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
A Party that [whom] we
More distant in
in Timbuctoo –
(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.
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
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.