Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Bervin's Emily Dickinson

Jessica Smith, over at looktouchblog, recently called my attention to Jen Bervin's quilting project on the Emily Dickinson Fascicles. Bervin begins by taking one of Dickinson's fascicles — self-published and handmade collections of poems — and removing the vocabulary. In its stead, she stitches in thread onto oversized cotton "pages" the dashes, dots, and crosses that characterize Dickinson's manuscripts and distinguish them from the published versions of her writing. The result: a palmpsest of ambiguous and gestural markings that collapses an entire fascicle's dashes, dots, and crosses into a single field, allowing the viewer to see them clearly.

It's tempting to compare this, in its blanking of the text, to Rauschenberg's "Erased de Kooning Drawing." After all, a poem is made of words, and Bervin's removal of these words would seem to be just such an erasure. But Rauschenberg's approach — an interrogation of the relationship between creation and destruction, about the ways art and artist are related within a commodity economy and to one another — is fundamentally different from Bervin's, which essentially constitutes a textual and literary investigation. The result raises — or reiterates, given that Susan Howe, among others, have already so raised — "questions about the nature and meaning of the marks." It reverses the treatment given to the poems through most of their history, effacing what has hitherto been retained, and retaining what was once effaced. And it calls into question the assumption that a poem is its vocabulary, redirecting our attention so that we examine that which is outside of language, yet undeniably and indelibly present on the page.

Conventional punctuation was abolished not to add 'soigné stitchery' but to subtract arbitrary authority. Dashes drew liberty of interruption inside the struture of each poem. Hush of hesitation for breath and for breathing.

Susan Howe

At the same time, I'm a touch ambivalent about the act of collapsing the marks of eleven and twenty-one poems (in the works based on fascicles sixteen and forty, respectively) into these single fields. It certainly, and usefully, calls attention to the gestural variety of the markings, as Bervin suggests. And where it does suggest a way of thinking the poems' seriality in vertical, rather than horizontal, terms, it simultaneously effaces that seriality's sequential structure, and risks losing each poem's relative autonomy from the others within the fascicle. That is, it risks losing the spatial layout of each poem's own markings in reducing them to a single surface.

In the end, the problem I'm raising here might not be soluble. It might, in fact, be analogous to Saussure's remarks about the need to choose between diachronic ("horizontal") and synchronic ("vertical") analysis.

Nor do I think that the critique I'm bringing here should detract from the project as a whole. That Bervin is investigating this component to Dickinson's work is significant. That she is doing so through visual art — and, in so doing, that she suggests we regard these markings in visual, rather than grammatical terms — is more so.

This space is the poem's space. Letters are sounds we see. Sounds leap to the eye. Word lists, crosses, blanks, and ruptured stanzas are points of contact and displacement.

Susan Howe

[NOTE: The first quote from Susan Howe can be found in My Emily Dickinson. The second is from "These Flames and Generosities of the Heart: Emily Dickinson and the Illogic of Sumptuary Values," published in The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History.]


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