It turns out that for a not insignificant fee, literary museums and author’s homes will often let guests handle the artifacts, materials, and manuscripts of long-deceased writers. On a chilly, windblown visit to the Brontë Parsonage, I once held, in gloved hands, the tiny 2-inch-by-2-inch booklets the startlingly precocious Brontë children sewed and then filled with tales of imaginary lands. To hold and smell and access a manuscript at such close range was an inimitable experience. An exhaustive digital archive may satiate the researcher and gratify the fan, but a manuscript’s essence is inevitably tarnished when observed through a screen.
What makes The Gorgeous Nothings—a facsimile collection of the poems Emily Dickinson composed, as she often did, on envelopes—so riveting is that despite presenting reproductions it very nearly captures what Walter Benjamin would have referred to as the envelopes’ auras. Perfectly to scale, warmly photographed, and positioned inside a generous, expansive white margin, the envelopes are nearly as breathtaking on the page as they might be in the hand. But to merely call The Gorgeous Nothings, and the envelope poems within it, beautiful, would do a disservice to Marta Werner and Jen Bervin’s remarkable artistic and scholarly achievement.
Ever since the first scholarly edition of Dickinson’s poems, compiled and edited by Thomas H. Johnson in 1955, readers and critics have puzzled and kvetched over the “intended” construction, punctuation, and syntax of her poems. Other Dickinson manuscripts (including her famous fascicles) have been published in book form before, but this volume’s editors sought to hone in on the unique accomplishment of the poet’s scrap paper poems. Bervin and Werner avoid the pitfalls of earlier editors and refuse to interpret Dickinson’s work. Instead, they let the manuscripts speak for themselves and in the process make visceral the spatial interplay between Dickinson’s words and her materials.
The result is a collection of scrap paper that says more about the Belle of Amherst than most biographies could. The madcap pencil strokes, torn edges, and higgledy-piggledy line breaks are the work of a quick-thinking, passionate woman. But the carefully crossed through and reworked prose are the mark of a poet bent on perfection. The harmony between the content and use of space, most of all, reveals Dickinson’s self-awareness and inherent knack for poetic construction. One small triangle of paper reads, with the words forming an upside down pyramid, “In this short life/ that only lasts an hour/ merely/ How much — how/ little — is/ within our/ power.” That self-important word, “power,” is smirkingly wedged between a smudge and a tear. On another little rectangle, Dickinson merely wrote, “A Mir/ acle for/ all.” And on an envelope whose face bears a carefully calligraphed “Miss Emily Dickinson” and whose rear is covered with a more elaborate poem, Dickinson has gently pencilled, “To light, and/ then return —”.
Scholars and critics often drumbeat Dickinson’s small size and “small life”: Petite in stature, restricted in her travels, wedged into her father’s house and under his enormous influence. But in The Gorgeous Nothings, Bervin and Werner transform some of her tiniest contributions into a work of incomparable importance.
Hillary Kelly is the digital media editor at The New Republic.