A review of 'Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada'
“Why should I — proud engineer — be ashamed of my machinery?”
In her poem “The Modest Woman,” published in the modernist literary magazine The Little Review in 1920, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven derides the prude and celebrates the female body and modern form. A German immigrant, artist, and poet, the Baroness was a vibrantly disruptive figure in New York City’s avant-garde. A living, breathing vehicle of avant-gardism — since called the Village’s Tristan Tzara — she embodied the spirit and aesthetic of Dada. Parading through the streets in outrageous found-object costumes — tomato-can brassiere, postage-stamp beauty mark, spoon-and-feather hat, with her giant penis sculpture in hand — she constructed her poetry, sculpture, and self from the detritus of the modern city. American art historian Amelia Jones observes that the Baroness wore “modernity and its violent effects in and as her body” (29). The aggressive fervor with which the Baroness lived and created her work unsettled even the avant-garde and is the driving force of Jones’s Irrational Modernisms: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada, an art historical book on this early-twentieth-century avant-garde.
So when poet Eileen Myles enters a conversation about conceptual art and subjectivity in her May 2013 essay “Painted Clear, Painted Black,” she pulls on the threads of a conversation long under way. She enters by way of a comment made by Marjorie Perloff about her writing: that it is an example of “transparency or feigned transparency” in poetry. Myles deliberates on the meaning of “transparency,” and why it seems to be an objectionable thing. She wonders: is the rejection of an embodied subject behind the work a rejection of conflating author and art, of the lyric speaker, of an authentic self?
Myles also wonders if the call for an end of transparency is actually code for discomfort with identity politics, the feminine, the speech or bodies of women, queers, or people of color. In making the case that subjectivity and conceptualism are not incompatible, Myles reminds us that postmodern play is not necessarily at odds with the feeling (of) bodies of artists and audiences, and that subjectivity need not be simple or singular; nor is all conceptualist art disembodied. She understands the avant-garde to be “composed of a shaky grid holding a multiple of approaches” and notes in the “theory world outside of poetry, feeling is hot stuff.” I would add that not only has “feeling” been hot stuff in critical theory and literary studies for decades (what’s been called the “affective turn” happened around 2000), but visual and performance arts have a long history of interest in the body, feelings, and questions about reception. Myles identifies contemporary poets doing “unabashedly postmodern work that is free wheeling and exacting in its deployment of emotion” and reminds us that sound poetry is a bodily performance and that appropriation has served to mourn or mark a moment. Troubled by the misogyny in a conceptual writing process in which “womanly transparent feelings are now successfully marshaled into order,” Myles reminds us that in art there is feeling — “Feeling is an inside and outside gong. It’s history.”
I begin this review with Myles’s piece because I am struck by how much it resonates with Jones’s 2005 interdisciplinary art historical book, which revisits the early-twentieth-century New York City avant-garde by way of the recently rediscovered Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, whose biography and art illuminate this history of feelings and bodies working with and against cultural forces and aesthetic constraints. Because the life, body, and art of the Baroness were one and the same. Strangely and spectacularly ornamented and overflowing with what she scavenged from her street wanderings, she might, in the words of Jones, “help us understand how the messy, personal, and subjective have — in waves, beginning at least with the rise of identity politics in art world discourse in the late 1960s — begun to reemerge with increasing force to challenge the repressive boundaries of the restrictive patrilineal model of art practice and art history” (27). In Jones’s compelling alternative history of New York Dada, the Baroness is not simply an overlooked colorful character; nor is she a marginalized artist to be inserted into a preexisting narrative. She influenced avant-garde culture, inspiring, enacting, and creating innovative Dadaist art. Documenting her sharp wit and the sensual pleasure she took in interacting with the materials of her world, her exciting body of work includes and combines assemblage sculpture, sound poetry, visual poetry, painting, diagrams, fashion, and performance. As Dada embodied, the Baroness is a form of what Jones calls irrational modernism, and as such is representative of a new approach to understanding the historical avant-garde, one that “revises our current conception of radical artistic practice” (24).
In 1922, Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson, editors of the American literary magazine The Little Review, saw the Baroness as representative of American Dada and featured her in their modernist magazine — along with Mina Loy — as the face of Dada, declaring her “the first American dada”: “she is the only one living anywhere who dresses dada, loves dada, lives dada” (5). When one encountered the Baroness, one came into contact with a disorienting mélange of seemingly incongruous landscapes and materials: she was known to carry around canaries in a cage; wear gilded carrots and beets, a readymade shovel earring, and a gold curtain tassel belt; and model outfits she made out of maritime flags and machine parts. She subverts what Jones identifies as the dominant model of avant-gardism, one that “is predicated on the erasure of the subjectivity of the artist — the messy and potentially compromising aspects of her or his sexuality and other biographical vicissitudes — from the artistic encounter” (21).
For Jones, the Baroness, “in her inimitably fluid and destabilizing way, thread[s] her way through the book, just as she insinuated herself into the circles of artists and writers now associated with New York’s World War I-era artistic avant-gardes” (10). Her itinerant movements and art-play in the city brought her into contact with its avant-gardists, with whom she had both accord and discord. She collaborated with them and critiqued their art, including that of her good friend Marcel Duchamp, with whom she shared an affinity for found-object art assemblages and plumbing sculpture. (Who first had this found-object affinity is a question that Jones takes up; following the lead of Baroness biographers, she suggests Duchamp’s Fountain came from the Baroness.) Given her involvement in and contributions to the American Dada aesthetic, the dearth of attention given her in modernism’s histories is shocking and dismaying. Jones takes the Baroness seriously, intricately reweaving her back into place in New York City’s early avant-garde; her presence provides new and different lenses with which to see and understand these artists and their art. In this role, she is a productive irritant for Jones, who seeks to examine and highlight what she calls artistic subjectivity: “by attending to the lived avant-gardism of the Baroness, I want to revise our current understanding of New York Dada as a group of visual objects and images whose meaning and political significance has remained more or less static over time and, thus, interrogate our understanding of avant-gardism and even of art history and modernism themselves” (13).
The Baroness’s “lived avant-gardism” inspires the richly textured art-historical narrative of Irrational Modernism, which details the cultural and social dynamics of New York City avant-gardists as they worked, wrangled, and collaborated with one another before and during World War I. Jones highlights correspondences between the lives and art of the Dadaists and the dislocations that modernity and the war had set in motion: specifically, how the war, immigration, Fordism, Taylorism, and the city’s shocks of modernity were reconfiguring borders, bodies, and psyches, as well as shoring up social and gender norms. Of particular interest to this book is the impact these unsettling forces had on Marcel Duchamp, Frances Picabia, Man Ray, and the Baroness. The Baroness was unique to the group in that she “enacted the violent dislocations in personal and national identity put into play in the period” (36). As Jones explains: “the Baroness is a figure whose boundary-breaking performances rearticulated gendered and national identity to an extent far beyond that to which most of the male avant-gardists, their anti-bourgeois proclamations aside, were ever willing to go” (36). Thrown in jail many times — for wearing a man’s suit, stealing an umbrella, assaulting poet William Carlos Williams, being suspected as a German spy — the foreign, androgynous, sexually aggressive Baroness failed to fit into even the avant-garde’s categories, “flowing threateningly forth across the boundaries of respectable avant-garde behavior” (10).
It is the queer figure of the Baroness, threatening in her challenge to gender identity and to norms of social behavior, who enables Jones to write what she sees as a needed alternative view of New York Dada, one which the Baroness facilitates by “reenacting the very irrational effects that she so dramatically stood for at the time, performing the seedy and seamy underside of modernism that discourses of high art and architecture have labored to contain through their dominant models of rational practices” (10). For Jones, the Baroness offers an alternative way of negotiating the “mad rationality” of industrialism. In her flâneurial immersion in the spaces of urban industrialism — as “an androgynous German woman with a voracious sexual appetite, dressed in urban detritus like a mentally ill ‘bag lady’” (9) —she enacts what Jones sees as a radical art practice. Unlike the Dada men, whose work Jones argues never fully embraces irrationality, the Baroness does not sublimate or repress the body’s response to the shocks of modernity. Instead, she revels in the modern city, appropriating and fabricating shape-shifting identities and transgressive art forms in and through a disordering of its language and objects. As an embodied sign of what is grotesque and carnivalesque in the modern city, she points to irrationality and incoherence as a way of negotiating its machinelike forms and forces. The Baroness exhibits the nervous condition of neurasthenia, a “complex network of bodily/psychic symptoms that rupture the subject’s smooth functioning” (28). Thus, for Jones, the Baroness and her “mad” form of Dadaism serve as a critique of modernity’s forces that work to regulate, control, and contain the body; she resists and confounds the discourses of rationalism, nationalism, and masculinity that occupied her time and place.
Jones offers a book about “doing art history,” what she labels an “overtly neurasthenic art history — disorderly, irrational, and highly self-invested” (28). In the first chapter, “The Baroness and Neurasthenic Art History,” Jones explains the role of the Baroness in this history by plunging into all of the book’s key concerns and concepts — neurasthenia, rational modernism, rational postmodernism, irrational modernism, readymades, and the avant-garde. Given the enormous ground Jones wants to cover, her narrative is quite dense, and at times disorienting, as she utilizes myriad lenses to examine and illuminate this group — psychoanalytic, historical, biographical, formalist and feminist — combining these approaches and sometimes switching gears abruptly. While this approach makes some sense, given the multifaceted nature of this project, at times it feels like too much too fast. Jones wants to do justice to her subject matter, and thus she comes at it from every angle, attempting in one book to take all possible paths of inquiry — now that the Baroness is on the scene.
Leaving Germany in 1913, Elsa Plotz arrived in America the year of New York’s revolutionary Armory Show. She brought with her the aesthetic and cultural sensibilities of the avant-garde communities of Berlin and Munich, where she had been living and circulating since the age of nineteen, when she left a difficult middle-class family situation — an abusive father and what she described as a stepmother’s “bourgeois harness of respectability” (7). In these cities, Elsa worked as a chorus girl, model, actress, and artist, and had a number of lovers and a couple of husbands. Not too long after her arrival in America at the age of thirty-nine, she married a disinherited German Baron — acquiring a title but no wealth — and shortly after their marriage, he went to war and died. It was in New York City that she began making, writing, and wearing her art. Embraced by some and scorned by others in its art and literary circles, Elsa in many ways remained an outsider: she was a German woman (arrested and imprisoned during the war), androgynous, and uninhibited about her sexual desires. Her art was mostly ephemeral, public, so not easily incorporated and placed in a exhibit, museum or institution. As a poor peripatetic flâneuse, she wandered the city streets, sometimes wearing a car taillight bustle, so as to, in her words, not “collide with anyone.” Yet, given her electric energy, she had collisions — with the bourgeois of the modern city and with some of the more buttoned-up modernists, including William Carlos Williams, who, as the story goes, first found her intriguing and pursued her, then felt such trepidation about her aggressive ardor for him that he took up boxing lessons to defend himself against her amorous assaults — calling her “a dirty old bitch.”
The Baroness challenged the period’s gendered and national discourses more radically and more overtly, Jones argues, than did the avant-garde men in the face of their fraught relationships with the war. Jones begins her history of the New York Dada with the impact of the war on “the best-known representative of the visual arts component of the New York Dada movement, the triumvirate Man Ray, Duchamp, and Picabia” (30), focusing on their distance from the war and their lives in America. She frames the second chapter, “War/Equivocal Masculinities,” with a quote from Freud’s “Thoughts on War and Death” (1915) about the “noncombatant individual” whose response to the disorientation of being a “wheel in the gigantic machinery of war” is an inhibition of “his powers and activities” (34). This is followed by a quote from a letter to The Little Review (1920): “The Baroness … [claws] aside the veils and rush[es] forth howling, vomiting and leaping nakedly … It is a blessing to come upon an unconscious volcano now and again” (34). If the Baroness unreservedly erupts and spews forth feelings about modernity in the form of bodily fluids, as noncombatant men in a modern city far from the war in Europe, Man Ray, Duchamp, and Picabia respond differently. In close formal analysis of their art, Jones sees anxieties about masculinity at play in the abstraction and destruction of the body, dysfunctional machines, voids, and “obsessive heroic enactments of male power” (133). Their work illustrates what she calls the “mad rationality” of modernity: feeling is sublimated and the body is broken, alienated, and dismembered, appearing as fleshless machines, glass, diagrams, and shadows.
In contrast, the lived art practices of the Baroness elude modernity’s appropriative logic, which would contain and rationalize that which is excessive, confusing, and other. The Baroness’s strange outfits, found objects, and readymade poetry cull the materials of her everyday, reveling in ecstatic and confused fleshy combinations of body, city, and world. Irrational Modernism might have spent more time on the Baroness’s radically innovative writing, which she herself called “readymades in poetry,” but as an art historian Jones focuses on the Baroness’s found-plumbing sculpture and assembled objects to make the case that her work serves as an explicit challenge to modernity’s oppressive forces of rationalism. Jones does not paint her as a complete anomaly of the time, however; nor does she set up a strict male/female artist dichotomy. She pairs her with the also historically marginalized Arthur Craven, who like the Baroness embodied the spirit of Dada in absurd costumes and performative bodily play that undermined the period’s militaristic mechanical masculinity. Jones notes Craven “lived his life and practiced his art (the two processes being identical in this case) in such a manner as to embody the male subject of urban modernity during the early twentieth century” (173). What seems most compelling and convincing — both to Jones and to me — is the way in which the Baroness’s body “became a kind of ‘readymade in action,’” an embodied “sign of the ruptures in the social (and gender) fabric during this highly charged period — of the uncontainable, violent, feminizing, debased, and debasing effects of modernity” (9). Jones turns to Chaplain’s broken feeding machine in the film Modern Times as a related image in her second chapter, “Dysfunctional Machines/Dysfunctional Subjects,” in which she investigates and rethinks works of the Dada canon with attention to the Dadaist men’s “feminized and broken machines” alongside discussion of the Baroness’s art objects and her writing on machine culture.
While the Baroness was terrorizing Williams, she was inspiring her friend Duchamp. Not only was she a living readymade, her art — much like his — appropriated material from the modern world: its streets, signs, stores, and newspapers. (In a painter’s studio on Broadway, the Baroness once recited her poem, “Marcel, Marcel, I love you like Hell, Marcel,” as she rubbed down her naked body with a copy of his Nude Descending the Staircase.) In focusing on her sculpture, Jones puts forth a proposition made by the Baroness’s biographer, Irene Gammel, that she very well might have given the famous Fountain (1917) to Duchamp to submit to the Armory Show. Not only does he mention in a letter that it was given to him by one of his women friends; it fit into her oeuvre of found-object sculptures, which explicitly cite female body holes and phallic parts. Her sculpture God, from the same year, is an iron plumbing tube mounted atop a wood miter box. Jones points out their shared appreciation for readymades that reference the fraught dynamics of man and machine, and of the body and industrial capitalism; Jones also deliberates on the Baroness’s art as excessive and playful critique in contrast to Duchamp’s art, in which the body is trace or an absence. Jones argues that “by circling around, rather than enacting, the compromised bodies of modernity, Duchamp kept his practice radical to a degree — but safe (and fully disembodied) [and] ultimately retained control and thus artistic mastery by choosing, contextualizing, and directing the display of each readymade” (141). In discussing the lives of Duchamp, Man Ray, and Picabia, Jones exposes what she sees as personal, psychological, and aesthetic negotiations of masculinity in response to the war. She is overt about her intention to provide more complex and more contradictory narratives than art history narratives in which these men are reduced to radical or genius artists heroically battling forces of industrial capitalism and normative masculinity.
Breaking down what she characterizes as the formalized rationalized logic of art history, Jones makes explicit her own personal interest in the Baroness and neurasthenia. Of her fourth chapter, “The City/Wandering, Neurasthenic Subjects,” she writes, “I increasingly overtly identify with — and project onto — the Baroness as a radical urban wanderer performing a fragmented narrative that itself is flâneurial,” and she characterizes art history as neurasthenic and as a mode of historical wandering (32). She is an art historian who has experienced neurasthenia in the form of a panic disorder, she admits, relating her emotional excesses to the excesses of the Baroness.
In the middle of this chapter, Jones includes a creative piece of writing in which she assumes the voice of the wandering Baroness. While this journal entry fails to capture what is formally innovative about the Baroness’s own language and poetics, it conveys the presence of the storyteller, conflating author and subject, which is clearly Jones’s intent. In the opening chapter, she states, “Anxiety is my mode of being. Sometimes reading about Francis Picabia or the Baroness, […] I feel attached to them by a hot, electrified wire of neurosis across the decades” (28). In these instances, and throughout Irrational Modernism, Jones is deliberate about her desire to dispense with the illusion of objectivity or neutrality in writing; she makes transparent her personal identification with the Baroness as a way of acknowledging the body and feelings of the/a writer in what is a sound scholarly examination of New York Dada. This is her boundary-crossing, a intervention of feeling in staid institutional art historical writing. While I imagine some readers might feel uncomfortable with this — which might be the point — I appreciate her intent. In making explicit her interest in the Baroness, Jones calls attention to what compels her writing, her art-history-making — and to how one feels her way into and is present in art.
Irrational Modernism is a compelling contribution to the recent (and belated) attention to the Baroness and her radical form of lived avant-gardism, one in which she “performed a kind of unhinged subjectivity that most of the other artists of her day only examined or illustrated in their work and that many, in spite of their aspirations to thwart bourgeois norms and define themselves as avant-garde, assiduously avoided” (5). In her avant-garde community, the Baroness “shone a raking light on the limits of radical practice, galvanizing debates” that dismissed her as “beyond the pale of avant-gardism” (209). This same raking light illuminates our current debates about avant-gardism and feeling, given that the exciting body of the Baroness, her felt and feeling art, anticipated and informed future avant-gardes, performance art, feminist and queer art, and conceptualism. In her poem “Constitution,” the Baroness “Still / Shape distinct — / Resist / I / Automatonguts / Rotating Appetite — / Upbear against / Insensate systems.”
2. Eileen Myles, “Painted Clear, Painted Black,” Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics, no. 29 (May 2013).
3. In the opening pages of Irrational Modernism, Jones declares her indebtedness to a number of feminist art historians whom she admires and upon whose work she is building and extending; this includes Naomi Sawelson-Gorse’s anthology Women in Dada and Irene Gammel’s Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity — A Cultural Biography. Published in 2002, Gammel’s biography paints a fascinating, multifaceted picture of the Baroness’s role in the early-twentieth-century avant-gardes. Gammel’s biography served to rediscover the Baroness, and soon after a small collection of her poetry came out: Subjoyride, titled after her readymade poems from 1919 to 1920. In 2011, a comprehensive collection of her writing, Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, was published by MIT Press. A beautiful book of all her writing, it includes her published and unpublished poems, and handwritten manuscripts covered with intricate drawings and diagrams.
On Hoa Nguyen's 'As Long as Trees Last'
Living with As Long as Trees Last, Hoa Nguyen’s latest collection of poetry, is akin to living with Charles Olson — his endless exuberance, wide-ranging curiosity, and aesthetic agility, as well as his famous invocation of the body as a tunnel through which one must go to know more truly the self and the world around it. “Down through the workings of [the poet’s] own throat to that place where breath comes from,” he writes in Projective Verse, is the path to becoming “participant in the larger force.”
Living with As Long as Trees Last is also akin to living with John Cage — the attention to silence, to the music of reality, to the harmonies and disharmonies that make a life. I think of the presence evoked by his work, of being present to the world, bringing one’s instruments to the stage of the world and allowing the world to play.
Olson and Cage are present in As Long as Trees Last on every page, egging on Nguyen from behind the stage, giving her the theoretical foundation upon which she builds and builds and builds her own vision, one marked by the harmonies and disharmonies of language, thought, and feeling that she reached down into herself to get. The discordant bells of jagged syntax and juxtaposed imagery ring often in the book, discordant in the way a life is lived with anxiety and ferocity, but these bells that ring discordantly also ring true. They ring true in the way Cage’s work rings those everyday sounds, allowing presence and attunement to the oft-neglected disharmonies of reality, but with Olson’s exuberance and his boundless will to break the self off into pieces of the outside world.
But let me be clear. This is Nguyen’s show. It is her throat readers descend into. It is her voice we hear in these discordant bells. For all its kinship with Olson and Cage, As Long as Trees Last is Nguyen’s tremendous symphony. Living with it these months since its release by Wave Books has been a constant pleasure, one that encourages itself as well as the life of the reader to be one of effulgence and grace.
Indeed, it encourages being in its infinitive form, as eros, as will against a very difficult world to inhabit. But inhabit it, we must. “What it means to be / out of work,” she writes in “I’m Stuck.” And in “Being,” “The cup or bowl said to be / precious stone is really green / glass.” Elsewhere, “This is being” (“For Lisa Camile in Memoriam, April 18, 2010”); there are things to do (“Mash the sea / Evolve love / Keen / Coo,” from “Rain Poem”), things to perceive, sounds to interpret, and voices to utter and re-utter into the fabric of the poem.
The space of the poem, then, becomes a space of living, acted and reenacted, where the poem is inhabited as if one’s life were dependent on it (It is! It is!), and also where voice is heard present to the self as if coming from another, as a unique entity of the act of being within one’s self. In “Being,” she writes, “I molt ‘wrapped / in the hide of a yellow cow’” and in the moment the voice becomes present to itself, as if hearing one’s own voice on an answering-machine, a little off but unmistakable and strange:
The dream hand wrote:
How eyes can see brightly
across great distance
This vision of one’s own hand writing is a kind of inhabitation of the self, an inhabitation-as-poem that becomes a life project, Nguyen’s life project. It is a manner of writing and a path through the world that subverts the nonbeing, bodiless meandering of contemporary life. Indeed, as she writes in “Soul Poem,” “It’s the ‘end of enchantment,’” but this end-as-terminus is never an option. Nguyen’s poems constantly bound toward enchantment growing on the leaves of the Chinaberry that grows within one’s self. If anything, As Long as Trees Last is keyed up, bright-eyed, and against an end of any kind.
In “Being,” she writes, “Being outside the world / needs a ‘spiritual degree,’” but not any sort of certification from academia. On the contrary, this spiritual degree is one of attunement, of a heightened listening that Cage and Olson inspire. Elsewhere, in “Unused Baby,” we mustn’t try to “glue the ripped / paper back to the religious / art”; we must “make a mess of it” because the mess of the human body and soul is where we must go to look outward onto the world with any degree of spirituality, so to speak. Subvert academia and subvert religion, Nguyen seems to say, but have spirit and have art.
As we progress through the book, we encounter these instances of inverted voice and subverted societal conventions, and are enchanted by them as they swirl into a whirlpool that pulls everything into the body of the body of the poem. “The outside is the inside,” she writes in “Hexagram #1 Poem.” And this whirlpool effect rearranges our conception of outside and inside in its wake, hence:
I am in the poem pulling
thistle and like the dream
where drive-by Chinaberries golden
Catch cars in the soundscape
a squawking call too with
Lady Xoc’s shield
These stanzas from “Lady Xoc” perfectly capture this blurred and busted line, the porous skin between outside and inside, culminating in the extraordinary “Words You Should Know,” a poem that proclaims the poem-as-life-project aesthetic in a litany of nouns, verbs, and adjectives drawn from A New True Book: The Choctaw. The poem presents readers with a list, a poem as interplay between the language of the world and the poem’s struggle to make its associations and variances count, make them fill the poem with the difficulty of being alive outside as well as inside the poetic space. For all its exuberance, As Long as Trees Last is not neglectful of difficulty, the struggles that the self faces in attempting to inhabit the world. And yet, even as “Words You Should Know” presents readers with “Poverty” and “Defeated,” there appears “Ravine” and “Vine” and the book’s closing imperative to “Please / just open the door / to the sun” (“Swell”).
These closing lines point us to the poem-as-inhabitation-of-the-world that we have encountered all along in As Long as Trees Last, but with a flourish and a passion that could only come from a poet as committed to Olson’s becoming “participant in the larger force” as Nguyen is. As Nguyen opens herself to the world through the “workings of [her] own throat,” she opens the body of her poems to the outside as a way of fully inhabiting the world and the poetry that connects us to the world. Indeed, if we must “open the door / to the sun,” then we must first realize that “the outside is the inside” and that “the wall is a door” (“Hexagram #1 Poem”).
As Long as Trees Last stands on the other side of this door, and, with the wisdom and aesthetic agility unique to poetry, desperately, ferociously pulls us through.
On Stephanie Young’s 'Ursula or University'
Stephanie Young’s Ursula or University begins, “I guess it’s too late ...” and (nearly) ends, “It can be never for a very, very long time. And then it can be now.” In between, Young hovers and waits, worries and writes, enmeshed in a Bay Area poetry community that, to her, crackles with potential seismic energy she nevertheless fears may forever fail to unleash the earthquake that would justify its pressures and change the topography of power and privilege whose violence mars the utopia she can almost grasp.
The earthquake that might come, never comes, must come, is one of the book’s persistent metaphors, a way of thinking the present moment as simultaneously necessary and non. Young imagines herself caught by the archetypal West Coast catastrophe in the scariest possible place: the BART tube under the Bay. The claustrophobic panic of this is too real to be merely symbolic: it makes my chest tighten, even on the eighth floor of the NYU library, just to picture it. But the resonance is real, too, in Young’s claustrophobic sense of her own small society, which she repeatedly and dutifully calls the “mostly white [or middle-class, or leftist] poets I am and hang out with.” She has to find a way to breathe, she knows, because she loves them.
I met Stephanie Young at the East Bay Poetry Summit in May 2013. I was very drunk at the time, drunk the whole long weekend, in fact, on the company of this extraordinary group of poets. In New York the poets kind of peer down into their drinks or crane their necks off toward a dark corner, but there, I discovered, they talk to each other! They study together! They make out all the time (or that’s what this book says, anyway)! And they actually let each other come over! To their, like, homes! I’ve known poets in New York for five years or more whose apartments remain firmly in the realm of my imagination, and probably always will (can I drop by?).
I bring all this up in the spirit of Young, whose book believes in, and practices, an attention to such happenings, participants, idiosyncrasies, histories, and hopes. It also inevitably obscures the very gossip it means to take seriously: this book, too, has secrets. But Young’s conviction is that these activities, on which so much time and energy seems to hinge, are as meaningful as the supposed poetries on which we habitually tell ourselves we must focus partly by ignoring the structures that bring us to their encounter. Is it possible, she asks, to arrive at “A critique of the networks and systems that surround and produce poetry communities, a critique arising, or moving away from, that at least doesn’t leave out my feelings”? That doesn’t leave out, in other words, a body — not the swoony, orgasmic body so many poets seem to mean when they say they care about “the body,” but rather the sweaty, anxious, recoiling body that really exists in the social body, whose microcosm is the society of other poets, except when it isn’t because of all the other societies that community excludes. And yet crucially is, or theoretically can be, conscious of excluding, so much so that the exclusion functions like a fault line, always there, ruining utopia, making it hold its breath. Young offers up her own body’s acute attunement to such dissonance. When a conference on community labor and poetics chooses to invite only poets who don’t work in the academy, she attends; but, aware of the absurdity of excluding supposed “academic” poets who are really at the fringes of a no-longer coherent academy anyway, Young writes:
I felt as if I had to sit there and take it. I is the conditions of my labor didn’t belong anywhere. Waves of sweat ripping up my ribcage. My face very hot. I ate handfuls of snacks at the break, pretzels and chocolate, shoveled it in and didn’t talk about whatever it was that felt so personal, I took something personally, something ripping or tearing in the body, in the family, in the home sort of, in the guts. In the guts of the room, of the organs that matter—to our bodies, the organs our bodies are made of. I went back and forth on this. Whose body was whose. Was it one big body like a church. I didn’t mean to presume you are part of me. I didn’t mean to presume I am part of you. But secretly, I felt this was true.
Is that secret belief — a church of poets! — doomed to disillusionment? In one sense, of course it is, since the poets are revealed again and again as subject to the failings of every body (individual and social).
But then something happens. And this book, which laments those failures even as it refuses to be blind to them, finds a way to function not just in spite of but through them (it’s a long book, mostly prose, hybrid in every way, but it does have a plot, the best kind, one the author doesn’t see coming because she’s writing it in real time). At first, there are protests of the shooting of Oscar Grant, an African American resident of Hayward, on January 1, 2009, at Fruitvale Station, by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle (who was functionally acquitted). Ursula is in a profound sense an elegy for this innocent, ambushed person, even as it wonders how it can perform that elegy from the heart of a nearby but also distinct community whose warm embrace both enables poetry but also seems to doom it to myopia (however hard it rubs its eyes). “What could ever be adequate,” Young asks, “to the death of a man I didn’t know, his body marked by race, class, location.” At the climax of the book, however, Occupy comes to Oakland, and suddenly everyone’s activated, embodied, the community rocked to its foundations. Earlier, at one of the anti-BART protests, Young finds out what her body knows and doesn’t know, how
most of the time I drove my car, often I checked the weather online, generally I moved between my car and the doorway, between restaurants and bars, the walking path and parking lot, theater and arts space. Mostly I moved between the private and semiprivate houses. My body knew how to get money out of an ATM because that’s how money had trained it, to shield the keypad with the hand, to be aware of my surroundings without appearing too nervous. My body had been trained to go with the flow, not how to block it.
With Occupy, however, these fearful anatomizations give way to a suddenly assured catalog of injustice’s vocabulary and the “interruptive power” that being-there, as Young is (even in all her ambivalence), can truly bring to bear:
And so I called out to the singularities, the names I didn’t know, called them out in rooms full of poets. Called out the names I didn’t know to the names I did. Maybe it looks like a retreat to poetry. But really it was all I had. The names. The calling.
The earthquake comes and we are all together, if nowhere else, upon the ground, and in the terrifying trembling we reach for each other, so hard.
Young wonders whom she writes for, no matter whether from the center of her coterie or from its edge. Let’s ask it: who is this book for? Simple: it’s for me. It’s for you. And it’s for anyone, since everyone, not just poets, lives in their own little local, imagining its borders are self-evident, when the only lines that truly matter are deep underground, are the absence of ground, are long, tense fissures where they slumber, waiting to remake the world.
An itinerant essay around a reading of 'The Gorgeous Nothings'
“The world will not rest satisfied,” wrote a reviewer of Emily Dickinson’s poems in 1892, “till every scrap of [Emily Dickinson’s] writings, letters as well as literature, has been published.” Here is how The Gorgeous Nothings, a provocation, satisfies.
December 21, 11:19 a.m., Emily Dickinson’s room, Amherst, Massachusetts. Today the sky is a luminous slate. The room in its deconstructed state: stripped of wallpaper and floor covering, the iron woodstove pulled away from the bricked-up fireplace, the walls spotted with spackling and faint shades of paint. Cold, no curtains, the facsimile dresser between the south-facing windows (as if still on view), the narrow desk askew of the southwest corner, and the chair oddly placed at a distance facing the opposite wall. Lifeless as a museum could be, a room in its unnamed state. I switch off the unnecessary floor lamp to avoid false shadows and listen for “Music, like / the Wheels of / Birds — ” but the hour is still, all light and quiet and settled dust.
[Green shutters jut past the window edge; view of sky.]
I know I worked myself up to that moment by placing it on an itinerary, travelling from the Emily Dickinson Room — a display with a selection of furniture, paintings, and books from the Dickinson Homestead — at Harvard’s Houghton Library to Emily Dickinson’s room at the Dickinson Homestead in Amherst. I did this to create my own geography, to sketch the spaces and things of Emily Dickinson’s life onto my reading of The Gorgeous Nothings, a collection of her late “ecstatic” writing on envelopes and other scraps of paper published recently by New Directions. In this book edited by artist Jen Bervin and literary historian Marta Werner, Dickinson’s works are flanked by words suggesting an energetics — velocity, transience, fleeting, light. I’ve come to this moment hoping to locate these archived items (all but one of them housed at an Amherst College library down the street) and their words within a space of practice.
The itinerary suggested itself a month earlier while I was planning a holiday trip, but it is initiated the moment when, my feet having moved me to the receptionist’s desk at the Houghton Library, I asked to see Emily Dickinson’s desk. This formalized my seeking not after objects but the residue of inhabitance. First it is suggested I return two days hence for the weekly tour. But that won’t suit my itinerary; “I’ll be in Amherst by then,” I say, perhaps not meaning this to sound important. “You just want to see the desk?” I am asked. Yes. A phone call is made, and I am given a quarter and directed to the lockers. Unburdened of my belongings, I then await my host, who soon leads me up the rotunda steps and into the sealed inner chambers. At the threshold of the Emily Dickinson Room she releases the fat velvet sash from its catch, takes the few steps across, and pushes back the wood shutters.
[Angled toward one window, Emily Dickinson’s desk and chair awash in the dull gleam of New England midwinter light.]
In the archives and sheltered rooms, nothing is to be touched without very special permission.
Dickinson’s now fragile herbarium — dried specimens of flowers she collected and grew and labeled and arranged in a book — is kept permanently out of view.
One is not allowed to take photographs in the Emily Dickinson Room at Harvard or in the Dickinson Homestead Museum.
This hiding preserves them.
[A fat velvet sash spans the entry to the Emily Dickinson Room.]
Online, one may see digital images of many archived Dickinson materials — drafts, fascicles, correspondence, the envelope-poems of The Gorgeous Nothings, even Emily Dickinson’s desk and chair. While such “open access” may bring many literary scholars closer, it will serve to keep readers hungry to encounter things-as-they-are that much further away. With digitation comes a further justification for maintaining the divide; one must now make a case for viewing the original, for why the zoomable digital image will not do.
These are my thoughts after a brief exchange with the archive’s guardian just outside the Emily Dickinson Room. She had pointed out some manuscripts in Dickinson’s hand on view in the case in Keats’s Library. I recognize the shape of a small triangular slip of paper under the glass case. This, it turns out, is the one envelope-poem that Harvard possesses (H B 3, I learn later, after consulting The Gorgeous Nothings). It is the only original I would, on this journey, see. But I don’t really see it. I copy down the opening lines, I’m talking and being talked with, I’m taking notes. Because I want to hold it, I ask if I would be able to see any of the Dickinson materials housed elsewhere in this building. “One must have call to study some aspect of it physically,” I am told, and in my notebook I jot down Shadows! Depth! Paper!
“Eternity will / be / velocity or Pause.” These are its (ironic) first lines.
[H B 3, “Eternity will / be / velocity or Pause,” pinned to the display case like a butterfly.]
When we walk into a place like this, there is the matter of how we are permitted to look at things. Poet and scholar Susan Howe, in My Emily Dickinson, refracts the power of academic institutions — concentrated in editors, archival regulations, schools of criticism — that controlled Dickinson’s reception, wresting the poet’s image from its former literary confines. Howe researched and wrote in a predigital light, and in her radical rejection of such frames she reveals how scholarship’s textual conventions mediate and limit possible relations to materials. We are left pining after more such views, some of us determined in one way or another to become interlopers into sheltered spaces ourselves.
Whereas my visit to the Emily Dickinson Room is spontaneous, I emailed weeks ahead of my Amherst visit to request special access to Emily Dickinson’s room.
December 21, Emily Dickinson’s room: I did look at the shadow of my legs spanning the corner of the floor and the north wall. I did look at the yellowed wall and the contrasting white infill of the room’s original arched doorway. I did look right down at the dull and scratched floorboards of various widths of an uneven dusty brown and notice an ochre patch and look right down into the cracks between them. I did look at a similar ochre patch on the wall. I did look closely at the molding around one window marked with strips of blue tape bearing an evocative shorthand marking layers of this archaeological site: “GHOST starts after brown” “pre-55 — no brown” “very early — ochre + red” “patch = post-Emily.”
[A botanical pattern on the scrap of wallpaper protected from light above the now-exposed ceiling line.]
I did look long and glance again out of each of the room’s four very tall windows (of two six-paned sashes), then again out of the pair of windows on the two windowed walls. I did walk up to the west-facing window with its view of the Evergreens beyond a stretch sparsely treed with pines whose canopy now spreads just at the height of the homestead. I did look through the large squares of glass, and down at the sill where Dickinson would rest a basket to be lowered to children below. I did measure the width of the sill with my handspan. Yes, Emily Dickinson could rest a basket to be lowered to those below.
[The windowsill, with a view of the Evergreens beyond.]
I might have been looking through the feel of being both within the space of the room and out, the feel of connection and distance. The feel of that was this: above the mantle, the chimney beneath wall plaster continues to rise beyond the top of this upstairs room, going up like a spire; out the windows the lightness and light and sky above; the solid floor and family and foundation below. As if built up from. Contained, yet dispersed by the open vantage of four large windows on two walls. The feeling of floating with winter light, bright and surrounding, the shadow of pen tip on paper a kind of companion, the shadow always under or just covering the script, creating a horizon, the weight of it on the paper a sturdy contrast to the feel of the solid walls.
The Gorgeous Nothings is produced in a conscious relation to the receding material archive, to the distance between its objects and their formerly lived spaces. It erases that distance (or hopes to) — for despite its heft and sheen, it is less a coffee-table than a laptop book. This is the sense I get on another day near the middle of winter when I place The Gorgeous Nothings open on my lap and am drawn immediately into the images. The facsimiles float above their carefully erased shadows. Because the images seem to sit atop the page, the hand wants to reach for them. As on a computer display, they won’t yield to the touch — “Suspended in air, flickering between presence and absence, they ideally appear very close and very far away at once,” Werner has written.
Individually on the page, the items seem magnified visually, presented full-size but appearing large next to their much smaller, plain transcriptions. These look archaeological, like the interpretive display encountered at the museum next to ancient glyphs. They emphasize the fact that the envelope-poem is irretrievably withdrawn from its context. And in the form of the book itself, a small history of writing and publishing plays out: imagine, in the facsimile, the poet’s hand grasping its two-inch pencil (pictured on page 12); and in the more contemporary rendition, the interpreter’s hands at a keyboard, on a mouse, adjusting word and line just so; and at the book’s seam, the chasm between the valued object and its representation. In this way, The Gorgeous Nothings dramatizes the status of these objects. But it also delivers the archive.
The big material fact of this book cannot overstate the brilliance that emerges from it. It is both the gallery Howe had hoped the envelope-poems be shown in, to highlight the “balance between poetry and visual art” in many of these specimens, and (Werner’s hope) “a kind of light-table for these writings.” The book provides the feel of handling the conveniently or lovingly or frugally reused scraps, of turning one, of looking it over. The life-size facsimiles are usually presented with the “exterior” side of the envelope first so that one might encounter the aged script of an original addressee, in ink, in Dickinson’s fair-copy hand.
There is the sense familiar to anyone who’s pored over archived writings, of discovering, of entering into a relation to the materials and their conditions.
If as readers we are also searchers in materials, their conditions, and lives lived with and through them, then we will find The Gorgeous Nothings in step with this practice.
It delivers the archive like this: when it is opened before us, we are bombarded by its light. The images draw us into an inviting, almost organic embrace. “The inaudible whirring of the envelopes is part of the message they are sending.” It becomes part of the energetic universe as the late afternoon winter sun splashes upon its pages.
It takes me several days to take in all the images in The Gorgeous Nothings. It’s hard to believe there are only fifty-two envelope-poems. It seems an endless world. Like snowflakes — each of its own design and taken together, a different phenomenon. The intention in The Gorgeous Nothings is not to “manage” but to gather these works in scope, immense and unimaginable, in a way that conveys their immensity and curbs their unmanageability. The eleven indices that conclude the volume place the envelope-poems in different flocks or groupings (Index of Envelopes by Address, Index of Envelopes Turned Diagonally, e.g., etc.), like so many surfaces of a prism into the center of we know not exactly what. They reflect, without delimiting, a sense of the scraps’ liveliness that Werner conveys thus: “If, in a given moment, one or two seem to be in close touch, each in the next moment seems remote from the others, unassimilable to a larger figure, whose moving edges drift and blur” (“Itineraries,” 219). The indices collectively effect a multiplying. The arrays together return the pieces to the disarray that lies hidden in many archive folders, boxes, and envelopes. This is another way in which The Gorgeous Nothings delivers the archive. The indices also reflect some of the fact of Dickinson’s objects; they “are not a series or discrete body of works,” Bervin writes, but each exists with “its own complex constellation of affiliations with manuscript drafts that one can trace through sources” — the 1,414 contemporaneous poem drafts and 887 letter drafts in which text of the envelope-poems also appear. Written between 1864 and 1886, these scraps are, for Werner, a migration underway in a “freer air” (“Itineraries,” 207), beyond the freedom of the bound fascicles, the latest of which Dickinson probably composed in 1864.
In the archives and sheltered rooms, one enters into a circumscribed relation to the materials and their conditions. Still, one begins creating a web of associations that weds one to their time and place and use, that deepen one’s sense of these things. And in the imagination they take on a reality of their own. I recall my first visit to the Emily Dickinson Room, many years ago, when a friend (I shall call him John), employed in some minor capacity at the Houghton Library, unlinked the velvet sash across the doorway and ushered me in. Standing again in this room, scanning over the desk, pianoforte, dresser, shelves, and chair, I’m struck by the fraudulence of my memory of that visit. The desk isn’t that size and shape, the shelves aren’t that color, there are no fascicles tucked in amidst papers and pencils in a drawer, etc. — but what’s important is John’s eagerness to share a private showing of these literary artifacts. It was an exercise of, a rebellion against, and my first exposure to, the archive keeper’s authority — tinged with the delicious feel of trespass, infatuation, and collusion.
My return visit lacked all of the tenderness of the first. Standing there with my vigilant guide, I cannot take in enough of the desk and chair. I want to view them as a physical fact, like a craftsperson; I want them to speak to me, to animate my pen, but their guardian’s proximity is distracting and I don’t think of (or think better of) asking for a few moments alone to write. I stand there taking notes that feel silly, that seem to entirely miss the point. “so many poems from such a small surface.” the worn corners of the seat fabric, the striped pattern of sm. flowers sat upon, the small desk with its one notable gouge to the upper left, like a small dagger. And directly afterwards, I write more or less this:
Dec. 18: after a quick visit to the Houghton Library, where I was given entry into the Emily Dickinson Room. There is the bowfront four-drawer chest with its inlaid corners, where Lavinia found Emily’s things. And there to the left of the door near the window, kitty-corner to the corner of the rug, is the small, straight, narrow, sturdy square desk and its more shapely Empire side chair, with curvy front legs that kick out the slightest bit forward and a subtler curve to the back legs kicking out a bit to the back too, the simple cut vase-shaped pattern of the splat beneath the curved top rail where she rested her back. I look at the desk up close (it is most certainly her desk), its light cherry brown and fairly fine grain with a few darker swirls of knots — a very workaday “desk” — a nightstand, really — with one notable gauge to the upper left, like a small dagger. I mention the scratches to my guide, and “it’s been refinished,” I’m told, “people didn’t think of it as a relic,” “it had other uses,” are those even Emily Dickinson’s scratches.
I’m afraid I’m making too much of it, so I ask her what she thinks of the desk, and she mentions how they speak to her size and the scale, the immensity — “so many poems from such a small surface.” I look at the worn fabric of the chair’s upholstered seat; I look at the worn striped pattern. I study it in detail, only to learn later from the Harvard online catalog that it was one of twelve, that she “might have” used this chair. I pull the brass ring and open the small drawer to hear its scrape. I do not think to ask to sit in the chair.
[Detail of Emily Dickinson’s chair: lines of a lose diamond alternated with a garland of flowers; a fine crack in the wood bordering the seat.]
“Have I taken in enough of the desk?” I am asked. I don’t think I’ll ever take in enough of the desk. I’m not even sure I’ve seen the desk, or if I ever will.
But I can now take up the matter of a different collusion and situate the desk in a “more unruly” scene of writing, the one that arises from Werner’s sense of Dickinson’s textual wanderings. It is a desk “laden with volumes, open and closed — the family Bible; the novels of the Brontës, George Eliot, Charles Dickens; Ruskin’s Modern Painters [… and] covered with rows of botanical specimens: Jasminum, Calendula officinalis, Digitalis.” There is the weight of books, the pressure of her hand, the production of poems and manuscripts. I’m enjoying her imagination of the desk, absorbed in it, until I’m bumped back by what comes next:
Or rather, what I see are always a facsimile. The desk is a facsimile. […] The aura that arises from them [her desk and manuscripts] is nothing more, and nothing less, than our longing to have been present in the scene of her writing, in a moment always foreclosed to us. […] There is nothing there. And there is everything to imagine.
In the Emily Dickinson Room, I’ve seen a facsimile of the “scene,” the desk and chair where Emily Dickinson sat, mismatched. The austere narrow desk and the small, slightly curvy chair. I remind myself that I am seeing this decontextualized set to body forth a reunion of sorts. I have come here for the scratches, the many tiny thin scratches and the few deeper longer valleys and the one dagger-shaped indent and the small gouge.
And there is everything to imagine. I am stretching out a geography, sketching spaces I will carry with me to Emily Dickinson’s room.
The iconic desk, Werner insists, “could not have been Dickinson’s writing desk — at least not her only desk.” There is also the matter of the “writing board, 16 x 19", painted white on one side, curved, with rollers that appear to fit over the knees.” Although unconfirmed as an authentic Emily Dickinson Desk, this “tabla rasa and mystic writing pad,” “riddled with myriad fine cuts,” allows us to adjust the poet’s limbs into other positions, to imagine a variety of times and conditions that may accommodate the act of writing. Sitting on a bed, knees drawn in to work as a desk (how I edit my essay now), or a lap desk propped on knees. The actions of the instrument anticipate or lag behind or keep apace with the mind’s full wordy echo. I look at my own handwriting closer now — its hasty loops and lines and dots existing in a rich manifold of lexical options, as absorptive as the words themselves.
Now I can take up the matter of how she sat to accommodate the act of a hand writing. A hand writing as organic a measure as can be, a music, a tuning. A hand writing that strays “outside the prescribed forms of feminine handwriting” — not confined to the fine script practiced by young ladies in her day, but “on a continuum from legible to visible.” Reading The Gorgeous Nothings, we become familiar with her letterforms: xs for ts, the cross shooting out later, the fold-over tail of a d, the similarity of an r and a v. According to Werner’s expert eye, “Upon first looking at her word-paintings, the fluid details of their estranged orthography appear as in a dream: dashes become waved or wand-like, the streaming ascenders and descenders of the ds and ys resemble lighted wicks, […] and Dickinson’s Os and Ws appear as ciphers of an enigmatically open code.” Her handwriting practically sketches an alphabet of its own, as “a set of symbols whose distinct visual characteristics have provoked a plenitude of imaginative projections.”
The facsimiles won’t yield entirely to the touch, but invite further elaboration of Dickinson’s tactile writing practice. If we see writing as a “somatically inflected sign, a production of the bodily self which seeks identity in an image of its own making,” in Dickinson’s infamously unusual script (“fossil-tracks of birds,” T. W. Higginson had called them), we see something of her materiality. And we may revise and recharge the collective image of Emily Dickinson’s limpid hands — the only image we have of her hands — in daguerreotype. What we see after reading The Gorgeous Nothings is not merely handwriting — but hands tearing, folding, pressing pencil into linen, filing, brushing back a stray strand of auburn hair, reaching into, retrieving scraps from, her dress pocket. “Reaching for writing surfaces that were most likely collected and cut in advance, prepared for the velocity of mind,”  writing surfaces that suggest an “attitude of astonishing recklessness” — Dickinson writing on anything she could get her hands on, the merest scrap nearby.
Her working artist’s hands may finally be connected to a body in motion.
Where in the archive I was shadowed by Werner’s image of the facsimile desk, in Emily Dickinson’s room I am charged by this other emerging image.
December 21, 11:19 a.m., Emily Dickinson’s room: I sit compact in the portable visitor’s chair. I begin to imagine Emily inhabiting this light-filled room, pushing her lexicon into the new dimensions, textures, lines, and curves emerging under hand. In this light, I can imagine the alphabet of her working body, the different morphologies the writing body takes. I can imagine her standing up, raising her arms up to walls, and writing as if in flight, her small body in its simple dress stretched upright supine along the wall, measuring her length and solidness against the solid house. Or maybe she lay on the floor occasionally, just to feel the gravity of her pencil in a different way, or to keep writing though physically tired of sitting upright, her mind still flying. These are some ways she might stretch out the space of the impossibly small desk, interpolate multiple surfaces into her writing.
I can walk one length of the room on a floor runner, from the door in the east to the window in the west, but the largest portion of the room is roped off. The archaeologists are still analyzing wear patterns on the floor to determine where her furniture was positioned. But to my eye, there is nothing scratched even dully to excite the analytic mind. There is light. I trace multiple possible footpaths along the floor.
[Deep cracks between dull and scratched floorboards of various widths; an ochre patch on the otherwise dusty brown surface.]
In time lapse it is a dance, feet flying across the floor, arms sweeping broad arcs in small arcs of written symbols.
This is the sense we get from Bervin’s “Dickinson Composites,” outsized stitched transcriptions on large-scale embroidered quilts recording Dickinson’s dashes, crosses, and other marks often omitted in transcription. In its largeness it suggests the arc of the world her arms may create, gesturing across spaces surrounding the page, extending the scene of writing. In her room, amidst the feel of views going out and arriving, I imagine an exchange with the sensate, sensual, living, dynamic, emergent, listening, sounding, kinetic, resting, and reviving world. Because I imagine this way, Emily Dickinson’s room becomes a huge net of words, a fluid, constantly rearranging lexicon. Dickinson wrote, in her second letter to Higginson (1862), that “for several years my lexicon was my only companion.” The envelope-poems aren’t dead letters, as though intended for circulation and never to reach their recipient. They are where her words fly along new contours; along a continuum they arrive at and leave her hands. Coming from, going to, somewhere. Here stopped by Emily Dickinson’s pencil.
[View of a windowed corner. The feel of the immense unbounded room shoots lightward.]
Werner, who has spent decades contemplating the only evidence we have to reconstruct the scene, sees also the limits of seeing:
I see, of course, only what I see in the mind’s eye. For […] like everyone, I have arrived too late: I do not catch Dickinson in the act of writing.
I do not see how she arranges and stab-binds the gatherings of poems we call fascicles, or how she archives them, whether with other bound gatherings only, or intermixed with loose sheets and fragments. I do not see how, or even if, she distinguishes among poems, prose, and passages of indeterminate genre. I do not see her search for a poem written years earlier to revise or only to reread it. As she herself wrote, there is so much more I “cannot see to see — ”
I, too, of course, have arrived too late, even for my own imagination. It’s not that I wanted to imagine Dickinson’s body per se, but I wanted a sense of how she moved about in that space, how she rewrote how it contained her. I brought my holographs into the room with me, but the room would not map onto them vividly enough. Walls, floor, ceiling — I did not see there what she saw, though I tried to feel in my body the ghosts of the movements of hers. If I was dancing inside it was an expression I’d worked up in writing. I saw and felt that space through how I had already imagined at an early point in my itinerary (perhaps in the Emily Dickinson Room) seeing and feeling and being and writing in Emily Dickinson’s room.
But what we want for (or from) Emily Dickinson is to experience the concrete mutability of life, mind, and site. So we invent ways to catch Dickinson in the act of writing.
For Werner in particular, the scraps Dickinson left behind remind us that a writer’s archive is not a “storehouse of easily inventoried contents — i.e., ‘poems,’ ‘letters,’ etc. — but also a reservoir of ephemeral remains, bibliographical escapes.” I choose to read this last word as landscapes, because Bervin and Werner prompt us to read these small works as part of a larger literary-material landscape. I wasn’t yet thinking about this as I looked out through the gently warped panes of Emily Dickinson’s window onto her landscape. The room commands a wide view — to the south would have been a field of several acres and a cottage, but I have to edit the false sense of vista. When she lived in this house after her father had returned them to it in 1855, the front of the house was shaded by a row of mature trees. From the looks of their silhouette in a photo in the museum brochure, perhaps elms.
New feet within my garden go —
New fingers stir the sod —
A Troubadour opon the Elm
Betrays the solitude (J99, F79A)
December 21, Emily Dickinson’s room: In the midwinter day brightness of this year’s solstice, I focus on the light because in life it is a constant.
I think now of Dickinson writing awash in a light embraced almost all around by windows, and the moment (if there were but one) “when […] a sudden light on orchards, or a new fashion in the wind troubled my attention, I felt a palsy, here, the verses just relieve” (as she wrote in her second letter to Higginson). I’m not trying to make any assumptions about her embodied experience — to say whether she felt paralysis, tremor, weakness, helplessness, or fear, or any other thing palsy might suggest — but to be present to visiting sensations, like a healer with no body to heal but my own. I imagine, in the vibration of the now of that room, I felt alive in an entirely ordinary way except that I imagine now the energy coursing through the connective systems that make up the density of my physical body, at all points, meeting with that space. I imagine this as a vivisection making every part of me available to the pulsating writing-being of that moment, to the alternating currents of taking in light and putting out words in a continuous, simultaneous exchange. I enter this room as a sacred space because in the geography of my imagined mind-body I have room for the experience of such spaces.
And there is everything to imagine.
Perhaps, in my journey from the Emily Dickinson Room to Emily Dickinson’s room — from where her writing desk and chair are dimly kept to where their reproductions catch diurnal rhythms — I created or discovered something that could bridge these two worlds. Perhaps, in my own daily rhythm that looped in this place for a day, having driven from Boston, having arrived and supped and visited Emily Dickinson’s room, walked and dined and slept, and awoke in the inn across the street within view of Emily Dickinson’s window, and having walked around Amherst and having again visited this room; perhaps, in the rhythm of breath or in the tilt of my head up to the window and the sweep of my face up from my notebook page and across the surfaces of that room and back down to the page I was writing on, and in the inconsistent rhythm of my handwriting — Emily Dickinson’s bird walked in the form of my hand — perhaps in the continuous and overlapping juxtaposition of all of these gestures my Emily Dickinson emerges.
If I have bodied forth a reunion of sorts, it has been through various connections. My journey is like a string and if I snip the end just at that moment prior to the moment of waking in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and thinking “I should go see Emily Dickinson’s desk”; and if I snip the other end just after that moment when I said to myself “I suppose that’s enough” and stopped writing in my notebook in Emily Dickinson’s room; and if I fasten the string round the back of my neck so all the experience is jumbled up in a knot that rests just above my sternum, then that is what I have brought here, and that is what I have given. It’s just another portion of my line being drawn with its excited knots of attention on an itinerary revised by the writing of Emily Dickinson. There is the going and the being there and the leaving. There is the feeling of never having stayed long enough.
In the facsimiles in The Gorgeous Nothings we are invited to face the “shining physiognomy of her work” (Werner, “Their period”), to go further into the peculiarly shaped planes she invented from the options her world put before her. In its shapes we are invited to think about the quickness and mobility — transience, Werner would say — of her writing, fit around the curve of an envelope flap, tucked in a “pocket archive” (as New York Times reviewer Holland Cotter adroitly put it) with her two-inch stub of a pencil and pulled out for amendment or revision. If poetic form embodies an encounter with the world at hand, what we may see embodied in her envelope-poem forms is her body, how she used it, travelled with it through sharp moments and long days of writing.
The obstacle to grasping Dickinson is, having arrived too late, possibility foreclosed. Higginson wrote that with the announcement of Dickinson’s poetic genius “came the problem never yet solved, what place ought to be assigned in literature to what is so remarkable, yet so elusive of criticism.” Werner dissolves the “problem” of “place” by setting them in flight, writing beautifully in her essay’s concluding section about their vibrancy, and offering, through the figure of the “liberator” who releases birds to test their homing instincts, an image of our earthbound relation to that flight. The Gorgeous Nothings invites us into a reading of or along “the trajectory of her [Emily Dickinson’s] hand […] to be ‘carried away,’ jolted by language into a still unknown future.” It is an invitation, Werner says, that Dickinson’s editors have refused to take.
“For almost twenty years,” Howe writes in her preface, “few poets and fewer 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” (6). Because it presents several ways, The Gorgeous Nothings invites new imaginations to dispel what they thought they saw before. To a life shrouded in mystery (her shadow behind a curtain in the pre-dawn light, love letters, prescriptions for epilepsy), The Gorgeous Nothings propels the evolving image of the poet in late life (nearly fifty-six when she died), what we allow her to be — not the daguerreotype, not the virginal myth, not frustrated lover, not the impossibly tiny desk and chair. The possible “flocks” give us a greater sense of an interior of a creative life, the other side to the image of poems and fascicles filed at rest in a drawer. The lack of an “authoritative” reading frets no one involved in this occasion.
“still en route, their itinerary open” — I take this book as an invitation to live along with these works and their possible trajectories.
“Eternity will / be / velocity or Pause.”
I do not catch Dickinson in the act of writing, but I now have an image that fuels me. Clearly, this isn’t just about Dickinson anymore. I am not a biographer trying to enter and envision the poet’s life. I prefer the “not seeing” of which Werner speaks because it moves beyond the blur and crisps the imagination of the scene of writing, makes the mind sharp in its own sketches. I am not a Dickinson scholar; I’m merely taking part in the scope of engagement — there is everything to imagine — invited by The Gorgeous Nothings. In their writings, Werner, and Howe before her, have showed me how as we analyze and explain, we imagine. And they’ve led me to this working conclusion: scholarship is important not for the facts it disposes us to or the arguments it makes, but for the way it lets us experience human imagination, selfhood, and connectedness.
“Their meanings or messages,” Werner writes of the envelope-poems, “dispersed to all, free of instructions, may be fleetingly intercepted by anyone with eyes to see, with ears to hear.” When we read Dickinson anew, we revise our understanding of an American literary tradition, and we may rewrite our relation to that tradition, and away from it. We make our own constellations of significant beings and sites and texts and images. We may not wish to argue for these, but to let them take us somewhere. Over thirty years ago, when Howe began writing My Emily Dickinson, she posed Dickinson as her “emblematical Concord River,” letting the poet carry her as Thoreau would “let the river carry him” on a journey “toward certain discoveries” (7). That, not what, these discoveries are, is certain. As Emily Dickinson put it herself, “Returning is a different route.”
Dec. 21, leaving Amherst, I made more or less these notes: a series of ungraspable, fleeting encounters surrounds, or rather interrupts, my “reading” of The Gorgeous Nothings. After I had gone to see the desk and chair and before I arrived at the homestead, I had travelled to the Mount Auburn Cemetery, where “Robert Creeley, poet,” is noted among the notables, and I had walked the winding paths to visit my friend and teacher’s grave. In each of these encounters persisted the feeling that I couldn’t possibly stay there and be with those things long enough — or rather, that I could be with each thing in its space a very, very long time, absorbing what was coming to light in and around and through them. But on each occasion came the inevitable moment of parting, or realizing I had accomplished what I had set out to do. And in each case I didn’t know quite how to leave, but only knew my leaving followed through the trajectory that had taken me there with such certainty — the certainty of the unplanned, the that of “certain discoveries.”
I felt I couldn’t possibly stay there long enough, and yet it didn’t seem to matter at what point I parted, whether I lingered a few minutes more or not. As I looked at the simple gravestone (given name, surname, two dates), I thought to look at the back of it — I don’t know why, perhaps because it is so muted in its statement of having been, of going. I was gaining a sense of its situatedness, its physical fact. On the back, in a single column of text, is the poem “Look at the light of this hour.” These words direct one away from the stone, from the past life it humbly commemorates, from the remains whose site it identifies, into the moment of one’s living experience, their perception of this moment in this space. “Look at the light of this hour” — I did. And later, I thought of the generosity of this parting (or greeting) gesture — to return someone, with the not-so-gentle suggestion, practically a command, to “Look” — to their experience of the moment and its larger context, to the life being lived (mine) that continues as it moves away from that moment. As I think of it now, somehow the problematic of leaving, of not knowing when to, seems resolved. In truth, you never leave such focal experiences, you only draw further away from the center they have momentarily created. What had I done as I sat in Emily Dickinson’s room but look at the light of this hour? What does one do at the light-table of The Gorgeous Nothings?
As much of noon as I could take —
Between my finite eyes
December 21, 2013: a view of Emily Dickinson’s gravemarker.
1. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “Emily Dickinson’s Letters,” The Atlantic Monthly, October 1891; Emily Dickinson, Letters 68, no. 4; 444–56.
3. Marta Werner, “‘Their period for Dawn —’: Housing Dickinson’s Late Work,” The Emily Dickinson International Society, July 19, 2013.
5. Werner, “Unsettling Emily Dickinson.”
8. Werner, “Imagining Emily Dickinson’s Desks, 1870–1885.”
10. Werner, “Unsettling Emily Dickinson.”
20. Werner, “Unsettling Emily Dickinson.”
22. Holland Cotter, “A Poet Who Pushed (and Recycled) the Envelope: ‘The Gorgeous Nothings’ Shows Dickinson’s ‘Envelope Poems,’” New York Times, December 5, 2013.
25. Reviewers have made scant mention of the essays accompanying the images, but they are necessary reading. Werner’s, an illustrated guide, is valuable on its own, but housed in this book, her breadth and intimacy with the original of these shining facsimiles animates them.
A review of 'Kindergarde'
Children often have the ability to cut to the chase and say something without dissembling. Within such purity, gems often leave their small mouths, hence the saying, “From the mouth of babes … ” All children possess this capacity, but I suspect that for orphans — or perhaps any child with a difficult (so to speak) background — this ability to swiftly and directly see and analyze is honed.
(As I write this, I am in the midst of my fourth attempt at an international adoption — which is to say, orphans are on my mind, and I’ve met many in the past six or so years.)
Thus, as I read through Kindergarde whose writings are described as “for Children,” I looked for something that I felt was specifically for children practiced in swiftly considering and reconsidering their environment (whether their assessment is always correct is another story but they practice this process). By this, I meant something that would grab their attention RIGHT AWAY and then keep their attention. Their attention that’s direct and not yet very much diluted by others’ (adult) contexts. Something that grabs their eyes without the work having to be directed (by an adult) to their attention. Then something that, for some reason, would keep their attention ... and hopefully, after surviving their child-based, cut-to-the-chase skepticism, be judged as “cool” (or however kids say “cool” nowadays).
These parameters led me to text that is also visual. These parameters led me to Rachel Zolf’s witty “done."
Absolutely there is something to be said and valued about a parent and child reading a book together. Without meaning to diminish that shared, time-based experience, I focused on what I thought might be the point of a view of a child whose attention span is used to quick determinations. Perhaps, too, I am trying to approximate this particular point of view as a metaphor for a child growing up with so many possible opportunities for distraction thanks to technological advances (hello video games and social media!).
As you can see from the work, Zolf’s “done” was made by replicating a barcode thirteen times. So the child might respond to it as I did (well, as I type this I concede that I can’t speak on behalf of a child; I can only speculate that a child’s response might be like my own). The child might respond firstly with thinking or asking a companion nearby, “What’s that?”
Wondering “What is that?” is one of the most immediate ways to engage a reader or witness. The reader/witness’s interest has been sparked — important for grabbing any child’s attention.
I, as an adult, know about barcodes. As an author, I know of them specifically as one of the last things to put on a book during the book’s production process. The barcode, of course, is used on many other products besides the book. The barcode, indeed, is a symbol of something finished and, thus, available for pricing. Thus, the barcode is an appropriate “text” for a poem entitled “done.”
However, I don’t know if this works immediately for a child reader. A child with access to an adult who can explain the significance of barcodes — in case that child hasn’t noticed barcodes on the cereal boxes, et al. — can learn and then, hopefully, conclude as I do that Zolf’s application is clever.
But say the child is by him-, her-, hirself when the child first reads/views “done.” Where might the access be? Well, by the simple but effective positioning of the barcodes. There are three rows of barcodes each, followed by a single barcode. The eye naturally would expect the fourth row to be “completed” like the prior rows. Because the fourth row, though, is comprised of only one barcode, the child then can question on his/her/hir own whether ... “done” is really done. From there, several thoughts can ensue as the child pursues this train of thought. The child has become engaged. And, inadvertently, the child may even end up trafficking in the realm of philosophy — is “done” done? What causes something to be done? If it’s not done, why is it called “done”? Are the “done” rows lying about being done? Is it the fourth row that’s undone or is it the second, third, and fourth columns? And so on ...
Thus, do I love Rachel Zolf’s “done” — as a parent, I can see so easily how I can use it to engage with a child. And I imagine as I do above (though I don’t really know of course as I’m not the child) the fruitfulness of a child’s experience with this visual poem.
Eventually, the engagement can lead, too, to the vision underlying Kindergarde — how some artists experiment in making their art and don’t just rely on inherited forms. It would seem to me to be a particular perspective for which orphans and other children raised unconventionally (so to speak and to understate the matter) might have some empathy.