APRIL 15, 2014
EVERYONE I KNOW wants to get their hands on The Gorgeous Nothings. New Directions published the stunning volume of Emily Dickinson’s ephemera, curated by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner, in the fall of 2013 (with an additional introduction by Susan Howe). But there’s another book out now that’s just as exciting: Jeff Griffin’s Lost and, published by the University of Iowa in the Kuhl House series. Griffin, a poet, sculptor, and resident of Nevada, has made his book out of less conspicuously notable ephemera: letters, personal writings, scraps of paper, and odd photos, many of which are over- or underexposed, some of which have been defaced (not by Griffin, but by other strangers, or time, or the desert). These very different collections are two of the most important books of poetry to publish in the last 12 months. Both show us, in their physical form, how poetry teaches us to pay attention to — and remember — each other. Both books turn the apparent poverty of their origin — the outsider world of the desert, the always-possibly-about-to-be-thrown-away nature of Dickinson’s fragments — into something lush and vibrant that transforms this assumed poverty into value. And both books make a project of proximity — of bringing themselves, and their materials, close to us.
Despite the gorgeous abundance of The Gorgeous Nothings, it’s worth mentioning that the price isn’t that much ($40), for a huge beautiful clothbound art book. I think we’re supposed to be physically closer to the book, rather than simply leave it on our coffee tables. The intelligent, enticing layout provides legible transcriptions of all the writings en face. The delicate tone of the layout, both in its design and its editorial presentation, suggests that the collection wishes to be known by us, not simply revered. Of one of the many poems Dickinson writes on a slit-open envelope, Werner writes, “If I had not held it lightly in my hands, I would never have suspected the manner in which it was assembled.” In both these books, we’re being taught how to handle with care.
Griffin, the author of Lost and, establishes his presence by describing his own act of caretaking. His author’s preface reads in full: “The following work I found discarded at various locations around the desert, mostly in abandoned trailers and homesteads, from 2010 to 2013. The pieces are either transcribed verbatim or scanned as is.” The key words here are “work” and “location.” Griffin wants us to know that this material has become his work, his labor. His travels took him, during the three years of the book’s compilation, to those lost desert regions on the western edge of the Great Basin: small towns from Twentynine Palms, California, to Pahrump, Nevada. I’d say they were drive-throughs, but most of them aren’t on any road you’ll ever drive through. Personal but anonymous, the materials achieve a kind of searing intimacy by detaching themselves from both information and context. (One scanned sheet simply reads, “Matt R, March 4, 2002, First Time Have Sex.”)
When we read these books, part of what we imagine is the curatorial task itself — the way Dickinson, and then Bervin and Werner, or Griffin and all of his collected authors and photographers, held the materials as they worked with them. We can’t help but be reminded of the qualities of traditional authorship here: the creative process isn’t as much about self-assertion, but about a degree of acquiescence to material in all its perishability — a form of listening. Bervin, Werner, and Griffin listen with their hands. What’s found inside both books gives us access to a shared experience that the actual form of the book makes possible. This creates a place for strangers to meet, and a way to keep people — not manufactured identities, but people — from getting lost. Both books reach out and ask for a reader to reach a private zone beyond surveillance.
The photos we encounter in Lost and are striking for a contemporary viewer. Pictures taken in the era before digital, they emphasize the necessity of the picture-taker: the human witness who not only photographs but also “takes” the picture (or gives it away, or abandons it in the desert). In one photograph, a strangely ecstatic woman is captured talking on the phone, surrounded by outdated technology, clinging to a landline cord, looking directly at whoever might be behind the camera. In another photo, an artificial-looking cat appears bizarrely and perfectly posed. In another, a man appears nearly as posed as the cat, standing impossibly on the edge of a cliff. Immediately following these pictures, an overexposed photograph of a backhoe is followed by one of a rig and then another of a gas station. These scanned images gesture back to what appears to be a single photographer responsible for all of them, who must be standing inside a building looking out. The photos seem vaguely useless, both because of their overexposure and because of their seeming lack of focus.
Such moments, in another book, might be mistaken for voyeurism, but Griffin curates this collection in a way that makes us resist that. The woman on the phone is looking directly at us — it’s as if she knows us, not some fiction of the other way around. The cat may have been stupidly beloved once, but now it’s just a weird yet stately robot, so it’s hard to mock anyone else’s pet-centered sentimentality. The photos of the backhoe, the rig, the man in the gas station are taken from inside a building. They don’t target a person to objectify; they target the photographer, whose reasons have become obscured, but whose hunger for an image remains strangely intact. This hunger is the place where the image-taker and the world meet — in the sense of a portrait photo, the place where two persons meet. But, in Griffin’s project, we are the picture-taker, not simply the viewer — we’re the reader, not just the looker. Lyrically, Griffin’s arrangement of this section ends with a typed song, titled “My Beloved Ones,” written by some (temporary? holiday-specific?) musical outfit apparently called “We Productions.” One of the many choruses goes like this: “Now listen to the / power of we.” We’re being asked to consider all these materials — photographs and lyrics — together; the song becomes a way to “read” the photos, the tune that plays under the section’s visual investigations.
Lost and knows all too well that the “power of we” may remain a fantasy for the page. An emotional current of a familiar but operatic loneliness makes the book cohere. All of the fragments of Lost and seem to swirl around a found letter exchange in the fifth section that documents the love triangle of three people (not characters) named Estee, Tony, and Diane. I won’t give away the story in its entirety, but I will say that we learn most of the brutal facts of the relationship in Estee’s strangely adroit and careful handwriting. She records the time (4:40 a.m.) when she picks up the pen, and again (8:05 a.m.) when she puts it down. Her letter includes careful self-corrections and flowery capitals when appropriate. Isn’t this a poetic occasion? The letter’s intimacy comes, to be sure, in part from the extremity of its sorrow, but what sustains that content and makes it moving to a stranger is how the author sought out, and used, formal structures: the time signature, the composure of her handwriting, even the lines on the page. Our fantasy of holding Estee’s letter makes us imagine not just what she’s feeling, but what she felt she had to make in the event of having such strong feelings. Griffin’s book, at moments like this, hints at the idea that what we share as people is not simply some fundamental loneliness, but rather that which loneliness moves us to create.
Lost and curates an experience for us rather than objectifying lost individuals. In this sense, the book aims to be much more than simply a recovery of the lost lives to which it introduces us. Lost and wants to recover that impulse inside of us that brings us closer to the aspect of poetry itself that keeps us capable of recovering anything at all. The only previously published “poem” in Lost and is William Blake’s “A Poison Tree,” which Griffin found somewhere near Fallon, Nevada, written out in someone’s hand. He places it in the book’s final section, complete with a few misspellings — a few pages after another handwritten poem that’s a little less famous, titled “Meeting at Midnight:” “The gray sky and long back land / and the yellow half-moon large and low / and the startled little waves that leap / and fairy ringlets from the sleep.” At least I think it’s a poem — not just because “Meeting at Midnight” veers in and out of tetrameter and a rhyme scheme, but it touches something poetic. It feels both as bleak as Blake and as full of attempted hope. It’s not as good as “A Poison Tree,” but it’s not bad, either, and it’s similar in its aesthetic, in its elemental contract with reality. What we’re brought home to, I think, isn’t just the mood of the poem, but its need for structure in a moment of crisis — the delight and relief of loneliness, of personal discord, in giving itself a shape.
One of the things form can do is give a shape to an experience where strangers meet — in Dickinson’s poems, words talk “between the rooms” (Franklin #448). Both Lost and and The Gorgeous Nothings enable us to do this. The truth is, I can’t quite locate my pleasure in holding The Gorgeous Nothings around Dickinson as a person. I can’t see the book as a way to get to know her better, but as some terrific, and terrifically independent, occasion for her poems made possible as much by the fact of the fragments’ having been forgotten as by their being beautifully remembered. Brenda Shaughnessy writes in the Los Angeles Times, “Normally, when we visit Emily, she is properly attired to receive guests. Never have we been received by Dickinson in her dressing gown.” Camden Avery, in The Rumpus, says, “seeing it […] brings her back to us even more extremely idiosyncratic than we could have guessed.” But what could it mean for her to be more idiosyncratic than her earlier self, known without these fragments? If Dickinson does appear in her dressing gown, I think she might still ask to be met here as a stranger. We can become familiar with fragments without becoming intimate with a person. The added intimacy of the physical doesn’t make the poet behind the poem any less a stranger, but it does remind us that she once had a body, had hands, was a maker. Shifting our attention fully to the experience of the poem, the fragments of The Gorgeous Nothings distract us from some singular claim on meaning or the disclosure of information. The collection accomplishes this, in part, through an imagination of touch.
The Gorgeous Nothings, as a book, encourages us to consider reading as a form of touching from its first pages. The book’s white surfaces do present an idealized mental landscape. But because of this, a new context gets generated, where the curatorial instinct for preservation meets the reader’s delight in proximity. Bervin and Werner’s insistence on including the backs of unfolded envelopes that have little or no poetic text on them is striking in this regard: the point is not that the book preserves poems, but that the book can help us remember the composition of an occasion for poetry — the site of poetry itself. Consider fragment A391, a slit-open envelope with a draft on one side that becomes #1679 in the Franklin edition (“The Ditch is dear to the Drunken man”). On the reverse side, a letter addressed in Dickinson’s hand also includes this statement in pencil: “She’s brother who was ill there — / their father was a drunkard.” In a sense, the poem was born in the midst of gossip — in the midst of a privacy cleared in social space where now we all meet first as strangers. Touch calls the poem out of focus, the moment before we recognize it and the moment it’s removed from the archive and placed in a book. By touching, we connect those two moments to our own present-tense experience.
And then, there is the touching of the pencil to the paper. For years, Dickinson critics have been looking for some kind of order among the manuscripts — some way to describe or theorize the “filing system” that the poet left and we found. In The Gorgeous Nothings, instead, what’s restored to these traces of the work is a sense of occasioned disorder. What’s been preserved through time in her handwriting is the decision to occupy the page. The page becomes just as important as the writing. In an “envelope poem” like A496, the poem follows the three segments of the back of the envelope rather than some linear organization down it, and continues on the other side of the envelope as if to find a place to end. It’s impossible for the mind of the reader not to follow the mind of the writer. We follow, not through the meaning of the poem toward some certain goal, but through the experience of the poem toward an unpredictable end. Perhaps the ending feels even more unpredictable here than in the Franklin edition because the mind appears in process, in the midst of making. It’s quite striking how many of the drafts don’t fill the page — Yankee thriftiness? — as if even the space of the rest of the envelope could be saved and used for later.
Franklin’s three-volume edition of Dickinson’s complete poems allowed us to see the variants Dickinson indicated with a tiny black cross within the fascicles, the manuscript books in which much of the familiar work was found. The Gorgeous Nothings allows us to see something totally different: not saved possibilities, not the mind of the artist, but that mind coming into contact with material. A252 is a simple couplet in Franklin’s edition: “In this short Life that only lasts an hour / How much – how little – is within our power.” Franklin lists a variant, “merely” for “only.” The reproduction of the fragment in The Gorgeous Nothings shows us that the variant is actually still sitting under the chosen word. In a fragment like A252, we are reintroduced to the moment where the mind hits the page, or, perhaps more accurately and less idealistically, the evidence that when it did, it got a little messy.
Written on the back of a slit-open yellow envelope, A416 is a draft of what would become a Dickinson poem that begins “The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants” (Franklin #1350). There is an idiosyncratic brio here: though the slit-open envelope does make a square, Dickinson has turned it into a diamond, writing from the top corner to the bottom corner. This piece of writing is characteristic of Dickinson’s poetic form — ballad meter, near rhymes, dashes — but visually, it’s written in some form of prose. The lack of alignment of the form with our conception of an ideal rectangular page reminds us of the way in which form and disorder coexist in many Dickinson lyrics, which foreground elements of form, like a sonic and psychic alphabet, but diverge from them nearly as immediately. Here, form begins to seem even more like a series of found elements and less like a mental prescription.
Speaking of prescriptions, on the other side of the envelope is a mortar and pestle — it would make sense to conclude that this 19th-century envelope came from the pharmacy. Back home in the 21st century, page 39 of Griffin’s Lost and reproduces a note composed on a pharmaceutical advertising notepad with less poetic content but a similar sense of focus and necessity — the poem of the act of the mind finding not just the Stevensian idea that will suffice, but also the materials that will.
As far as definitions of poetry go, most of the time, I am inclined to quote James Longenbach’s elegant one from The Art of the Poetic Line: “Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines.” But neither of these books is organized in lines. Neither is organized, truly, by sound. Yet readers often sense the quality of self-recitation poetry — the sonic imagination of reading to oneself — and it is surely present in both. It is invoked simply by the presence of rhyme in a Dickinson envelope poem, or the inclusion of Blake’s lyric, or the searing tones of ordinary voices in the anonymous and personal letters Griffin has collected. We may not be encountering anything we would recognize as a poem. And yet, we are reconnecting with our ability to recognize a place of poetry.
Considering The Gorgeous Nothings and Lost and together, a reader becomes doubly impressed by a shared preoccupation: both volumes present evidence of human involvement by attaching expressive power to self-consciously perishable materials. Readers sensitive to loss might immediately see the collection of this perishability into book form as a kind of lie — an attempt at permanence no book can sustain. But what’s been lost is never exactly found, is it? It’s only ever found as lost. To know it is to know absence as much as presence, destruction as much as preservation. What’s sought from poetry, and perhaps from all good art, isn’t permanence of content itself but a refreshment of experience, a filling of the well. Ironically, as long-term mourners know, we accomplish this by assembling and reassembling fragments.
The palpable presence of a caretaking instinct at the core of each volume should remind us of the experience of coming into contact with human experience itself. Walt Whitman’s poem reads, “he who touches this book touches a man.” But the poem doesn’t say, “when you touch this poem you touch me.” Lost and and The Gorgeous Nothings also remind us that authorship — in order to have any hope of preserving those aspects of human privacy that art might still find outside the systems that encircle us — must have some quality of self-extinguishing to let the reader in and make the poem a place to meet, or get lost, rather than that odious narcissistic bugbear, “something to relate to.”
In a typed personal narrative preserved by Griffin, one man from Beatty, Nevada, writes:
we are so brainwashed by all forms of media that our brains are like a clogged-up chimney with black negative thoughts and feelings which have blinded our true understanding and we need a good chimney sweep to blast this nonsense out of our heads […]
He’s fairly articulate for being on the edge of sanity. For me, both these books have blasted away nonsense by reminding me of certain basic pathways of communication and human acknowledgment. They accomplish this not by taking away media, but by reminding us of how media was originally handmade, and, actually, still can be. (As far as I know, people still leave notes on refrigerators.) But this prescription doesn’t just apply to old materials. I’ve noticed something on Facebook, that uncool social media platform young people are apparently fleeing in droves. First, people my age (around 40) posted pictures of their children (and many of them still do). But in the last few years, many of these same individuals have been posting fewer of these present-tense photos, and more status updates like this one: “Can someone please direct me to the bus line that stops at Mill Pond, circa 1976, where on days like this we played pond hockey till dark?” I see this slightly poetic but mainly ordinary nostalgic cry for recognition as a cry for fellow feeling based on remembering how to remember. And it’s this shape of thinking — in all its twinned disorder and desire for order — that poetic form preserves in order to preserve a trace of us.