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Werner, Marta: "'Their period for Dawn –': Housing Dickinson’s Late Work"

“Their period for Dawn –”: Housing Dickinson’s Late Work

Marta Werner, D’Youville College

In 1981, Ralph W. Franklin published The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, making it possible for the first time for readers to encounter facsimiles of her manuscripts, the face or shining physiognomy of her work. The significance of Franklin’s work—his illumination of the scene of writing in the fascicles--cannot be overstated. Yet while the approximately 925 poem manuscripts bound into fascicles came suddenly into the light, The Manuscript Books paradoxically cast a shadow over the other 864 manuscripts left unbound by Dickinson. While I do not think for a moment that this was Franklin’s intention, editions live their own lives beyond their editors, and their effects are not always predictable. Moreover, since in the almost quarter century that has elapsed since the publication of The Manuscript Books no comprehensive companion volume of unbound poems in facsimile has appeared or is even rumored to be planned, the darkness surrounding these works seems to have deepened.

My contribution to the roundtable reflects on my attempts to dispel this darkness in three works that draw on the combinatory possibilities of manuscript study, textual and editorial theory, and old-fashioned hermeneutical labor: Open Folios: Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing, Radical Scatters: An Electronic Archive of Emily Dickinson’s Late Fragments and Related Texts, and, most recently, The Gorgeous Nothings. In the brief opening part of the presentation, I analyze the ways in which each of these successive works attempts to map out the topos of Dickinson’s post-fascicle, unbound writings while also composing a record of my recurring experience of disorientation. In the second part of the presentation, I focus on my collaboration with artist and poet Jen Bervin in The Gorgeous Nothings. After recalling the ways in which a single and singular manuscript – A 821, “Clogged only with Music, like the Wheels of Birds”—drew us into the larger constellation of Dickinson’s “envelope poems,” I describe the form our work takes—its reliance on the combinatory possibilities of manuscript study, textual and editorial theory, and old fashioned hermeneutical labor; its difference and distance from both “edition” and “catalog raisonée”; and the principles underlying our presentation of facsimile images and diplomatic transcriptions. In the final part of the presentation, I address the following questions: Why have we expended such care in preparing this gathering of approximately fifty envelope poems written in the latter days of the nineteenth century? Why go searching in the depths of libraries to bring these works to light in the world? And why at this moment? My conclusion proposes the “envelope poem” as a figure for Dickinson’s larger oeuvre as well as for the contingency, transience, vulnerability, and hope cathected in all her messages and in all of our varied replies.

Click here to download the powerpoint presentation for this talk.