely to me—my long apprenticeship as a textual scholar has made me circumspect about such a project of recovery.

I don’t know “Emily Dickinson.” What I know—or try to know, as far as it is possible to do so—is the unruly textual body that survived her.

But I do think she was writing poems with an awareness of their significance—and, in the case of the envelope poems, of their strangeness. A lot of questions swirled around these documents when I looked at them—and very few of them can be answered.

In some cases, Dickinson wrote on envelopes that had carried letters into the Homestead from the outside world. We know this because these envelopes are addressed—sometimes to her, sometimes to another member of the household—by the familiar hands of Judge Lord, the Norcrosses, and others. In other cases, though, Dickinson herself addressed the envelopes to intimate friends—Mrs. Holland, Helen Hunt Jackson—outside the Homestead, but she seems never to have enclosed letters in the envelopes or sent them out into the world.

What we have instead of these letters—if, in fact, they ever existed—are poems. It’s tempting to think that the poems have taken the place of the letters—perhaps, even, that they were the true messages she wished to transmit. But this is far from certain.

What is more certain is that when she turned from the address to writing the poem, she was redirecting it. The addresses are all written in a beautiful, fair copy hand; the poems, by contrast, are all in her rough copy hand, which Higginson described as looking like the “fossil tracks of birds.” Maybe this is a sign that the address is public, while the poem is private. I don’t know. Somehow, I think the reverse may be true. Unlike the messages, those “fine and private things” that seem destined for enclosure in envelopes, the poems are freely dispersed to all. Although they may never have left her desk, they are en route, their itinerary open.

Tell us how The Gorgeous Nothings book came about. 

When Jen Bervin and I first met to talk about collaborating on a Dickinson project, we knew each other’s work, but not each other. Bervin is a visual artist and a poet, and she has produced, among many other works, the remarkable Dickinson Composites, a series of six large-scale embroidered works based on palimpsestic collations of the punctuation and variant markers in Dickinson’s fascicles. I’m an itinerant textual scholar covering poetic grounds of the 19th and 20th centuries. We came from different worlds—she from an art and poetry world, and I from a scholarly and academic world—and we met on the margins of Dickinson’s poetry. Collaboration is never easy. We knew this. But we were both drawn to the problem of how best to represent the conditions of Dickinson’s late works—those works composed specifically beyond the book, in its aftermath—and we were both committed to finding a form for her unbound writings that might gather and scatter them at once. “The way | Hope builds his | House,” Dickinson wrote on an envelope in the shape of a house, “It is not with a sill -- | nor Rafter --”

We did not seek to produce an “edition” or even a “catalog raisonée,” since we felt that both these structures—carrying with them a history of definiteness and closure—countered Dickinson’s aims or, since those must remain unknowable, the manuscripts’ aesthetics of open-endedness. Rather, we imagined the object we were producing as a temporary shelter for the late work, open to reassembly and even disassembly in future.

That’s really how it started, and of course the first incarnation of The Gorgeous Nothings, published by Steve Clay at Granary Books, reflects this original vision. The contents arrive not between two covers but in an archival box, 12 by 15 inches, which must be unpacked, unfolded, and slowly sifted.

There are all kinds of centrifugal forces at work here. Of all the materials enclosed in The Gorgeous Nothings, the loose facsimiles and diplomatic transcripts, the guides and indices, only my essay introducing them—“Itineraries of Escape”—is bound, an acknowledgment that my own thoughts on my encounter with Dickinson’s writings are also bound to this specific moment in time. All the other contents of the box remain unfastened: “all adrift to go.” Like Emerson’s souls, neither touching not mingling, never quite composing a set, the envelope poems belong to a discontinuous series, or, as Cixous writes, a “book from which each page could be taken out.”

I wasn’t at all sure that the bound volume of these writings published by New Directions could capture this feeling—but I think it has. The design is simply splendid. I don’t know how they did it! I’ll always be deeply grateful to New Directions for their vision of the book.

Can you talk about the experience of discovering fragments A 821 and A 821a?

I’d love to. I tell this story in my essay “Itineraries of Escape,” and, I have to warn you, it sounds like a fairy tale from the archives!

I was in Amherst researching the poems and other writings Dickinson had pinned together. In some cases, all the evidence that’s left is the very tiny pinholes; in other cases (at least in the 1990s, when I was first looking at them), the pins were still in place. This was so for A 821/821a. When I opened up the acid-free envelope, I saw this exquisite document inside. I swear it seemed to rise out of the envelope and take flight! This can’t have happened, I realize, but it looked just like a bird to me, and the handwriting—both the writing itself and the way it was deployed over the page—imparted to the manuscript a kind of motion. Even to read it requires that we rotate the text. And which direction we’re supposed to read in—well, I don’t know.

We could read the text like this: “Clogged | only with | Music, like | the Wheels of | Birds - [turn MSS 90 degrees to the right] Afternoon and | the West and | the gorgeous | nothings | which | compose | the | sunset | keep [pinned corner] their high | Appoint | ment”

But we could rotate the text 360 degrees and read the lines backwards: “– Afternoon and | the West and | the gorgeous | nothings | which | compose | the | sunset | keep [pinned corner] their high | Appoint | ment” [turn MSS 90 degrees to the left] "Clogged | only with | Music, like | the Wheels of | Birds –”

There are so many astonishing things about this manuscript.

First, there is the question of how it was composed: all at once, at different times, in fragments. The handwriting differs depending on which sector of the document you are looking at, suggesting perhaps that it wasn’t composed in one sitting, although it could have been…. And the boundary lines in the manuscript also create a kind of physical caesura that gets repeated in the lines—where there is also a kind of braking action, or a kind of leap across the boundary. Caesura and syncope. We hear the grammar of discontinuity.

Second, there is the way it was assembled—in the manner of a collage. It’s made up of two sections of envelope. The larger piece is the inside of the back of an envelope, the address face of which has been torn away. The smaller piece is the triangular corner of an envelope seal. A pin once held them together….

Third, there is the very delicate center fold in the document—a fold that bisects the document and makes it appear like a kind of diptych. We don’t know who folded it—if Dickinson did or if it was folded later. But at some moment in time, the fold became part of the manuscript and it determined how the reader opened it—how the text was revealed. The suddenness of the message seems to me related to the document’s unfolding.

Fourth, there’s the mysterious presence on A 821 of other sets of pinholes. Was this document pinned to other documents we haven’t yet identified?

Fifth, there’s the message it records and that flashes by us: a message about how day falls into night; a message about the moment when the world is overtaken by—engulfed in—birdsong. It’s a message—I’d call it a poem—about the instantaneous translation from one condition into another, an essentially ecstatic experience.

Sixth, there’s the document’s past and its future(s). These lines, or variants of them, appear in three drafts of a letter Dickinson was writing to Helen Hunt Jackson in 1885. Dickinson’s letter—probably a response to Hunt Jackson’s earlier message, sent from California, about her broken leg—is abandoned when Dickinson learns that Hunt Jackson has died. It’s not known which text came first: the letter or the fragment. That is, we can’t be sure whether the text on A 821 was integrated into the letter, or whether, when the letter was abandoned, Dickinson “released” the fragment from it. Whatever happened, A 821 does migrate beyond the letter into a freer air.

And finally, we should know that there’s a variant of this fragment, A 822, which was also composed by pinning. “It is very still in the world now - Thronged only with Music like the Decks of Birds and the Seasons take their hushed places like figures in a Dream –”

For me, A 821 / A 821a, composed on the reverse of the empty, unaddressed envelope, no longer the container for a message but the message itself, will always be a trope for Dickinson’s late, contrapuntal communications, in which “arrival” is only ever another name for “departure.”

There are countless ways of reading this fragment. But when I read it—when I see it—it always seems to be en route to the outermost edges of Dickinson’s oeuvre—and maybe out of this world.

You’ve mentioned that time and history imprint on documents. Can you talk a bit about that?

The envelope poems are a special case, I think. When the envelopes were just envelopes, carrying the original messages someone sealed into them, they were literally supposed to travel across time and space in order to find their recipient. Sometimes they bear stamps issued from a particular year, or postmarks that tell us what time—sometimes what hour—they passed through a particular place on their journey. And of course, many are marked by the damages—torn seals, etc. They are beautiful and fallen cultural artifacts. Beautiful because they are fallen.

When Dickinson turned the envelopes into a space for writing, she changed their relationship to time and space. For a few moments, while we’re reading them, they seem to stop time. But then, when we get to the end of the reading, we see that they’re already departed for the future—futures.

Why do you think there is so much interest in Dickinson at this time?

Well, I think people have always been interested in Dickinson! My father read Dickinson’s poems to me when I was a little girl—and he wasn’t a literary man at all. It’s just that something in Dickinson moved him deeply. At the end of his life, he returned to her. We used to exchange letters the entire text of which consisted of lists of first lines of Dickinson poems. I think he was trying to communicate something to me. It’s a message I will keep forever. I imagine that many people feel the way my father did.

But I do think there’s a reason why reading these poems Dickinson recorded on envelopes in the latter days of the 19th century seems like such an urgent project at this moment in the 21st century.

There’s a new connection. Our obsessive seeking through the new technologies available to us—the most pervasive of which is, of course, the Internet—to collapse the distance between private and public, between inner thought and outer word, even between self and other—began at the close of the 19th century, when, as media historian John Durham Peters observes, we first “defined ourselves in terms of our ability to communicate with each other.” While we exist seemingly at the end of this age, Dickinson lived at its beginnings. In her century, the advent of tele-phenomena such as the telegraph and, later, the telephone, like the advent of the Internet in our own age, seemed to open up the potential to breach the barriers of time and space.

One of the uncanniest documents in the constellation of Dickinson’s writings on envelopes is a Western Union Telegraph blank. While the urgent message it conveyed has long since been lost, the poems that take its place—“Glass was | the Street - | in Tinsel | Peril” and “It came his | turn to beg --,” appear to translate the electrical pulses of the unrecoverable bulletin into new messages associating speed and shock.

But the grammatical breakdown and cancellation of the final words of the poems is also a sharp reminder that transmissions in this world are often asymmetrical and full of gaps. The very century that first experienced these unprecedented transformations in the forms of human contact also bore witness to the new and frightening horizons of incommunicability that still haunt us today. Not only the telegraph office but also the Dead Letter Office came into being in the 19th century, when it was not uncommon for the clerks of this strange agency to handle as many as 23,000 pieces of “dead” mail daily. “The media,” as Friedrich Kittler has remarked, “yield ghost phenomena.”

Today, the Dead Letter Office—renamed, in Orwellian fashion, the Mail Recovery Center—still exists. In 2012, the very year The Gorgeous Nothings first saw light, more than 90 million items ended up in this office—undeliverable as addressed. If we add to this the estimated billions of emails lost without a trace each day, we might wonder if, rather than becoming ever more closely connected, we are more drifting toward greater and greater states of disconnection.

A message enclosed in an envelope, or a poem inscribed upon it and prepared for sending over miles or millennia, or an email sent into thin air, is not a bit or byte of information but an archive of longings. And to send a signal at a distance, it must be kept from dying along the way. Dickinson knew and experienced this before we did. She knew, too, that the interval separating the writer of a message from the addressee—whether seconds, hours, days, or years—is indeterminate and may be(come) infinite, and that we can never verify the degree to which what is transmitted matches what is received.

And still, she wrote. Her late envelope writings, scattered by the winds of the future, intercepted by unknown and invisible readers, remind us of the contingency, transience, vulnerability, and hope cathected in all her messages and in all of our varied replies.


Unsettling Emily Dickinson

The co-editor of The Gorgeous Nothings talks about the challenges of editing the iconic poet.

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