Poetry News

Ange Mlinko on the Emily Dickinson Archives

By Harriet Staff


At The Nation, Ange Mlinko weighs in on Emily Dickinson's appearances in archives, and on Jen Bervin and Marta Werner's Gorgeous Nothings. From The Nation--

I can’t quite get past the irony of an Internet archive treating us to the unmediated Dickinson: it’s more hologram than holograph. At the very moment that we are reaching for Dickinson at her most material, we are given pixels. As an educational tool—and a promotional vehicle for Dickinson and her books—the Emily Dickinson Archive will surely be invaluable. But the minimal editorial framing of the poems—the better to let you do the framing—can make the drafts seem a bit orphaned in the vast simulacrum. It’s as if Dickinson had never chosen to gather her poems into fascicles. With very little editorial guidance through this digital disaggregation, it can seem as though the naked availability of the images hides something else—or, perhaps worse, nothing—behind them. In short, the archive is a place to visit, but not to dwell.

A different approach to Dickinson’s variorum is on offer in The Gorgeous Nothings, edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin. Werner is a Dickinson scholar at D’Youville College; Bervin calls herself an “erasure poet” whose expertise is in blurring the lines between poetry and visual art. Their coffee-table book is an immaculate object of white, ivory and sepia. It reproduces fifty-two “envelope writings,” previously known as “scraps” in Dickinson scholarship. Rather than hastily dashed off in the heat of inspiration, they were carefully composed with regard to the visual field, as Bervin argues: Dickinson angled “the page to write in concert with the light rule and laid lines in the paper, using internal surface divisions, such as overlapping planes of paper, to compose in a number of directional fields.” The envelopes were precisely cut into shapes beforehand. Bervin explains that at the Amherst College Library, “Margaret Dakin has acquired what is believed to be Emily Dickinson’s lap desk; its painted wooden surface is positively riddled with myriad fine cuts.” Visual artists, too, now have their own Emily Dickinson.

Read the whole story at The Nation.