The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson, edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin. New Directions. 272 pp. $39.95.
Although Emily Dickinson wrote a total of 3,507 poems, letters, and poem drafts before her death at the age of fifty-five, fewer than a handful were published in her lifetime.
The poems that were published soon after the author’s death were profoundly edited, altering what early editors saw as aberrant spelling, capitalization, punctuation, line lengths, and word choice. Modern editors have tended to use a lighter hand in editing her work, but there is a dearth of knowledge about just how Dickinson herself would have preferred her handwritten drafts to appear on the printed page. Now that these manuscripts have been digitized, non-scholars have been given unprecedented access to thousands of her letters, poems, and drafts, the result of which has been an explosion of interest in examining the visual aspects of Dickinson’s work and compositional process.
One particular manuscript has generated a lot of recent speculation, that of poem and letter drafts composed late in the author’s life on plain, machine-made stationary. They are envelopes mostly, cut or carefully torn into distinctive shapes that had either been sent (and returned to the author) or were never sent.
The Gorgeous Nothings, the dedicated work of visual artist Jen Bervin and author Marta Werner, presents in large format the first full-color publication of all fifty-two of Emily Dickinson’s envelope writings. As such, it opens up an aspect of her craft that suggests she was, in the so-called late ecstatic period of her career, experimenting with creating texts in relation to the visual, spatial, and technological possibilities of her medium—composing in response to the confines of her writing world rather than despite it.
The editors provide a number of fascinating supplementary readings, a preface by poet Susan Howe, an introduction and visual index by Bervin, and a biographical directory and luminous long essay by Werner. But despite this wealth of contextual material, perhaps the best approach to the book is suggested in A 438, an envelope slit open vertically and addressed with only the author’s name in an elegant hand—“To light, and / then return”—where Dickinson’s penciled scrawl (likened by her friend and first editor, Higgins, as the “fossil-tracks of birds”) breaks, or skips, horizontally across the flowing ink of her name. That is, to simply to land on the surface of the time-stained envelopments, cross over, and turn toward infinity.
When Werner pronounces a message enclosed in an envelope as an “ecstatic reconciliation of souls,” she is speaking about the “power of writing to overcome time and space, to collapse the distance dividing the writer and the addressee, who then recognize each other instantaneously despite revolutions in time.” Indeed Dickinson’s envelopes suggest the breaching of distance, travel, union, flight. The book itself gives the impression of being a collection of pressed beings in motion—pale projectiles, wounded birds, paper kites. In A 277, a draft of what later would be published as “Long Years Apart,” printed in pencil on both wings of an opened envelope, Dickinson writes, “Long years / apart can / make no / breach a / second cannot / fill.”
Such words are echoed by the envelopes themselves: an envelope emptied of its content and its worldly purpose implies the gap between writer and reader, lover and beloved, or even, the world of the dead and of the living. Says Werner, “The interval separating address and poem—whether minutes, hours, days, or years—is indeterminate and may be(come) infinite.”
Which poses a telling question: to whom (or what) are these emptied envelopes addressed?
Dickinson lived during a time when letter delivery by post was a relatively new technology. Her envelope writings often contain lines from specific poems, or the working out of poetic ideas, that also appear in letters to Dickinson’s family and friends, to whom she was a constant correspondent. One such correspondence, addressed to Helen Hunt Jackson in Los Angeles but never mailed, contains the evolution of an idea that also occurs in A 821. Werner includes both Hunt’s original letter and two drafts of Dickinson’s. In draft no. 1, Dickinson writes, “That you compass ‘Japan’ before you breakfast, not in the least surprises me, clogged only with Music, like the Wheels of Birds.”
Werner gives A 821, a collage made of two sections of envelope, special treatment in the collection, partially because the envelope opens out and lifts in flight, and partially because it was one of the last envelope writings that Dickinson composed before her death, comprising a sort of simultaneous entry and exit into the envelope manuscript collection.
On the right wing, slanting toward the West, the lines “Afternoon and / the West and / the gorgeous / nothings / which / compose / the / sunset / keep.”
On the left wing, slanting toward the East, the lines “Clogged / only with / Music, like / the Wheels of / Birds.”
On a second scrap grafted onto one of the wings, “their high / Appoint / ment.”
A 821 seems to record the moment when day falls into night. Yet the grammar—syntax—of wings is the grammar of discontinuity. The slight variations in the handwriting on opposing wings suggests that the text they carry were composed on different occasions; moreover, on each wing, writing—inscribed by Velocity—rushes in opposite directions. To access the text(s), and to answer the question of where we have arrived, we must enter into a volitional relationship with the fragment, turning it point by point, like a compass or a pinwheel—like the wheels of thought.
Dickinson never sent the letter because Hunt died before it could reach her. Whether Dickinson composed A 821 before or after Hunt’s death—constructing the envelope manuscript as a way of working out the ideas of the letter—or whether the contents of the letter, emptied of its purpose, became the message for a another, more soaring medium, is impossible to tell. However, Bervin, quoting Jerome McGann, tells us that “Emily Dickinson’s poetry was not written for a print medium even though they were written in an age of print.” This perhaps contributed to her atypical constructions. In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan writes,
A significant aspect of the uniformity and repeatability of the printed page was the pressure it exerted toward ‘correct’ spelling, syntax, and pronunciation. Even more notable were the effects of print in separating poetry from song, and prose from oratory, and popular from educated speech.
In A277, the scrap that would later become “Long Years Apart,” Dickinson explores immortality by allowing the X-shaped seams of an envelope to break lines and split apart the letters of words. In this way, the line “who says / the Absence / of a / Witch / In-validates / his spell” refutes yet apotheosizes Absence by breaking it into its constitutional parts. And the Witch, that author of spells, spelling, words, and word craft, becomes capable of moving back and forth through life and death, across past and present, lighting and returning, at will.
Whether Dickinson would have brought such experiments in form to print versions of her work is unknowable. However, it is clear from seeing her compositional process that she was aware of the visual and spatial properties of her media, and that she understood language as a powerful agent of transmission, of ascension, and not just as static and conventional horizontal lines trudging, from left to right, across a page. The Gorgeous Nothings, at the very least, makes us sensible of the reality that, in the words of Anne Carson, another genre-bounding poet, “people had meanings that looked like that, my goodness!”
Jessica Michalofsky’s reviews, non-fiction, and fiction have been published in The Globe and Mail, Brick, The Winnipeg Review, Geist, and Joyland.
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