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Perlow, Seth: "Erased Dickinson: Janet Holmes and the Trace as Historical Absence"

Erased Dickinson: Janet Holmes and the Trace as Historical Absence

Seth Perlow, Oklahoma State University

To produce her 2009 book of poetry, The ms of m y kin, Janet Holmes strategically erased poems Emily Dickinson wrote during the Civil War—some of Dickinson’s most productive years as a poet. Airy and sparse on the page, the resulting verses contribute to multiple conversations that continue to shape Dickinson’s reception. Through the strategy of erasure, Holmes underscores the intensely visual character of a Dickinson poem, and in this sense she follows the tradition of Susan Howe and others who view Dickinson’s works not so much as reproducible texts but as visual fields. This visual approach motivates ongoing efforts to digitize Dickinson’s holographs and make them available online—as well as other recent creative experiments with visuality and erasure, such as Jen Bervin’s embroidered quilts, The Dickinson Fascicles.
Even as her book underscores the material and visual objecthood of Dickinson’s writings, Holmes also contributes to ongoing discussions of Dickinson’s relation to politics and the actual world. Her erasures leave behind poems that seem to comment upon the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, thus setting up a dialogic relation between Dickinson’s writing during the Civil War and Holmes’s erasing during our current, imperial wars. Holmes’s poems thus render a powerfully contemporary sense of Emily Dickinson as a “world citizen”—as a poet who, however obliquely, seems to have left within her verse the potential skeleton of another poetry, the poetry of twenty-first century warfare.
Hence, this paper reads The ms of m y kin in multiple contexts: it builds a conversation with Dickinson’s source texts, asking how Dickinson and Holmes respectively structure the relation between a poem and the poet’s political world; it examines how the book differs from other strategic erasures by Ronald Johnson, Tom Phillips, and Jen Bervin; and it explores how Holmes’s book can challenge theoretical accounts of erasure, its political and aesthetic effects. I argue that in Holmes’s hands, the absent words of Dickinson’s poems—those that do not survive erasure—carry as much political weight as those that Holmes leaves behind. Holmes’s technique thus heightens our sense of historical traces as necessarily deferred, absent signs of the political and the worldly.