Preserve the backs of old letters to write upon.
—The American Frugal Housewife
We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.
—Robert Walser (from A Little Ramble)
Over the past few months, I’ve stored up several “gorgeous somethings” with the thought of embarking on a larger project. To choose among the possibilities has so far proved elusive. Like a skipping pebble, I’ve failed to land.
Gorgeous Something #1: Hand-Made Books by Hazard Press
The photograph at the head of the post is of three handmade books from poet Jeremy Dixon’s Hazard Press in Wales. The first, Boccaccio, celebrates the 700th anniversary of Boccaccio’s birth in 1313. In Retail: 12 poems of customer assistance, “was inspired by working as a part-time customer assistant for a high street chemists.” The binding includes an actual shopping list “rescued” from the shop. Here is In Retail (xvii):
I offer the micro-book, Finding Your Way to Emily Dickinson, as a segway to . . .
Gorgeous Something #2: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope-Poems
It’s possible she carried pieces of envelope, a small pencil, and straight pins in the pocket of her dress. The pieces of envelope weren’t random scraps, but carefully prepared and saved for re-use. No matter what Emily Dickinson’s actual motivation, The American Frugal Housewife would certainly have approved.
The small triangle of torn-off envelope above bears these words:
With economical wit, Dickinson reduced the whole of Longfellow’s long-winded poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish, to its core lesson. (As Standish said, though he didn’t apply it to his courtship of Priscilla: “if you wish a thing to be well done,/You must do it yourself, you must not leave it to others!”)
The envelope-poems are contained in an exquisite book from New Directions, Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings. The title is taken from the first envelope-poem Marta Werner discovered. Dickinson had used a straight pin to join the two pieces of envelope on which she wrote, and the pinpricks can still be seen.
Gorgeous Something #3: Robert Walser’s Microscripts
I was enticed to the The Drawing Center by the promise of Emily Dickinson’s envelope-poems and others of her gorgeous nothings. I knew nothing of Robert Walser and didn’t know what to make of his microscopic penciled texts also on view. To learn more, I came away with a monograph, Drawing Papers 209, of photographs and essays about the exhibit and scoured the shelves of an independent bookstore in Manhattan, where I found Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories and a book of his Microscripts.
The Walser microscripts, which at first were thought to be in indecipherable code, “turned out to be a radically miniaturized Kurrent script, the form of handwriting favored in German-speaking countries until the mid-twentieth century . . .” [Microscripts 10] The first microscript in the book, written on the back of a calendar page dated Mai 16 (Sonntag), 1926, is Radio, which begins, “Yesterday I used a radio receiver for the first time.”
How splendid it was to be enjoying piano music that came dancing up to me from a magical distance: the music seemed to possess a certain buoyant languor. [Microscripts 25]
Walser entered a mental institution in 1929 and was confined in asylums until he died. No trace of any manuscript remains from 1933 to the end of his life. “I’m not here to write,” he’s reported to have said. “I’m here to be mad.”
Many years earlier, Walser lived in and wrote vignettes about Berlin. What strikes me is how buoyant and full of wonder he was at the time. Here’s the first paragraph of In the Electric Tram:
Riding the “electric” is an inexpensive pleasure. When the car arrives, you climb aboard, possibly after first politely ceding the right of way to an imposing gentlewoman, and then the car continues on. At once you notice that you have a rather musical disposition. The most delicate melodies are parading through your head. In no time you’ve elevated yourself to the position of a leading conductor or even composer. Yes, it’s really true: the human brain involuntarily starts composing songs in the electric tram, songs that in their involuntary nature and their rhythmic regularity are so very striking that it’s hard to resist thinking oneself a second Mozart. [Berlin Stories 23]
For a Spotify Playlist, including Bifu by Somei Satoh, Credo by Kevin Puts, Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 8, and Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 1, click here.
Satoh’s meditative piece appears on Hilary Hahn’s most recent CD, In 27 Pieces, an interesting project about which you may read more here. I was reminded of Kevin Puts recently and sought out what I could find for a listen. I’m not sure how I’d take to his work overall, but I’ve been enjoying his string quartet, Credo. Curt Barnes alerted me to Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 8, about which you can read more here. I have a number of Sculthorpe CDs, but didn’t know this work, which I like very much. Britten, of course, requires no introduction . . .
Kevin Puts, Credo
Benjamin Britten, String Quartet No. 1, First Movement
Credits: The quotations are from the sources linked in the text. All photographs are mine. The photographs not otherwise indicated in the text are of pages from Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings (Emily Dickinson manuscripts) and Drawing Papers 109 (Robert Walser manuscript).