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Infamy or Urn?

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“The way Hope builds his House,” inscribed on an envelope, circa 1879

Emily Dickinson Archive
edickinson.org

The Gorgeous Nothings
Edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin.
Buy this book

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.

The curation of fifty-two of her holograph scraps sharpens our sense of Dickinson’s method. Some are perfect concrete poems. Fragment A450, “The way Hope builds his House,” is written across the crease of an opened envelope—like a pitched-roof dwelling. The poem fills the space until the last few lines, as if the foundation were being undermined: “The way /Hope builds his / House / It is not with a sill — / Nor Rafter has [mars — knows] that / Edifice / But only Pinnacle — / Abode in as supreme / This Superficies / As if it were of / Ledges smit / Or mortised with the / And / Laws —”

To my eye, many of the cut envelopes resemble a curtain drawn back on a window, so that the poem is written across the panorama of an imagined landscape—yet another way the envelope evokes a domestic space. Bervin wisely directs us to A636/636a, where “Excuse Emily and her Atoms” appears. An obsolete meaning for “atom” is “at home.”

Sometimes the words fill the space; other times they occupy one corner of a blank and unwieldy plane. The more arbitrary the placement, the longer we dwell on it, looking for hidden meanings. Sometimes the meanings meld with the form. Fragment A252 is written in the space of an envelope flap’s inverted triangle, so that the first and last lines enact the inverted relation between our short life and our power: “In this short Life / that only [merely] lasts an hour / How much — how / little — is / within our / power.”

The word “freight” appears throughout these fragments, a reminder that a posted letter only seems lightweight: words are as valuable as any cargo. Or at least Dickinson’s were. In her marvelous essay, Werner quotes correspondence between Helen Hunt Jackson and Dickinson. Jackson, suffering from a broken leg, wrote warmly and chattily to her friend, ending with: “I hope you are well—and at work—I wish I knew by now what your portfolios, by this time, hold.” Dickinson wrote three drafts of her response, punning on the injury not to a leg, but to a poetic foot: “Dear friend—To reproach my own foot in behalf of your’s, is involuntary…. Knew I how to pray, to intercede for your Foot were intuitive, but I am but a Pagan.” Sadly, before Dickinson could post her reply to California, the newspapers announced Jackson’s death. It just missed the dead letter office.

I love Dickinson on the page, but despite the novelty of the visual and indeterminate Dickinson, we shouldn’t lose track of the sound of her words, when the poems are reassembled and recited in the common meter. Many poems benefit from simultaneous seeing and sounding, like A128: “All men for Honor / hardest work / But are not known / to earn — / Paid after they have / ceased to work / in Infamy or Urn —”, where the homophonous rhyme is ironized by the visual difference of the words. Is it possible that, given contemporary art’s obsession with process over product, which dovetails with our scientific fascination with the “creative process,” the meaning of Dickinson’s indeterminacy has become overdetermined?

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We don’t know what her intentions were toward her variants, her fragments, her offbeat enjambments. Time, with its Occam’s Razor–like economy, favors the poem that’s frugal and memorable. As Dickinson wrote in “There is no Frigate like a Book”:

This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll —
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul.

Frigate and frugal must have suggested each other to her acute ear. This is the paradox of materiality: sounds are something, material and ephemeral, both nowhere and no thing. Gorgeous nothings. And so we come full circle on the materiality of Dickinson: from curatable fragments, reproduced as photographs and pixels, to the disembodied words uttered in sound waves or even carried in the head, as the body might carry the soul. Bervin tells us that Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal Housewife (1830) was part of the Dickinson family library. In Latin, frugal is related to “fruits.” How Dickinson could be both so frugal and so fruitful is one of the mysteries not only of The Gorgeous Nothings, but of all of her art.

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