The Emily Dickinsons
The Gorgeous Nothings, by Emily Dickinson, ed. by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin.
New Directions. $42.00 cloth; $39.95 paper.
Poetry and ephemera: despite the exhortations in Shakespeare’s sonnets, might there be an abiding affinity between the two? It can certainly seem that way in Jen Bervin’s and Marta Werner’s The Gorgeous Nothings, a (nothing if not gorgeous) new facsimile collection of Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems. By “envelope poems,” I don’t mean poems about envelopes, which is what the phrase would usually suggest in contemporary poetry parlance. I’m referring instead to poems written on envelopes, with facsimile versions of the envelopes reproduced — in this case, those that were held and scribbled on by Emily Dickinson herself. These are digitally preserved in almost tactile detail: you can nearly smell the musty paper scraps.
The Gorgeous Nothings has the aura of an earlier century, in which envelopes contained heartfelt sentences of great complexity — or perhaps the briefer, pithier messages of which Dickinson was also fond. Either way, as Bervin and Werner know, the envelope was charged with mystery and incipience in the moments before it was opened and then discarded. In The Gorgeous Nothings, it also transforms to an exiguous writing surface: Dickinson’s poems are like graffiti on small paper walls.
There is something going on here that Jacques Derrida called “archive fever,” or an infectious devotion to things preserved from the past. So how could we not catch fire? It can be thrilling to “read” these fleetly scratched poems — even as our eyes keep darting back to Bervin’s and Werner’s discreet print transcriptions of Dickinson’s sometimes-illegible handwriting. We can’t help but feel that we’re in the poet’s pocket, as Bervin suggests in her introduction:
All of the envelope poems are written in pencil. Unlike a fountain pen, a pencil stub, especially a very small one, fits neatly, at the ready, in the pocket of a dress.... Dickinson’s one surviving dress has a large external pocket on the right side, where her hand would fall easily at rest.
But Bervin and Werner want to offer their readers more than just immediacy. They also want to show us “the real deal” of Dickinson’s writing project, as opposed to the ways her poetry has been reproduced in print editions. One could object that this point was made years ago in R.W. Franklin’s variorum editions of the poet’s work. But the envelope or “scrap” poems have not been widely available in facsimile form until now. It’s also true that most nonspecialists are still reading Dickinson in standardized print versions, edited either by Franklin or Thomas H. Johnson — and the differences between those poems and the facsimiles here can be both fascinating and poignant.
Take, for example, Dickinson’s #1292 (“In this short Life”). In Franklin’s print edition, it consists of two pentameter lines: “In this short Life that only lasts an hour / How much – how little – is within our power.” In the Gorgeous Nothings version, Dickinson’s lines expand and contract to cover the reverse-triangular shape of an envelope’s flap, thus growing to six altogether (and retaining the variant word “merely” under “only”). As the envelope tapers, so too does Dickinson’s writing, enacting the “littleness” — and perhaps the tragic truncation — of the “Life” that is at issue. #1478, the congruently-shaped “One note from One Bird,” provides a similar marriage of paper shape and sense.
These poems can cause us to consider the mutability — and ultimately the adaptability — of a metrical structure we might have assumed was stable. (It has often been noted how metrically “scannable” many of Dickinson’s letters can be, thus potentially troubling the distinction between poetry and prose.) This point is well taken and can inspire interesting thoughts about the liberation of meter from line. In other poems, however, it is not always clear what we should gain from the facsimile reproduction, or why it’s necessarily preferable to reading a print version. In most cases, as described above, expediency is not the collection’s selling point.
So after some moments of pleasure and epiphany, the question becomes one of emphasis: what do we as readers want to take away from poetry? For many Dickinson manuscript scholars today, the interest is not so much in the disseminable or printable poem itself — that is, its repeatability in our voices, books, and lives — but in the way it adapted itself to the material constraints that may or may not have governed its having been physically written in the first place. In this view, the poem is a product of its immediate writerly environment. According to Susan Howe, who wrote the preface to The Gorgeous Nothings, Dickinson’s poems are “visual productions” that we cannot understand without seeing them in the settings of their original, handwritten forms. (According to Bervin, it was this directive that guided the production of the Gorgeous Nothings edition; to be sure, it seems to have inspired Werner’s later description of the envelope-writings as collages, birds, and holographs.) For Bervin and Werner, the collected poems of Emily Dickinson straddle the limits, and fray the boundaries, between poetry and visual art.
These claims don’t convince me, though, since Dickinson’s medium is never the painterly image (what Plato called the “natural sign”), but instead always the alphabet, or the so-called artificial sign, regardless of the poet’s chosen writing implements or manner of paper. I’m also too committed to the age-old genre of lyric poetry — and to Dickinson’s participation in it — not to think that calling these works “visual productions” effectively squelches or even silences their aural qualities.
Still, I’m sure to be in the minority here among both scholars and poets. Howe has influenced a generation of manuscript scholars who see the idiosyncrasy of Dickinson’s handwriting, scraps, and fascicle production as integral to the way we should read her. And such concern with poetry’s “means of production” is admittedly timely. It’s in line with the concerns of at least two strands of poets writing in the present day: the metonymic bent of Language poets (with whom Howe has been a strange, if enduring, bedfellow), and poets writing “born digital,” or hypertext, works. In these ways, Dickinson’s gorgeous envelopes underline the power of writers’ physical or technological constraints — and suggest that the limits of our material technologies, whether electronic or flimsy as an old wrapper, can play as large a role in creative production as the more traditionally “formal” or aesthetic demands of, say, meter itself. (Probably the best twentieth-century version of what I’m talking about is the adding machine tape on which A.R. Ammons typed Tape for the Turn of the Year.)
Like poetry, scholarship probably works best when its time is of the essence. It has traditionally been easy — and, of course, inaccurate — to stereotype Dickinson as a recluse and loner. Today, Dickinson manuscript scholars may be overcompensating for their predecessors’ mistakes by overemphasizing the social, or epistolary, qualities of her work. And by drawing our attention to these envelope scraps — rather than, for example, to Dickinson’s carefully threaded, arranged, and hidden fascicles — some scholars want us to associate Dickinson with the ephemeral and the fragmentary: with the veneer, at least, of the aleatory or unfinished. (In a nod to “archive fever,” paper mail delivery is itself going the way of ephemera as I write — it is now almost a thing of the past.)
The delectable appeal of The Gorgeous Nothings will be obvious to poets: Dickinson’s fragments are visually exquisite, and Werner is the rare literary critic whose writing is beautiful and lyrical enough to be a prose poem of its own. The dangers of the production, in contrast, are much more oblique — and ultimately twofold, in my view. One is that, just as Dickinson’s first editors co-opted her work into a “sentimental” role that didn’t fit, now the “unfinished” aspects of the envelope poems may come to characterize her entire output. (Arguably, this has already happened.) This critical tack sways Dickinson towards experimental rather than lyric aesthetics. And when she’s “socialized” in the epistolary manner, the great poet becomes more stereotypically feminized and more domesticated than the content of her most important work warrants.
You may well ask why contemporary poets should care about these debates at all. The question of how to read and interpret Emily Dickinson may seem an antique, scholarly wrinkle that has no real relevance for contemporary artists. Yet Dickinson continues to be among the most indelible of influences in American poetry. We couldn’t get rid of her if we tried, and no one seems to want to try very hard to begin with. It’s difficult to imagine May Swenson, Jean Valentine, Lucie Brock-Broido, A.R. Ammons, Kay Ryan, and any number of poets without having had Dickinson’s work first. At this moment, I’m also remembering a poet who, for a while, used Dickinson’s famous portrait as an emblem on his personal stationery. How many others of us superimpose her diction or syntax on our own?
Dickinson is clearly alive and well and still being worked out. But the question remains: which Dickinson are we working on? Which one are we fantasizing about? The Howe / Werner / Bervin model is undeniably attractive. She’s also the one that is in fashion this season. Given her increasing power, how might we keep the other Emily Dickinsons conceptually — and meaningfully — in play?
Christina Pugh is the author of four full-length books of poems: Perception (Four Way Books, 2017); Grains of the Voice (Northwestern University Press, 2013); Restoration (TriQuarterly Books, 2008); and Rotary (Word Press, 2004); and the chapbook Gardening at Dusk (Wells College Press, 2002). Her poems have appeared in journals such as...