Book Review: Emily Dickinson: A poet who pushed — and recycled — the envelope


  • 'EMILY DICKINSON: THE GORGEOUS NOTHINGS,' edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin; Christine Burgin/New Directions ($52.50)

Like many a Connecticut Valley puritan, Emily Dickinson was practical, inventive and private. Dismissing the commercial marketing of poetry as an "auction of the mind," she pioneered a very personal version of desktop publishing, creating 40 handwritten, stitch-bound volumes of her own poetry, each in an edition of one.

It was during a period of extreme productivity, in the early 1860s when she was in her 30s, that she began to confine herself to her family home in Amherst, Mass. There she took to wearing a kind of work uniform of simple house dresses, equipped with a capacious pocket for holding odds and ends.

Certain of those odds and ends, in the form of slips of paper, have attracted scholarly notice over the years, and close attention during the past decade.

In the mid-1990s, while examining Dickinson material in the Amherst College Library, the literary historian Marta L. Werner came across a small, irregularly shaped collage cut from recycled 19th century envelopes and covered with writing in Dickinson's unmistakable hieroglyphic script.

Enchanted, Werner started a search for similar items in other collections and found dozens, long familiar to Dickinson experts but never examined as a group. Most were less elaborate than the collage.

Some consisted of semi-intact envelopes that had been gently pried apart at the seams and flattened out. Others were fragments: torn-off corners of envelopes, detached flaps.

Whatever their configurations, the pocket-size papers shared one feature: sentences, stanzas and entire roughed-out poems pencil-written by Dickinson herself.

Now all the known "envelope poems" — 52 — have been gathered into a book called "Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings." Coffee-table size, elegantly designed — it was originally issued in a deluxe format by Granary Books — it's an impressive object.

Although a number of Dickinson manuscripts have been reproduced in print since the 1950s, this is the first book devoted to full-color, actual-size facsimiles of a specific body of her work.

Each of the envelope pieces has been photographed on both sides and placed, silhouetted and centered, against a white ground, like paintings on a gallery wall. As a result, shapes rather than words are the first things that register.

And even when the words start to come into focus, the book's design encourages us to think of them first as components of visual objects. Are they art? Sure. Why not? But they are something else — poetry — before that.

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