The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems (2013)


This book is a triumph, its worth well beyond the $30 listed on Amazon at the time of this writing. It is a treasure of my library very much akin to my Thames & Hudson edition of William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books. Dickinson’s envelope poems and Blake’s handmade illuminated poems represent an eternal discourse on the marriage of medium and content. Yet while Blake’s process was an arduous task of writing and illustrating backwards (so that his self-invented press would stamp everything in the proper direction!) to produce copies to distribute himself, Dickinson’s envelope poems represent a mind bursting with thought and a hand desperate to keep up.

We must bear in mind that Dickinson did not intend for publication of her “envelope poems”; she wasn’t seeking to discover a new artistic medium. She was indeed a product of her time: a girl in nineteenth-century New England re-purposing envelopes to capture her wild poetic thoughts somewhat in secret. Jen Bervin, in the introduction, brings in a charming anecdote concerning a book called The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy (purchased by her father for her mother, of course), wherein the author describes a neat little way to turn the envelopes from received letters into scrap paper.

Reading and looking at these poems, one is struck with a sort of nostalgia for the past; a rush of the sublime; and, admittedly, a feeling of intrusion. Nostalgia: I have the sense that I am back in my grandparents’ house as a young child, sneaking glances into their “junk drawer.” It is filled with stubs of pencils, yellowing letters, rubber bands, various buttons. I can almost see myself unfolding these dingy envelopes, seizing one of the pencil stubs, and capturing my own poetic flights in the secret coves of the backyard garden.

Sublime: Anyone with any familiarity of Dickinson’s poetry is familiar with the level of sublimity she achieved, and this well beyond the envelope poems. Her apparent speed of thought gave way to a compression of language rife with profundity.

Intrusion: Perhaps trespassing is a better word, but there’s this feeling that looking at her handwriting produces that makes one feel that Miss Dickinson herself could walk in at any moment and catch one looking through her private stacks of poems. (Indeed the book is so well produced, the images of the envelopes so well captured, that it seems one is holding each original scrap in one’s hand.) Perhaps this latter-most sensation has its roots in one of Dickinson’s own poems:

As there are
Apartments in our
own Minds that—
we never enter
without Apology—
we should respect
the seals of
others (A 842, p. 176-177)

This is a book that will remain in my library forever, to be passed down to my daughter.

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