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'Gorgeous Nothings' thinks out of the envelope about Emily Dickinson

The mark of a classic writer is that she remains contemporary. Her work, like Shakespeare's or Gertrude Stein's, manages to keep unfolding and to speak a language that sounds very much like our own strangeness.

The Gorgeous Nothings

Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems

nolead begins Edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin

New Directions. 272 pp. $39.95

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Reviewed by Thomas Devaney

The mark of a classic writer is that she remains contemporary. Her work, like Shakespeare's or Gertrude Stein's, manages to keep unfolding and to speak a language that sounds very much like our own strangeness.

Perhaps the most contemporary of canonical writers is Emily Dickinson. The history of Dickinson's poems is, in no small part, the history of the decisions editors and critics have made as they sought to "decipher" her work. Issues include which versions of the poems to print, but also peculiarities surrounding their layout on the page, decisions about syntax, punctuation, and spelling choices, and, of course, her significant use of dashes.

Remarkably, it was not until R.W. Franklin's version of Dickinson's poems appeared in 1998 that her words appeared in a way that honored her handwritten manuscripts.

The Gorgeous Nothings, co-edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin, is an art book - and book of artifacts - that offers 52 color reproductions of poems and fragments Dickinson penciled on scraps of envelopes. Print transcriptions accompany each.

For all the mystique around Dickinson, it was no secret among her family and friends that she wrote poems. One reason some of her poems survive at all is that they were included in her letters - by one count, 300 of them. The envelope poems were a place for Dickinson to draft parts of letters and poems, but also, as Bervin points out, her letters "were often indistinguishable from poetry."

It's not surprising that a book exploring "the materiality of the text" would itself be a pleasing object. I could envision this beautiful coffee-table book as slightly smaller, but, overall, its design is thoughtful and smart. It frames the sculptural qualities of the envelopes and provides us with a kind of close archival experience in which "to read" it both as a text and as a visual object.

Dickinson was passionate about letters, taking the act of writing and receiving letters with the utmost seriousness. One of my favorite Dickinson letters is also a comment on letters, though it is better known because of its reference to life and moments being "a loaded gun." The letter is addressed to one of her cousins and is dated 1881. Dickinson writes:

What is it that instructs a hand lightly created, to impel shapes to eyes at a distance, which for them have the whole area of life or of death? Yet not a pencil in the street but has this awful power, though nobody arrests it. An earnest letter is or should be a life-warrant or death-warrant, for what is each instant but a gun, harmless because "unloaded," but that touched "goes off"?

It is fitting that the work of Dickinson, a poet who challenged the definitions of poetry in her own time, remains a vehicle for a broader understanding of the art. In her informative essay, coeditor Bervin quotes Jerome McGann: "When we come to edit [Dickinson's] work for bookish presentation . . . we must accommodate our typographical conventions to her work, not the other way around."

The photo reproductions of the envelopes show what we lose if we have only written transcriptions of the text. Dickinson's pencil- and penmanship, and the carefully cut and shaped envelopes, look more like collages rather than literary manuscripts.

The editors are "reading" these envelopes as concrete poetry as much as anything else. As poet Susan Howe notes in the preface: "For almost twenty years few poets and few scholars, after seeing the originals, have dared to show us the ways in which what we thought we saw was not really what was there."

Co-editor Werner provides a reading of perhaps the most elaborate envelopes in the series in what she subtitles "Taxonomy of Paper Wings." She provides a minimal gloss of a poem, which is an envelope composed of two wings separated by a flap, to which a smaller triangular piece of paper is pinned (in the book it is unassembled). This "halved envelope," Werner notes, turns into "a simple diptych that resembles the hinged wings" of a bird. Her description and gloss continue:

On the right wing, the lines "Afternoon and | the West and | the gorgeous | nothings | which | compose | the | sunset | keep" slant upward into the west.

On the left wing, the lines "Clogged | only with | Music, like | the Wheels of | Birds" slant diagonally into the east.

On the smaller, pinned wing, writing rushes beyond the tear or terminus where the visible meets the invisible in "their high | Appoint | ment."

My own reading of the book is that it is a gift, one that opens our eyes to experience more of Dickinson, another installment in her ongoing "letter to the World":

This is my letter to the World

That never wrote to Me -

The simple News that Nature told -

With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed

To Hands I cannot see -

For love of Her-Sweet-countrymen -

Judge tenderly - of Me

In the end, The Gorgeous Nothings very much honors Dickinson's poetry. It had me thinking differently, and even a bit more concretely, about her work and the slanting hand that penciled the provocative line instructing us to "tell the Truth, but tell it Slant."