“Slit open, unfolded, written across, and handed over to chance, they reject the asylum offered by the lyric to probe the last privacies of our existence.” The so-called myth of Amherst continues to intrigue and perplex us, nearly 150 years after her death. Emily Dickinson’s reclusive life spanned 55 years, 1,800 distinct poems, 2,357 known drafts, many more prose fragments and a trove of letters, which, especially in her later years, morphed with an almost hallucinatory quality from verse to prose and back.
Dickinson’s poetry, with its pithy miniatures, written predominantly in a loose iambic trimeter, is alive with her quirky capitalisation, neologisms and surprising punctuation. It is, as Susan Howe notes in her very useful Introduction, both formal and radical. The purpose of this beautiful book is to prove that the poet is far more radical than has yet been supposed. “This idiom itself is a work of art.”
This is the crux of the matter. Concentrating on her later work, which was written in pencil on cut-up envelopes – scraps in Dickinson scholars’ terms – and knowing that the family had long owned Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal Household, it would be reasonable enough to assume that the white-dressed New Englander was simply parsimonious. “The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing is lost. I mean fragments of time as well as materials.”
Perhaps the poet’s take on that was more than the surface first suggests. Were she to have been reusing her stationery solely for reasons of thrift, it is fair to imagine that she would have cut these mass-produced, die-cut envelopes in order to make workable rectangular pages, and would make them as neatly and conveniently standard as possible. Yet, every one of these carefully cut papers is unique. Visitors to Amherst College Library can inspect what is believed to be her writing desk, its surface slashed in straight lines. Every paper shape is cut differently and deliberately, and the poems arranged in various ways within these highly unusual perimeters. In several cases she employs columns; in others her lines change direction, seemingly dictated by the available space. During this late period, Dickinson worked completely in the stubby pencil that she kept with her papers in a large pocket at the front of her dress; previously she had worked only in pen.
Some of these forms were not just found but deliberately collaged. A winged-shaped piece houses words about birds, for example. Surely it cannot be a coincidence that “we should respect/the seals of/others” runs next to the gummed seal of an envelope? Whether the material prompted the poem or was chosen in response to the subject is an inter-textual conjecture we cannot answer, but the notion that the paper is irrelevant to the poem is clearly nonsensical.
In this extraordinary research, Jen Bervin’s textual studies combined with visual artist Marta Werner’s diagrammatic scholarship to initially produced Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings as an artist’s book in a run of 60 copies. Understandably there was a considerable clamour for a more easily available book. This edition cries out for superlatives and purple adjectives, for it is indeed a wonderful collaboration on an enigmatic poet, and stunningly written, illustrated and curated. Werner’s diagrams clarify Bervin’s points perfectly and at £26.50 for such sumptuousness it is remarkably good value; it would sit well on any coffee table …but that would rather miss the point.
Emily Dickinson is still famous for her refusal to have her work published. She did not, however hide her verse, but shared it, seeking criticism in her considerable correspondence. She lived in an age of print. The Gorgeous Nothings avers that these scraps were created as artefacts, never destined for print. The case is made. Brilliantly.