Emily Dickinson & Jen Bervin: Gorgeous Somethings

emily-dickinson-001Far, far outside of MFA circles there is a poet whose poetic practice has breached the confines of the blank page to be etched on every available surface. The Far Outside poet famously left her poems–largely unread by hungry eyes of the 19th Century, other than a lucky editor of a literary magazine–tied in little packages.

In another circle, a more inner circle of the MFAs, there is a poet who has stitched her poems, who has found her poems inside other, classic poems, who has found poetry on every surface but the blank page. The Other Circle poet is one of the most exciting poets of our time, and has written, or unearthed, one of the most successful, and beautiful erasure texts of the 21st Century, a book titled Nets, that uses, as its source text, Shakespeare’s sonnets. Her work can be found in many hands, in many surfaces from textiles to screens (I posted about Nets here).

Somehow, this Other Circle poet, along with another poet (Marta Werner), convinced a poetry press (New Directions), to publish an art quality book containing facsimiles of envelopes relating to the poetry practice of The Far Outside poet.

It’s difficult to describe the enduring influence of the Far Outside poet on contemporary English, particularly American English poets. Second only to Gertrude Stein I would argue, The Far Outside poet’s influence suffuses what we think of as contemporary poetry, and is discovered on the surface in poets as diverse as Lucy Brock-Broido and Susan Howe, and in more subversive ways in poets as diverse as Rae Armantrout and Anne Carson. In other words, the Far Outside poet did not remain outside but is an inside poet, a poet so inside as to be a core poet, the kind we poets like to carry with us, folded neatly in our inner pockets or, as a pair of poetic lenses we wear, a  way of seeing the world, for, and here we will break with the metaphorical names, as Jen Bervin points out on the Poetry Foundation website, Emily Dickinson was not so much writing the world as framing it at an almost cellular level:

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.

See Bervin’s Dickinson Composites, “The Dickinson Composites is an artist book that focuses on a series of large-scale quilts Jen Bervin made by embroidering the poet Emily Dickinson’s unusual punctuation markings from her fascicles.”

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.

These manuscripts should be understood as visual productions.
–Susan Howe

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.

But are not

all Facts Dreams

as soon as

we put

them behind


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:
843 original
And here you can see how Dickinson uses the constraint of the space it occupies:
843 print
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