To understand how forcefully Dickinson is manipulating the form of the page itself, take a simple household envelope and see how many of these forms you can re-create.Bervin is so much her own poet that it makes her the perfect guide for Dickinson, a poet so in touch with her own vision of poetry that it permeated the way she interacted with all manner of surfaces coming into her world. To love a poet, and to make a poet a muse so wholly the way that Bervin clearly has, one must have a very solid, very entrenched relationship to one's own practice so that both practices are afloat simultaneously. In this way, the engagement of the one poet enlarges the practice of the other, and vice versa.
When is Dickinson slicing the edges of the envelope "surgically clean" and when is she leaving it "ragged," and is she doing this purposefully and if so, why, asks Bervin. Are these the questions of a visual artist, or a poet or can we distinguish or should we? They are questions that reveal, as Bervin argues, a poet in relationship to shape and form in the world. The materiality of her poetry was not in the abstract, it was, if Bervin is right, to be found in the world.
Bervin is primarily an artist and understands text the way an artist understands text, and while it is not at all new to have artists work with text (Roni Horn, Louise Bourgoise, etc., etc.), it is certainly less common to have someone firmly entrenched in the poet category (poetry being arguably a less desirable commodity than art in the 21st Century) who works with text as a visual artist (derek beaulieu, bp Nichol). In other words, Bervin has primarily a visual poetic practice.
Can we say the same of Dickinson? That she is as visual a poet as she is artful lyricist? Can we think of her as a poet who muddied the page? Not as the pristine (formally unified) poet we have been taught to think of her as? Or as some poets seem to want to think of her if only to establish lineage? These poems offer a window into the compositional practice of the poet, into how she inhabited her work. As Bervin notes, "To represent a Dickinson poem accurately in print, to 'accommodate our typographic conventions to her work,' is quite a demanding task." Why? Because we want poetry to be seamless? We want poets to fit into our idea of them, but when we are often doing more than presenting a poet to a new audience, we are in affect, telling people how to read her. Consider Mary Barnard's Sappho in contrast to Anne Carson's Sappho: neither is actually Sappho. Bervin argues that we might not have a real sense of what a Dickinson poem looks like because of how we have encountered them. ie: words left out, dashes gone, etc. You can take a look at some of the images over at the Poetry Foundation. On one level she seems unable to make a banal observation.
These manuscripts should be understood as visual productions. --Susan Howe
But are not all Facts Dreams as soon as we put them behind us.She is equally incapable of a shapeless poem. Here is a photograph of a photograph of the original envelope poem written, if we are to believe the clues left to us, with a squat fat pencil of the Ikea shopping experience variety: And here you can see how Dickinson uses the constraint of the space it occupies: Notice how well she uses the line of the envelope. Does this not change the way you think about Dickinson's poems? It certainly makes the sameness of the way we have encountered them in anthologies and print seem extremely arbitrary. In the first place, we can't help but encounter them as left/right columns. The ways of composition are murky and the arguments we make for polish are equally so. The dash can be seen as a stitch, an amplifier, musical notation, erasure. Bervin reads the envelope as a form of visual poem. It's hard to argue against this. It's ironic to think of she, whom critics have aligned so powerfully with "enclosures," writing these missives on "enclosures." Perhaps she wasn't enclosed at all. Perhaps she wasn't overwhelmed with desire to be read, heard, acknowledged in some external way, perhaps, as Bervin points out, she was an artist who had found a way to fully inhabit her practice, to make her life a long poem. I am envious of all practices that have somehow moved beyond a desire for a response. In my end of year notes I noted that everyone who walks into my house goes right for the The Gorgeous Nothings, which I look at as well on a daily basis. It's a must have book, not just for Dickinson fans, but for readers of contemporary poetry. It's an affirmation of the notion of practice rather than product. Process over reception. It's an aspect of poetry I have always known to be the point, but rarely remember myself. Perhaps for that reason alone I will leave The Gorgeous Nothings on permanent display. --Sina Queyras