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Emily Dickinson – The Gorgeous Nothings

Emily Dickinson truly came alive.  As my fingertips touched the creases of the envelope in the image, the soul of this incomparable lesbian love poet shot magical currents through my whole body.  I don’t ever recall getting a physical reaction to a book like I had with “Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings”.  But it was there, as real as the snow sitting on my window sill.

I had just picked up my copy of “The Gorgeous Nothings” from Bloomsbury Books, my favorite bookstore in the whole world.  I had carefully held it as I climbed the stairs to the coffee shop, ordered my jasmine tea and set it on my table.  There were other people around, I suppose, but I didn’t even look to see who they were.

I simply opened the book to a random page.

There was just so much that made this poem so radically different from any other Emily Dickinson poem I had ever read.

Most importantly, it was written in her own hand, with all the capitalizations and edits and punctuation just as she wrote them.  No editor had intervened between Emily and me.  Oh, what a connection that created!

Perhaps it was because the poem I was reading is the one beginning with sleigh bells:

As Sleigh Bells sound [seem] in Summer

Or Bees, at Christmas show —
so fairy [foreign] – so
fictitious
The individuals
do

Repeated from
Observation –
A Party that [whom] we
knew –
More distant in
an instant
Than Down

in Timbuctoo –
on

(The words in brackets [ ] are other words nearby, apparently other options for that word choice.)

“Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings” is without doubt the most beautiful Emily Dickson collection I have ever seen.  The photography is exquisite, lovingly detailing all the folds and markings on each slip of paper, even the glue that still holds on.  The images are not only of the poetic writings, but also show the addressee, and sometimes even the original writer of the letter, and once in a while even a snippet of the original letter.  Often, too, the stamp is still intact.

The envelopes are all reproduced full size in brilliant clarity.  And, since Emily’s writing can sometimes be challenging, there is a suggested type set version of each poem.  The editor welcomes different readings of the manuscript than what is represented in the type set version.

Amazingly, most of these poems were written with a two inch pencil that Emily Dickinson kept in her apron pocket, along with slips of paper to write on.  While her poetic writings are prolific, over 3500 of them, and these “envelope poems” comprise but a tiny portion, these poems seem especially important to capturing the spirit of the poet.  I truly felt like I was sitting beside Emily Dickinson as she wrote, and not “studying” her poetry at all.  Yet, the “discoveries” kept coming.

Emily Dickinson and the Gorgeous Nothings — In Space

The use of space in “The Gorgeous Nothings” is nothing less than provocative.  Often line lengths follow the folds of the envelope; and sometimes the line length seems to overlap to the next line, or jump over the natural fold in the paper.  Whichever option Emily Dickinson uses, it feels right for that poem.

This use of line length really begs the question: How often does “available space” dictate what a poem should be?  Emily didn’t have a web page where she could write on forever.  Her visual space was limited, and creating within that space seemed to spark her innate creativity.

"This short life" - Emily Dickinson Poem on envelope

Image of the “This short life” poem that Emily Dickinson wrote on the flap of an envelope.

And it certainly begs the question: Did Emily Dickson train her creative spirit to “fit” on the backside of an envelope, or was the envelope already a convenient size for what she wanted to write?  There is one poem that demonstrates this so graphically:

In this short Life
that only [merely] lasts an hour
How much – how
little — is
within our
power

The visual image shows the inverted pyramid of the envelope flat even more clearly.

The Loves of Emily Dickinson

And what does Emily choose to write about when she only has a tiny slip of paper?  What is so important to her that she must write it down?

There are poems of Hope.  Of Life.  Of Love.  Of sorrows and joys.  There are religious images, and lots about spring.  In short, it is pure Emily.

Another of Emily Dickinson’s great loves was baking.  Honest.  Cookies, cakes, sweets of all kinds.  So it didn’t surprise me when I learned that she even penned some poems on the backs of recipes, like this one for gingerbread!

The Missing Envelopes

The romantic side of me aches to see the envelopes that are not here, the ones that were written by Emily’s lesbian lover, Susan Gilbert.  Emily wrote literally hundreds of poems to Susie, and probably just as many letters.  And while it is acknowledged that Susie did indeed write letters back to Emily, Susie’s letters were destroyed when Emily died.

It feels so unjust.  Here is one of the great love stories of all — a majestic lesbian poet and the love of her life.  And those envelopes no longer exist.

There are a thousand things I want to tell you about Emily Dickinson and “The Gorgeous Nothings”, and I have only had my copy for one day.  But please do add your notes below.  I would love to hear what you have to say too — truly.

7 Responses to Emily Dickinson – The Gorgeous Nothings

  1. Selene January 10, 2014 at 5:36 pm #

    You bring up so many interesting issues, MaryAnn.

    I love how you’re touched by this intimate experience of Emily Dickinson. I can see and feel the 2″ pencil in her apron pocket where she may also have stashed an envelope, ready for that moment of inspiration.

    There’s something intriguing to me in the paradox of the picture of this woman as quiet and mousy poet and the intimate availability of her as a woman of passion and creativity that we can see through the materials she worked with and her process of creation.
    What a delicious treat!

    I see there’s a new book about her to show up soon: The Voice at the Door, by James Sulzer.

    • LavenderPoet January 10, 2014 at 7:57 pm #

      Selene, you are so right — the paradox is glaring. For decades we’ve been told that Emily Dickinson was a shy, withdrawn woman seeking solitude. In fact, the more we learn about her, the more we come to know her as a vibrant person with a much livelier social life than we had previously imagined. This changes our whole perspective, too, on her romantic inclinations. Rather than seeing Emily as a rather pathetic person begging for Susan’s attention, Emily is now quite alive, quite involved in meeting lots of people, and Susan becomes her true choice of a lover and companion. What a difference this perspective makes! Emily was indeed a very passionate person. Add in her passion for baking, and a whole new Emily emerges. I am so anxious to see The Voice at the Door to see if Sulzer has picked up on this new information about her.

      There is a renaissance of interest in Emily Dickinson, with celebrations and books and parties, and I am thrilled. Emily may have been shy about presenting her poems to editors, but that poetry is such a gift to us. I feel blessed that so much of it has survived.

      Thank you for your most thoughtful comments, Selene.

      • Despina L. Crist January 27, 2014 at 10:54 pm #

        The major theme of my recently published biographical novel Emily Dickinson: Goddess of the Volcano is the passion of these two women. Spending six years in their world, reading the words and listening to the whispers of their souls I came to realize that Emily’s passion was not the tragic theme of her life but more so it was Sue’s. Sue had the pain without the courage to feel and enjoy. Emily had both the “pain and the ecstasy” of love.
        The book was published on Amazon. Written in Greek by Despina L. Crist, author of many works of fiction and criticism and rendered in English by her husband Robert Crist, professor Emeritus, University of Athens.

        • LavenderPoet January 27, 2014 at 11:03 pm #

          Despina, that title seems so appropriate for Emily Dickinson: Goddess of the Volcano. I am bemused with those who write of her as a quaint, quiet recluse, for I am convinced that there is molten love surging inside. Indeed, I wish you every success with your new biographical novel, and encourage others to get it and post their comments here too.

          • Despina L. Crist January 29, 2014 at 1:01 pm #

            Thank you, MaryAnn!
            Engrossed in the Greek gods from a very young age, I recognize one when I meet one. Yes, she is an extraordinary human being that climbed the staircase of the gods. The problem was what kind of Goddess was she? None of all those I had met at Mount Olympus. Her poems, the mirror of her psychic eruptions that spin us -the readers- to the state of transcendence, bear witness of a new goddess. She born herself into a combination of two. Iks a little witch who knew how to prepare the drinks of Eros and Aphrodite the goddess who invented the “ecstatic wheel” Fire tied on the spiral Ecstatic wheel is a volcano.
            Please enjoy the book . Emily Dickinson: Goddess of the Volcano

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