Review: The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson

By Maureen Alsop

A particular energy hovers in any visual artist’s studio. Vivid or dank palettes, otherworldly mixtures, the space around the canvas (once the canvas is extracted), various random patterns—splattered paint on the floor, walls, sink. Remnants of a messy, raw, leveling of intention.

GorgeousNothingsThese sputters of the “in-between,” the nether counterparts to completion, resonate with an inscrutable beauty and act as temporal monuments of consciousness that live beyond the work of the deliberate act of art. They abide in a specific, quartered, physical constraint, where irretrievable acts begin without question. Perhaps it is freedom, process, accident, the absence of ego. The slip, the splash, a certain oddness which cannot be contained. In Gorgeous Nothings, Emily Dickinson’s process, explicitly scattered and reformulated, carry this essence.

These “gorgeous nothings,” paper scraps and scrawled-on envelopes archived in a coffee-table art book, carry Dickinson’s hand-penciled fragments across centuries. These fragile reliquaries of the late nineteenth century define the underside of her leafletter voice, extrapolate the intensity of her poetics, and decant the mystery held in Dickinson’s intimately timeless vision. Our Mother of American Poetry is reconfigured as a postmodern, possibly conceptual, writer here and—the exquisite joy—as visual art. This is Emily disembodied.

We read in soft fragility:

Clogged
onlywith
Music, like
the Wheels of
Birds
their high
Appoint
ment /of
I


Then, upside down:

Afternoonand
the   West and
thegorgeous
nothings
which
compose
the
sunset
keep


[A821] (p. 172)

Gorgeous1

There is a quality of whisper caught upon these stately wisps. A private, feminine voice rustles past identity’s specificity. The opening is ending. It begins in constant uncertainty. We are met by the delicate resemblance of continuity. That which is retrievable. That which is beyond source.

TheDitch
isdearto   the
Drunken man
forisit not
his Bed — his
Advocate — his
Edifice —  the
Howsafehis
fallenHead
In her disheveled
Sanctity —
Abovehim
is thesky—
Beneath
Oblivion bending
over  him


On the right flap of the envelope’s margin:

And   Honor
leagues
away—


Left flap:

enfolding him
withtender
infamy
Doom a
falla
cy—


[A 391] (p. 109)

Gorgeous2

Glorious here, in its natural state, the dash mark, the underscore, the crossout. Fields of space dismissed. Transience and movement. The physicality presses weightlessly, as if the envelope were torn from the hand of a drunk. Yet this scrawl holds, maintains a clear boundary between lines, between content and observation, between finger and fingerprint.  

Thumbing the pages, the reader is reading epidermal layers, as if lifting fingernail, hair, broken teeth. Thus gazing at something both personal and abandoned. Faint scars, periphery.

But are not
all Facts Dreams
as soon as
we put
them behind
us—


[A 843] (p. 178)

Gorgeous3

The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems
By Emily Dickinson
Edited by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner
Preface by Susan Howe
New Directions (2013)
ISBN: 9780811221757