January 2014

Patrick James Dunagan


The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson, edited by Jen Bervin and Marta L. Werner

The Gorgeous Nothings is not so simply just that: a sumptuous, extensively lavish presentation of Emily Dickinson materials that are themselves deceptively trifling at first appearance. Being namely torn or cut paper fragments -- generally pieces of discarded envelopes from her correspondence -- upon which she jotted down some bits of writing. Every piece of paper is reproduced actual size in color, both front and back. Accompanying each image are transcriptions of the clusters of words, lines of possible poems, or phrases Dickinson anywise jotted down. The writings are often seemingly at conscious play with elemental features of the scrap of paper, or, as Jen Bervin, borrowing from one of Dickinson's jottings, suggests, the "small fabric," upon which it appears. There's more than a hint that Dickinson may well have been quite aware of and responding to the texture, discoloration, size, and shape of the paper as she wrote.

Dickinson easily ranks among the most prolific and private of accomplished poets on record. Bervin relates she "wrote approximately 1,800 distinct poems within 2,357 poem drafts and at least 1,150 letters and prose fragments -- a total of 3,507 pieces before her death at the age of fifty-five." She also describes how Dickinson "wryly nudging them to write" sent a two inch long pencil stub to a pair of correspondents with the message: "If it had no pencil / would it try mine." All of the envelope writings are done in pencil. Dickinson, as has been widely reported, owned a house dress she regularly wore with a large extra pocket sown on the front, quite enough space to hold several of the envelope paper materials at a time along with such a stub of a pencil. All her writings were entirely personal or epistolary in nature, for which she never sought wider publication. There is no questioning that Dickinson lived amongst her writing to the highest degree that might be claimed of any writer. The private intimacy at which she practiced her art is nearly unparalleled.

There will no doubt be those skeptical of this enterprise. They shall judge this gathering as not worth the interest, declaiming it an extravagant display of hyper-eccentricity on the part of scholar-artist editors, Marta Werner and Bervin. Arguing they misread current day views of visual art practices onto Dickinson's ultimately unknowable intentions. Such skepticism is dead wrong, its bias misguided and unfounded. This is far different than merely being your depression-era grandmother's dedicated habit of being sure no scrap of paper goes to waste. These are notes from out of the imagination of one of the premiere poets ever to trespass so exclusively therein; affording unparalleled access to Dickinson's process and an intimate view of her writing life. Here, written words are treated as the things they so rightfully deserve to be seen to be. The poet at work is a thing among things. These are some of Dickinson's things. Without visiting the library archives wherein the originals are housed this is as close to them as we're ever to come.

While these scraps of scribbled notes and asides are admittedly incomplete commentaries of Dickinson's poetics, they are all the more valuable for that exact reason. As poet Susan Howe states in her preface: "These writings are suggestive, not static." It is the very incompleteness of their presentation that allows us to engage with the poet in media res, as it were. While this requires some guesswork on the part of readers, that's only stronger cause for arguing the merits of making them more readily available. After all, Dickinson scholars have been poring over these manuscripts for years; now there's opportunity for a broad readership to have ample opportunity to do the same.

If readers disagree with any of the presented transcriptions, as Bervin acknowledges, that is precisely the point: "These new transcriptions were created with the aim of a clean, legible text to act as a key into -- not a replacement for -- the manuscripts. If our interpretation of Dickinson's script errs, each manuscript is present to make its own determinations and ambiguities known."  In a footnote, Bervin further clarifies that "The typographic interpretation reflects our scholarly engagement with her scribal practice but in no way claims definitiveness." Now privy to the everyday workings of Dickinson's genius, all readers are encouraged to engage their own brilliance in deciphering her cryptic dispatches.

Marta Warner's accompanying essay to The Gorgeous Nothings, "Itineraries of Escape: Emily Dickinson's Envelope-poems," takes readers on close inspection of several examples. She opens with consideration of one consisting of two slips of envelope pieces, one of which has a flap extending from it, which Dickinson had pinned together. Writing appears on all three surfaces -- the flap operating like a wing, a metaphor Werner puts to deft use. The writings radiate out from the center in differing directions upon each surface, facing away from each other, so the only way to read them is to rotate the whole co-joined fragment. Warner ingeniously demonstrates how the fragment is tied to the death of Dickinson's friend Helen Hunt Jackson by using alternate drafts of a final letter Dickinson composed to her. Werner neatly asserts: "Pinned, unpinned, and repinned, the fragment's flights shatter the deep, one-point perspective of the letter and keep the texts / birds flying in a splintered mode of time."

It was in a poetics class at New College in San Francisco (along with Howe's My Emily Dickinson) that I first heard about these Dickinson scraps of paper. I immediately thought of George Butterick's editing of Charles Olson's final Maximus Poems. At the time of Olson's death, which came rather unexpectedly, he was in a hospital in New York City to which he had been transported from Connecticut. When Butterick and others went to Olson's home in Gloucester, Massachusetts they found a mass of loose papers scattered throughout the rooms, along with writing on maps upon the walls and the walls themselves. Likewise there are descriptions of Olson's car in his later years, a 1960s era Oldsmobile station wagon, as being swarmed with papers.

Olson had written on everything and anything. It was impossible to judge the value and merit of any one scribbled measure of lines from another based solely upon what sort of paper or other material he may have written upon. Olson also rather infamously responded immediately in writing to printed information that came his way by writing directly upon the material itself. For instance, he refused to sign a loyalty oath for the University at Buffalo in just such fashion. There's a vast trail of telegrams, postcards, flyers, and other ephemera in the Olson archives at Storrs, Connecticut. Butterick assembled the last third of The Maximus Poems in part from out of this sea of paper scraps. I find this a fascinating corollary between these two regional poets of New England. In poet Robert Creeley's words, Dickinson may be "the girl next door" but that definitely leaves Olson to us as the tall, lanky lad down the other end of the street.

Items such as Gorgeous Nothings prove to be indispensable in broadening our understandings of their subjects. The addition of this publication to not only the canon of literary scholarship but general readership as well only advances further readings of Dickinson. Kudos to New Directions for being committed to making such stellar materials available in a large, suitably impressive format, yet at a reasonable price. Manuscripts of poets the caliber of Dickinson deserve much more attention of this kind.

The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson, edited by Jen Bervin and Marta L. Werner
New Directions/Christine Burgin
ISBN: 978-0811221757
272 pages