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BOOK REVIEW

Emily Dickinson's 'Gorgeous Nothings' shows the poet's hand

Dickinson's 'envelope poems' are the stars of the stunning new 'The Gorgeous Nothings,' Here, her handwritten scribblings transform into art.

November 21, 2013|By Brenda Shaughnessy
  • Emily Dickinson's "envelope poems" are the stars of the stunning new art book "The Gorgeous Nothings."
Emily Dickinson's "envelope poems" are the stars of the… (Boston Globe / Getty Images;…)

In 2012, a daguerreotype surfaced that was thought to be of a midlife Emily Dickinson, causing an Internet frenzy. As far as we (the frenzied) knew, there was only one known photographic image of the poet. That 1847 picture, taken when she was 16, is enigmatic, extraordinary and a little unsatisfying. Her single expression is dual: both deep and blank, both innocent and knowing. Dickinson readers recognize this intoxicating, paradoxical doubleness well: It is so very Emily. What wouldn't we give for more of her? Just one more glimpse?

Perhaps we'd contented ourselves with that single image, but suddenly there was a chance that we could behold her mature face. We squinted and cocked our heads, trying hard to divine whether this woman in the "new" photo was truly Our Emily. I thought, reluctantly, that it wasn't. But now that the possibility had been presented, I was eager for another view, another angle of her.

The stunning art book "The Gorgeous Nothings" offers us this view — slant, as Emily liked things. In 52 color reproductions of the writings on envelopes, we still never see her face. But she shows us her hand.

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The synecdochal "hand" makes sense: Dickinson's form was fragments. So the words and images collected here aren't of drastically different order than her poems. Many of these scraps — drafts — became poems, some altered, some unchanged. Readers might recognize "Unknown — for all/the times we met — / Estranged, however/ intimate — /What a dissembling/ Friend —" and delight to see that this draft includes an extra couplet, dropped in the final version. (For those who miss these subtleties, full annotations are included.)

Those mysterious poems — in which an excess of dashes seems to represent omitted trajectories of vast and unwordable glory — say more about human consciousness and concerns in their few lines than we can understand in one read. We re-read Dickinson. We study her. We sometimes act as if we're reading runes or translating an ancient alien text: What could she possibly mean? What Emily Dickinson meant matters to us, because hers is the kind of poetry that helps us live our lives: "after great pain, a formal feeling comes." Yes, it does, one might say after the somewhat comforting conventions of a funeral or a memorial service.

What Dickinson means now seems almost the opposite of what she used to mean. She was often described/read as virginal, a prude. Now we eroticize her, reading into her poetry strong sexual desire and lust (see her poem "Wild Nights —" and Billy Collins' "Undressing Emily Dickinson"). We look at the letters in which she humbly requests her would-be mentor to give her poetic guidance, and we see a powerfully in-charge, audacious, ambitious and seductive woman posing as a supplicant. Dickinson didn't need artistic guidance, and she knew it, we now see.

She was once noted for writing tiny fascicles, writing tiny poems, though her contribution to American letters is now distinctly giant. As artist and author Jen Bervin says in her beautiful introduction to this book, the poet is "petite by physical standards, but vast by all others."

"The Gorgeous Nothings" shows us another side of this magnificent artist's doubleness. For most of us, our scant and vague scribblings truly are nothing, and we throw our old envelopes in the recycling bin. Emily Dickinson apparently slit open received envelopes to use the blank insides to write on; her scribblings, the jottings of this genius of ear and eye and hand, transform into art. This book shows the fronts and backs of each envelope and where possible aligns them so we can sense as closely as possible what the double-sided original object must be like. Also, the scribblings are "translated" or typeset on the facing page, with cross-outs and dashes, creases and all.

A large circle of archivists, curators, scholars and librarians helped Marta Werner and Jen Bervin in what is clearly a complex project and a labor of love years in the making. The impressive graphic design and ingenious typesetting make this more of an art book than a poetry book, the ultimate presentation by library or archival standards rather than a collection of fragments. But the star of the show is the handwriting.

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