The Gorgeous Nothings

by Emily Dickinson,
edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin with a preface by Susan Howe,
New Directions /Christine Burgin, 2013,
hardcover, 272 pages, $39.95,
ISBN: 978-0-8112-2175-7
Buy the Book

The Gorgeous Nothings volume finally collects the poems that Emily Dickinson wrote on the backs of envelopes.  This effectively presented text holds myriad clues for present day readers, poets, and scholars, as these odd, almost unclassifiable scraps of paper provide an amazing window into the way Dickinson worked.

Building on poet Susan Howe’s insight in The Birth Mark, that the manuscripts “should be understood as visual productions,” this volume presents a whole new side to Dickinson’s work that has implications for the treatment of other writers’ work as well.  Co-editors Jen Bervin and Marta Werner make a key decision to set transcripts of Dickinson’s poems on left-hand pages, opposite facsimiles of the envelopes on which Dickinson first penned them, on the right-hand pages.  The volume also includes a scholarly apparatus consisting of a preface by poet Susan Howe, an introduction and visual index by visual designer Jen Bervin and, at the back of the book, an essay, formal listing and bibliographical description of the envelope manuscripts by scholar Marta Werner.  If you are a fan of Dickinson’s poems, or a poet, I suggest begin with the presentations of the poems themselves, and only then delve into the scholarly sections to enhance your reading of the poems.

Even if you’ve not read a lot of Dickinson before opening this book, the poems presented in graphic form will convey how Emily Dickinson created her world one poem at a time.  For example, the first poem, about an inner shipwreck, unfolds in two dimensions, in text and on paper:

On the text level, the reader can follow Dickinson laying down lines word by word, like a bricklayer, until she comes to a decision point and stack her words on top of each other: The poem sets up a number of oppositions: “havoc” and “damage,” “tale” and “witness,” “mighty freight” and “dread occasion,” “sea” and

“land.”  Taken together, they convey states of the human mind as items lost at sea or freight destroyed on land; they express the foundering and despair of the human mind.

On the paper level, you can watch how Dickinson, like a builder, uses the space, folds, and boundaries of the envelope.  Wide spaces between lines allow her to stack her word choices, and the envelope’s shape conveys the sense of a closed tomb “that told no tale and let no witness in.”

Even though Dickinson would never have suspected that her envelopes would be read by her readers in this way, The Gorgeous Nothings presents her work with such simplicity and intimacy that the reader feels almost as if Dickinson were there at the same small table, allowing the reader to look over her shoulder as she drafts.  I’ve only found a handful of books that let you have this kind of close contact with a poet actually in the act of drafting. Curtis Bradford’s Yeats At Work is one, and The Gorgeous Nothings is another.  The co-authors Marta Werner and Jen Bervin deserve enormous credit, as does poet Susan Howe for her thoughtful introduction.  New Directions editor Christine Burgin, in association with Granary Books, has produced a thoroughly agreeable volume that yields new surprises every time the reader opens the covers.

Once the reader has made these discoveries in the poems themselves, there is time to turn attention to and admire the generations of scholars whose work lies behind this volume, the Amherstites vs. the Harvardians, and how eventually good sense prevailed to share with the world the folder that the first scholar had labeled Dickinson’s “scraps.”  The backstory shows how easily these poems could have been lost.

In bringing these poems to light, with well-conceived layout, design, and scholarly context, Bervin and Werner allow the reader a sense of Dickinson’s process in finding “the certain slant” and choice of words that make each poem arrive at and convey its present moment.  As the Danish poet and scholar Niels Kjær has written, this presentness is the hallmark of Dickinson’s

work, and The Gorgeous Nothings lets us experience it up close. Such intimacy makes this work not only a scholarly tour de force, but the freshest presentation of Dickinson’s poems to have come to us in a very long time.

Mark Schorr