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“I meant to find Her when I came”: Emily Dickinson in Manhattan
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I meant to find Her when I came—

Death—had the same design—

But the Success—was His—it seems—

And the Surrender—Mine—

(Emily Dickinson, #718)

The exhibition of Emily Dickinson materials currently on view at the Poets House appears modest at first glance. It’s comprised of several letters, an inscribed copy of Adam Bede, a handful of rare books and other items—all contained in nine glass cases in the second-floor exhibition space. What appears to have gotten the most press coverage is Dickinson’s handwritten recipe for “cocoanut” cake. An authentic recreation of the cake was served at the opening of the exhibit in October; a set of twenty-first-century modifications published on the NPR food blog was more controversial. And, over at the New York Times Diner’s Journal, the recipe was treated as nothing short of a revelation: “Whatever you happen to think about when you think about Emily Dickinson, it’s probably unlikely that what first leaps to mind is an image of the Belle of Amherst stuffing her face with cake.” Reclusive nineteenth-century poets! They are just like us! (Or something.) As one commenter observed, “I don’t know why people are always so astounded to learn that she did perfectly normal things, like a normal person”—but of course that difficulty is no doubt part of Dickinson’s mythology.

The significance of this exhibition, however, comes largely from the fact that these items are part of a private collection belonging to Donald and Patricia Oresman, and much of this material has never been accessible to the public. That’s particularly significant for Dickinson, since the manuscripts retain such a privileged place in the scholarship and interpretation of her work. Dickinson scholars, presumably when they are not stuffing their own faces in sybaritic solidarity with their subject’s apparently insatiable appetite for homemade baked goods, continue to argue quite passionately about the relative merits of various editing, publishing, and archival practices, noting the inextricability of the activities editing and interpretation. Indeed, as Don Gilliland remarks in a recent essay, “the question of what, in its essence, constitutes a ‘poem’ by Emily Dickinson,” remains one of the most pressing issues in the scholarship. The increasing attention given to her letters, fragments, and other generically indeterminate archival materials seem unlikely to settle this question anytime soon.

On my first visit to the Poets House, I attended a talk on Dickinson’s late fragments by Marta Werner, a scholar who has, among other things, created a digital archive of these materials. In a 2007 article, she describes these fragments as “not so much ‘works’ as symptoms of the processes of composition, data—aleatory, contingent—of the work of writing.” In her talk, Werner characterized to these fragments as representative of fleeting authorial presences, never totalizable, yet often luminous and suggestive, particularly insofar as they suggest—in her view—the beginnings of a new stage of Dickinson’s artistry forever suspended by her death. The connections themselves are in motion.

I was only able to spend a few minutes in the exhibition space at the reception after Werner’s talk, so I came back on my own about ten days later to dwell more fully on the contents of these glass cases. With more time to spend at the exhibit, it became possible to appreciate the luminous possibilities of  a question she poses in a letter to a friend: “How can we thank / each other, when / omnipotent?” and to ponder an inscription that reads: “Dare to raise / my voice / to as much / as a salutation.” The cake recipe did not, alas, call to mind any particular image of Dickinson itself, but its creases and stains suggested a history of long kitchen use–a history preserved improbably through a century and a half–that was at once simple and profound. I also had more time to spend with the large-scale textile works by Jen Bervin, the exhibition’s curator. Bervin’s pieces represent and foreground Dickinson’s punctuation and other marks in a way that reminds the viewer of the intimate connection of text and textile, and they, too, make an unexpectedly moving contribution to the exhibition as a whole.

Like Werner’s fragments, the materials from the Oresman Collection belong “to a chronology of the instant” where “vulnerability it the mark of their existence.” What I discovered in the unlikely setting of the glass and steel buildings of Battery Park City was not a stable historical presence, less a definitive “Emily Dickinson” but rather a moment of intimacy founded on contingency and evanescence, arising from resonances and stray marks and from the unresolvable suspension of the material and immaterial in the work of signification.

The Poets House is located at 10 River Terrace in Manhattan. Admission is free, except during events, and the hours are 11-7 Monday-Friday and 11-6 on Saturdays and Sundays. The Dickinson manuscripts will be on display through January 28, 2012.

Further reading:

Gilliland, Don. “Textual Scruples and Dickinson’s ‘Uncertain Certainty.’” The Emily Dickinson Journal 18.2 (Fall 2009). 38-62.

Werner, Marta L. “ ‘Most Arrows’: Autonomy and Intertextuality in Dickinson’s Late Fragments.” TEXT 10 (1997): 41-72.

—–. “ ‘A Woe of Ecstasy’: On the Electronic Editing of Emily Dickinson’s Late Fragments.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 16.2 (Fall 2007): 25-52.


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