Detail. Jen Bervin, The Composite Marks of Fascicle 28. Sewn cotton batting backed with muslin.
Jen Bervin, The Composite Marks of Fascicle 28. Cotton and silk thread on cotton batting backed with muslin. 6 ft h x 8 ft w.
Jen Bervin, The Composite Marks of Fascicle 34. 6 ft h x 8 ft w. Cotton and silk thread on cotton batting backed with muslin.
Jen Bervin, The Composite Marks of Fascicle 38. 6 ft h x 8 ft w. Cotton and silk thread on cotton batting backed with muslin.
Jen Bervin, The Composite Marks of Fascicle 16. 6 ft h x 8 ft w. Cotton and silk thread on cotton batting backed with muslin.
Jen Bervin, The Composite Marks of Fascicle 40. 6 ft h x 8 ft w. Cotton and silk thread on cotton batting backed with muslin.
Jen Bervin, The Composite Marks of Fascicle 19. 6 ft h x 8 ft w. Cotton and silk thread on cotton batting backed with muslin.
Jen Bervin, detail of The Composite Marks of Fascicle 19. Cotton and silk thread on cotton batting backed with muslin.
The Dickinson Fascicles
The Dickinson Fascicles are a series of six large-scale embroidered works by Jen Bervin based on composites of the punctuation and variant markings in Emily Dickinson's fascicles. These works are part of the exhibition Material Fix curated by Alison Ferris at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Feb 2015.
Emily Dickinson avoided publication, calling it “the auction of the mind,” but wrote thousands of poems in her lifetime. Readers are familiar with her characteristic dashes, but fewer have seen her equally ubiquitous crosses (+ marks) or the variant words to which they correspond because they are rarely reflected in print editions.
The variant words are preceded by the + mark and often appear listed in clusters after the poem but before the horizontal line Dickinson drew to signal the end of a poem. To read the variants, you move backwards through the poem trying to find the point of insertion, the corollary word or phrase (preceded by a +) that the variants refer to in the poem. They are sometimes quite close in meaning to the marked word, but in other instances, they are as far ranging as "+ world, + selves + sun."
Between approximately 1858 and 1864, Dickinson grouped her poems into small hand bound packets, later called fascicles. They are very humble bindings: stab-bound with twisted red and white thread and tied off teeteringly near the folded edge. The stitch held the stacked folded sheets together but made them a harder to open. The poems are composed on stationery typical of the nineteenth century, vertically folded sheets, plain, laid, or ruled paper with a small embossed image in the upper left corner. The packets contain eleven to twenty poems per grouping.
In 1981, Harvard University Press issued a two-volume facsimile edition of Dickinson’s handwritten manuscripts, edited by R. W. Franklin. The edition includes forty of Dickinson’s fascicles—stab-bound packets (non-nested sheets of folded paper) containing eleven to twenty poems per fascicle. The manuscripts also contain a number of unbound sets; her late fragments and letters have yet to be published in facsimile editions. Dickinson’s own publication of her poems is highly specified given that she enclosed poems and lines from poems within letters in correspondence, tuning them subtly for different recipients.
Dickinson’s editorial legacy is complicated at best; her fascicles and fragments were dismembered, regrouped, scissored, and marked by her various editors as they changed hands and often her poems have been restructured and changed considerably for print. Even the current variorum edition of Dickinson’s work persists in defying her line breaks and removes or replaces her crosses with other marks (brackets and numbers to clarify, i.e. change, the system that Dickinson authored). By imposing conventional views of literary authorship (as expressed by book publication) and divorcing her poems from their formal integrity and its intended specificity, the implications of an unusual, complex, pervasive system are harder to understand.
I wanted to see what patterns formed when all of the marks in a single fascicle, Dickinson's grouping of poems, remained in position, isolated from the text, and were layered in one composite field of marks. The works I created were made proportionate to the scale of the original manuscripts but quite large—about 8' wide by 6' high—to convey the exact gesture of the individual marks. I scanned Dickinson’s manuscript facsimiles (about twenty pages per fascicle), edited them digitally to form composites of just the marks, and used a projector to transfer the marks onto cotton batting (to suggest a highly magnified page) prepared with a hand-sewn center line (a stand-in for the folio fold) and machine-sewn lines that replicated those of the light-ruled laid paper or blue-ruled paper. I embroidered Dickinson’s marks in with handspun hand-dyed red silk thread.
The fascicles from which I made composites showed clearly identifiable shifts in the size, gesture, frequency, and distribution of the marks. In contemplating such an odd physical study, one naturally forms one’s own questions about the nature and meaning of the marks; it makes their presence on the facsimile manuscript page more striking, systemic, factual—and their omission from typeset poems more evident.
I have never doubted Dickinson’s profound precision, however private, nor that the energetic relation of these marks and variants is anything but integral to her poetics. I have come to feel that specificity of the + and – marks in relation to Dickinson’s work are aligned with a larger gesture that her poems make as they exit and exceed the known world. They go vast with her poems. They risk, double, displace, fragment, unfix, and gesture to the furthest beyond—to loss, to the infinite, to “exstasy,” to extremity.
The Dickinson Composites
The Dickinson Composites
by Jen Bervin
An artist book edition based on The Dickinson Fascicles
Granary Books, 2010
Essay, unbound prints, and sewn samples from the Dickinson Fascicles
Edition size: 50. Order it from Granary Books. Or look for it in a collection near you.
The Dickinson Composites, an artist book by Jen Bervin, 11 1/2" x 15" x 1 1/2", Granary Books 2010.
See also: The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope-Poems by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner (Granary Books 2012) a limited edition artist book based on Emily Dickinson's late compositions on envelopes, and the award-winning trade edition Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings (Christine Burgin / New Directions 2013).