Thursday, June 5, 2014

GORGEOUS NOTHINGS: The Grave is the Ultimate Seal

I was recently invited to participate in a rather unique exhibit: The Gorgeous Nothings, based on the envelope poems of Emily Dickinson and held at Three Pines Studio in Cross Village, MI.

What's an "envelope poem"?

In the mid-1990s, while examining Dickinson material in the Amherst College Library, the literary historian Marta L. Werner came across a small, irregularly-shaped collage cut from recycled 19th-century envelopes and covered with writing in Dickinson’s unmistakably hieroglyphic script.

Enchanted, Ms. Werner started a search for similar items in other collections and found dozens, long familiar to Dickinson experts but never examined as a group. Most were less elaborate than the collage. Some consisted of semi-intact envelopes that had been gently pried apart at the seams and flattened out. Others were fragments: torn-off corners of envelopes, detached flaps.

Whatever their configurations, the pocket-size papers shared one feature: sentences, stanzas and entire roughed-out poems pencil-written by Dickinson herself.

Now all the known “envelope poems” — 52 — have been gathered into a book called “Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings,” published by New Directions and the art dealer Christine Burgin. 

My chosen envelope poem was A842:
As there        are
Apartments        in our
own     Minds        that-
we      never      enter
without          Apology-
we    should       respect
the     seals    of    
others  -        

When I read the poems of Emily Dickinson, it's always through a 19th century filter - I've been involved in mid-19th century living history too long for it to be any other way.

My first inclination was to go in the direction of phrenology, especially the idea of apartments or compartments in the mind.

But I was really intrigued by the idea of envelopes and seals.

Clothing, of course, envelopes the body and I was relatively certain that no one else would use a period correct fan-front dress as the base of their work. Thus, "Emily dressed"!

There is symbolism in every aspect of this piece, some relating to the poem and some relating to Emily and her body of work.

I chose a fan-front dress, as that is the style Emily wears in the only authenticated image of her as an adult, albeit in an earlier style of fan-front. And it had to be in white, of course - it helped that I had a bolt of white lawn in my stash.

Adorning the front of the bodice is a winged death-head, an image from a very old Massachusetts grave stone, reference to death that so often is the focus of Emily's poetry.

Crossed bones, from the same stone, embellish the sleeve jockeys. You can also see the very fat piping I used, black wool yarn in the center. While I love the look it achieved, it was rather hard to force myself to use it - certainly not period correct!

Each flounce is centered with a large, ornate keyhole, a reference to seals. In addition, each flounce was hemmed using a feather stitch, an allusion to "Hope is a thing with feathers".

The top flounce also depicts a mid-19th century image of an apartment building, with people going about their daily routine.

The bottom flounce features a very appropriate quote, from Lydia Child's The Frugal Housewife, a book that Emily's mother was known to have owned:

“The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost. I mean fragments of time as well as materials.”

The piece includes two final embellishments, a pair of chatelaines:

The first is a group of envelopes, translucent, allowing the contents to be glimpsed - an barium page, a bit of lace, some buttons, a tiny silhouette and ripped up printed pages. The envelopes are not addressed - who are the intended recipients?

The second is a trio of large over sized keys, keys allowing the opening of seals.

The other participating artists created equally thought provoking pieces, all on display until June 16th. Will you be in Northern Michigan? If so, do try to work in a visit to Three Pines Studio!


  1. I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy following your blog - it's SO interesting & intelligently written. I had never heard of ED's 'envelope poems' and was so intrigued I just had to order the book 'The Gorgeous Nothings' - it was delivered today and it's set me off on a wonderful journey of discovery! Thank you so much...

    1. Thank you!!!!
      I frequently feel as if I'm just talking to myself here, it's really nice to know someone IS reading.