Excuse Emily and her Atoms: The Personal Architecture of Emily Dickinson's Envelope Scraps
Excuse Emily / and her Atoms / The North / Star is / of small / fabric but it / implies much
Among Emily Dickinson's papers, now located at the Frost Library of Amherst College, is a collection of "scraps" and envelopes on which Dickinson drafted some her most popular and best work. They are little things to be left over in the face of such a towering legacy in American Poetry, but what makes them amazing is not their authorship or her own life laid bare in the letters, but just how inventive a use of space, how cryptic, and near mystical they are. Some are written on envelopes addressed to her, postage paid and delivered; others are written in her hand, never stamped. We don't know why it is they were ever addressed or if they were ever sent and it is just as impossible to trace most of the poems lineage from envelope to finished draft. It seems likely that, writing for a private audience in an early age of mass production, Emily's poems were never finished.
I'm not sure what poem is.
In "Studies in Scale," the introduction to Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings—which collects many of Emily's envelopes—Jen Bervin writes that in "popular definitions for atom in the OED, we also find a dust mote, the smallest medieval measure of time, 'the twinkling of an eye,' and this apt, obsolete meaning too: 'At home.'" Here I'm thinking of the assertion that all home architects are attempting to build Adams's hut in paradise, and the funniness of Adam at Home, Adam Athom on the tongue.
Sometimes there are barriers around our approach to poetry. Whether because of the preconceived notions of a reclusive woman or how she is taught in schools, I have heard friends say that they "just don't get her" poems. Reading The Gorgeous Nothings made me feel this way too in the beginning but just like the editors write in Walter Benjamin's Archives:
Collections unlock themselves once a single piece is brought to voice. In the beginning was the exemplary object which opens up the way to thought as if by itself.
Scrap A 108 was that object to me.
"I dare not write until I hear" is a lesson I try to apply to every project I work on. Right now I'm preparing a piece for Go Magazine to celebrate the Transgender Day of Remembrance in November. I think of those of we have lost when I read "my Trans / when what they sung for is undone" and I think of the way that just like Dickinson's poems, the lives of transgender people are cut short and into weird shapes everyday, but they are not undone. The Queer Body is simply an envelope addressed to the future. That's part of the beauty of these fragments—they are free to the interpretation of the unaddressed reader.
In A 145/146 we can really see Emily's craft making laid side by side. The lines of A 145 drift down in an rightward descent as she picks around for the right word. Writes:
As Branches / touch the Wind / Not hoping for / his notice far (vast) / But nearer to / Adore— closer (further / simply / merely / finer) / 'Tis Glory's over- / takelessness / That makes / our makes our / running poor.
Between these options Emily is juggling a variety of meanings, potential implications. It demonstrates the poem as an experimental exercise...something which is so often lost in the standardized versions of Dickinson's work.
On the other side of the page she writes across the seam what seems on it's own a more concentrated piece. It is still strange but on the level of image and language, not form. It reads:
To Planets and
It is classic Emily: irregular capitalization and punctuation but a quiet kind of lyric turning inward from the social, making the introduction mostly private, entirely personal.
Few of the scraps in The Gorgeous Nothings show the poets experimentation and experimental proclivities as much as "A 193/194." It seems as if she began writing in columns; the bottom left and top right are relatively clear but suddenly the paper shifts, the words are upside down. It is as if Emily were literally trying to look at her correspondence with the poem another way. Flipping it over and reversing it, she allows mutations and makes cuts like those around an envelope folded into something new.
And some of Dickinson's scraps, especially those whose lines never appear elsewhere in her cannon, seem to give us an insight into Dickinson as real, passionate and political person. While there has been numerous articles and essays written about Dickinson's (homo)sexuality—and to be clear, I count Dickinson as a quintessential lesbian poet—and her editors frequently changing "she" to "he" to make the texts more palatable to the audience of the time, Sandra Runzo makes a wonderful point in her essay Dickinson, Performance, and the Homoerotic Lyric:
...her transgressive transformations create possibilities for telling those "truths" that have been obscured or depreciated. In other words, the excess and the allure, the mystery and the theatricality of Dickinson's transgressive "body," by which she can continually parade her gender and detach herself from it, affiliate Dickinson with such traditions of performance as camp that mimic sex/gender roles and identities while subverting them, and that reinvest the marginal with power.
Fragment "A 201" speaks to me as another queer woman who, for twenty one years, hid her gender and sexuality. It seems to present the anxiety of being discovered and the bravery of being blatantly and proudly queer—especially in conservative Christian cultures like 19th century New England. She writes:
Had we known
the Ton (weight / Load) she
We had helped
So be her's
Smiled too brave
Till arrested here
In this verse there seems to be two groups: the "we" who helped her terror and "our detection" for which the transgressive "she" is arrested. The speaker of the poem navigates both. She assets in creating her terror but praises just as much as she places blame. The poem speaks to the way compulsive heterosexuality forces queer and lesbian people to behave, and the fear of discovery to which any of us can relate.
A 165 is another of the fragments that show Emily as a passionate and political person: It is written in a looser script than the rest, disregards the guiding lines, and shows her thinking through the politics of the Death Penalty. It is as if it where written quickly, in a minute maybe, like a note you would jot down in the middle of an argument or on overhearing an ostentatious opinion. It reads:
Death warrants are supposed to be/me / believed to be An Enginery of Equity hazardous / A merciful mistake
A pencil in / An Idol's dainty Hand / A Devotee has / oft cosigned / To Crucifix / or Block/stake
Along the margin she has written "cool - bland." It's uncertain where these belong but anywhere they would add to the ironic (borderline heretical) tone of an "Idol's dainty Hand."
And this is the side of Dickinson that is sadly neglected in our pedagogy of her, in the way we introduce her to young readers as one of THE poets. We place her pedestal, strip her of her sexuality, her humour, and heresy. We reduce her to standardized stanzas—regardless what oddities are allowed to remain—and forget that each of Dickinson's poems function like a letter addressed not to her time but to our uncertain future.