- The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems by Bervin, Jen
Before I open it, I look at it for a long time. First, I think about the fact that so many Dickinson books are so big. Each of the two poetry variorums (of three [End Page 107] volumes each), the letters, the manuscript books, each and every biography, the herbarium. It seems as if every new edition of and take on Emily Dickinson requires so much space, which is ironic, given how little space she proclaimed to inhabit. “I have a little shape - it would not crowd your Desk,” she wrote to Higginson in 1862 when asking him for guidance in the ways of writing poetry (L265). A hundred and fifty years later, it turns out Dickinson wildly crowds my desk.
The other thing I think about before opening this big book of little artifacts is that it has gotten so much attention. Countless reviews of The Gorgeous Nothings appeared shortly after its release, almost all of them unequivocally positive, and many in such high profile places as the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and NPR. So much attention for a book that, I see upon opening it, includes fullcolor images of 52 envelopes; transcriptions of the words Dickinson wrote on those envelopes; three short essays by the people who have worked most closely with these materials; and a variety of indexes. But scholars have been talking about Dickinson’s manuscripts for a long time now—why is this the book that has captured the general reader’s attention?
Most of the reviews of The Gorgeous Nothings discuss it as a coffee-table book. As Holland Cotter writes in The New York Times, “Although it includes essays by its editors, Ms. Werner and the artist Jen Bervin, and a preface by the poet Susan Howe, it has been conceived primarily as a visual phenomenon.” And indeed, it is a visual phenomenon; in fact, it was initially displayed as a kind of art exhibit— sixty copies of an artists’ book that was produced by Granary Books, each costing $3,500, most of which are now owned by archives and special collections around the country. But it is not just the book that is a piece of art; so too are the contents of the book, or, as Howe says of the envelopes in her opening essay, “these singular objects balance between poetry and visual art” (6).
This kind of attention borne of its visual properties will do several important things: it will expand Dickinson’s readership to those beyond lovers of her poems; it will confront readers with the fact that poems are made objects; it will highlight the potential of collaborative work in the literary arts; and it will further open up the connections between visual and textual media. But what might it contribute to the work of scholars in the field?
Because we live in a moment when we can sit in front of our computers and pull up almost any Dickinson manuscript we want, The Gorgeous Nothings is not about giving readers access to manuscripts. Nor is it about establishing, as Franklin’s Manuscript Books was for the fascicles, Dickinson’s envelopes as a new body of work for scholarly inquiry. This was not, in fact, Bervin and Werner’s goal, [End Page 108] since Bervin herself states that, “the envelope writings are not a series or discrete body of works” (10). Instead, and quite ambitiously, the envelope writings (and Bervin and Werner’s curating of them) both concretize and point to issues beyond, as it were, the edge of the flap.
The Gorgeous Nothings allows scholars to see the shapes of Dickinson’s paper in whole new ways. Because each manuscript has its own page, the contrast between the white of the background and the brown, cream, or yellow of the manuscript highlights the jagged and strange shapes of paper on which Dickinson wrote. Seeing similar shapes grouped together in the index...