Monday, November 04, 2013

The view from the late 1930s

Here I am looking confidently out at the world that was before World War II, before the Year of Assassinations, before Watergate, before the collapse of the USSR, before we had ever heard the word "retrovirus," before Y2K went off without a hitch, before the Two Towers fell, before Somali pirates captured tankers, before we had ever heard the word "fracking,"  before that tsunami broke a nuclear power plant while the whole world was watching, before most of us knew that Dzhokhar was a given name,. . .

This protected world I am here looking out at (as the oldest child of college-educated parents whose father has a good job with General Electric in Schenectady) is very tranquil. [We would later hear that Schenectady was "Number 2 on Hitler's List" for bombing, because of GE and the American Locomotive plant that had been converted to manufacturing tanks.]

My mother has asked me to smile for her camera at the porch railing of the house we are renting on First Street in the Village of Scotia, New York, across the Mohawk River from the GE plant. I am wearing the maroon coat she knitted for me, but not its little brimmed hat. The coat has wooden buttons dyed to match. I am still too young to have hair long enough for the braids which I wore until I went to Junior High, in the building several blocks away on First Street.

I also wear the high topped laced-up shoes my mother had been told would help me develop "nice ankles." I am pampered and read to every night. I think I have brought this sense of safety with me on most parts of my life journey. Perhaps it helps me maintain trust in some important things in an increasingly weird world.

Tonight I rewarded myself (exercise walk; good behavior!!) by looking through two books about Emily Dickenson's poems. One is The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems, a new art book which reproduces in beautiful ivory-toned photos at actual size the "envelope poems" or late writings of the poet on scraps of paper.

 "The Gorgeous Nothings — the first full-color facsimile edition of Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts ever to appear — is a deluxe edition of her late writings, presenting this crucially important, experimental late work exactly as she wrote it on scraps of envelopes. A never-before-possible glimpse into the process of one of our most important poets.The book presents all the envelope writings — 52 — reproduced life-size in full color both front and back, with an accompanying transcription to aid in the reading, allowing us to enjoy this little-known but important body of Dickinson’s writing. Envisioned by the artist Jen Bervin and made possible by the extensive research of the Dickinson scholar Marta L. Werner, this book offers a new understanding and appreciation of the genius of Emily Dickinson." 

The paragraph above was on Amazon; I assume it is the publisher's description. It's a beautiful book. Dickinson's  handwriting is readable, but not quickly. But seeing her jumps and short lines is a revelation. The transcriptions reproduce this effect. It is pleasing me very much. Ever since I became interested in poetry, I have known I must confront Dickinson some day. (Our great American female poet!) But I have usually preferred the wilder ramblings of Walt Whitman. I had spent my childhood in dutiful and pleasant church-going with its concomitant hymn-singing. Emily's poems reminded me of hymns, the meter and the way they are presented. For many years, as a young married woman, I also wore a Playtex rubber girdle to church every Sunday. Emily's poems made me feel unfree, as if I were trapped in an airless closet in a full-body girdle. Every time I had decided to go back to them, I had given up without really reading or studying very long. These books (I'll mention the other one in a moment!) have given me a fresh angle of approach. Because they both deal with her handwritten material, their transcriptions have shorter lines. Reading them gives me an entirely different feeling. The hymnody is still there, but it does not dominate as before. Lots of little linebreak things are happening. I may be able to give some examples in a later post.
The other amazing feature of this book is a sort of index of shapes, besides the triangular envelope flaps, various other shapes made from parts of envelopes, or cut or torn papers. There are other characteristic shapes and the index pages are fascinating to look at, but I haven't been able to hang with this material enough to understand if valuable insights can be gained therefrom. But it is extremely interesting to me as a cataloging process.

The other book came out in 2012 from Oxford University Press. It is Dickenson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics by Alexandra Socarides, This book is a very scholarly investigation of all the handwritten Dickenson works.This includes the envelope poems, as well as the "fascicles" or little sewn groups of poems that have been unbound and rebound since she died. That's a fascinating story I didn't know. I have read the Introduction and a few other parts, so cannon say as much about this book, except that the author is a serious scholar with carefully work out ideas on an important poet, and that the short lines of the transcriptions have given me fresh hope about accessing Dickinson's poetry. More to come, unless I get distracted by some other memory thread.

And as we say in Haiku World, "Autumn Deepens." I hope you get to play in some leaves. In Scotia in the Forties. we used to burn them in huge piles in the street. Glorious, that was, before we knew about global warming. . .

1 comment:

  1. Ooh! I totally need to get/read The Gorgeous Nothings now. :)