Pioneer Valley Poets: Emily Dickinson’s ‘Envelope Poems’ is worth its price tag

  • This daguerreotype portrait of Emily Dickinson, taken circa 1847, when Dickinson would have been about 17 years old, is the only known photograph of her.

Friday, December 16, 2016

There could be no truer “Pioneer Valley Poet” than Emily Dickinson. And while an interview would require skills I have not yet mustered, I’ve been convening with Dickinson lately through the newly published “Envelope Poems,” out from New Directions just in time for holiday buying. I’ve already got mine, but I’ll bet you either are or know of a poet who would like this.

The small book presents reproductions of some of the salvaged envelopes Dickinson slit open and unfolded in various configurations, creating unusually shaped writing surfaces for her scrawled lines. She also liked to write in the margins of newspapers and magazines, as well as on the insides of chocolate bar wrappers. One can only hope for a future volume that presents these.

“Envelope Poems” represents a collection culled from a larger coffee table book, “Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings,” that was published by New Directions in 2013. Both books include beautiful reproductions of the scraps and envelopes, so well photographed you will run your finger along more than one seam or gluey flap just to be sure. Puckers, folds and tears, and the tiny pricks where Dickinson pinned various scraps together add an odd sense of immediacy. And of voyeurism: we are rifling through Dickinson’s things. Do we belong here?

Both editions were compiled by Marta Werner, associate professor of English at D’Youville College and a Dickinson scholar; and Jen Bervin, poet and visual artist. In both books, Werner and Bervin provide drawings filled in with typed transcriptions to help you decipher Dickinson’s penciled scrawl. The new, smaller volume makes it easier to turn the book upside down or sideways as you read, which becomes important when you come upon the envelopes that Dickinson herself clearly turned in order to write across their various planes.

In her introduction, Bervin places Dickinson’s penchant for scraps of paper within the context of her frugal New England times — a book published in 1829, “The Frugal Housewife,” by Lydia Maria Child. This encourages women to save old letters so as to use the backs to write on. However, both Bervin and Werner strongly believe that Dickinson was motivated by more than thrift.

As she interacted with these alternative writing surfaces, Dickinson was working in a visual form that sometimes became three-dimensional, as when she connected various fragments together with straight pins. Werner states that several of Dickinson’s scraps, catalogued in the Amherst College library collection as A 821/821a, appeared to have been pinned together in the shape of a bird.

Werner uses the word “collage” to describe this piece. I disagree. That’s sculpture.

Even some of the poems that remain flat, make use of the triangular or rhombus shapes afforded by the practical origami of the envelope in ways that challenge the left-to-right rigor of ordinary reading. Some lines trickle down to one word at the point of a flap. Some lines create two columns divided by a natural crease. Some scraps are so small they are like shards. Yet, some of these smallest pack the hardest punch.

Dickinson’s not writing willy-nilly on these scraps because they happen to be what she has around; she’s mining them.

It’s common knowledge that Dickinson created 40 hand-stitched “fascicles” or booklets of poems in her lifetime, but otherwise eschewed publication. In a review entitled “Out of Print,” published in the Dec. 5 edition of “The New Yorker,” Dan Chiasson suggests that perhaps the reason for this was not her oft-touted shyness but that the medium didn’t do her work justice.

Chiasson relates that when the Springfield Daily Republican published Dickinson’s poem that begins, “A narrow Fellow in the Grass…” editors insisted on titling it “The Snake,” completely derailing the poem’s sense of discovery, and added punctuation she had not intended. Poring over the reproductions of the envelopes in these two books (they are life-size in “The Gorgeous Nothings;” slightly smaller in “Envelope Poems”), it’s easy to imagine that the rectangular, left-aligned page of traditional printing simply did not interest Dickinson. She was questioning the authority of the printed page. She was onto something new.

“Envelope Poems,” at $12.30, is a no-brainer. “The Gorgeous Nothings,” in contrast, costs $27.92, still not bad for a coffee table book. The higher price is worth it, both for the larger number of reproductions and the scholarship by Werner and Bervin. There’s also a preface by Susan Howe, whose 2007 book, “My Emily Dickinson,” part biography, part poet-to-poet conversation, is next on my wish list.

The truth is, if you can swing it, you’ll need both books — the larger for the insights offered in the commentary, the smaller because you can carry it with you.

Where to find it

Ask for “Envelope Poems” or “The Gorgeous Nothings,” both published by New Directions and edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin, at local bookstores. You can browse high-resolution scans of Dickinson’s envelope poems in the Amherst College Library’s Emily Dickinson Collection online at https://acdc.amherst.edu/collection/ed. The collection also includes letters and drafts of poems. The original materials are extremely fragile, the website states, and access to them is limited to researchers who absolutely need to see the real thing. I’m working on my reason right now.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for poets, writers and artists to interview for her columns. She can be reached at tcrapo@mac.com