Gorgeous Somethings

Hazard Press Books P1050015_edited-1

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):

In Retail P1050017_edited-1

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.

Not to send P1050018_edited-1The small triangle of torn-off envelope above bears these words: Not to send P1050019_edited-1

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.

Pin Pricks P1050021_edited-1

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.

Robert Walser, Microscript 337 (verso)

Robert Walser, Microscript 337 (verso)

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]

Robert Walser, Microscript 337 (recto), May-June 1926 (Radio)

Robert Walser, Microscript 337 (recto), May-June 1926 (Radio)

Listening List

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 . . .

On YouTube:

Kevin Puts, Credo

Peter Sculthorpe, String Quartet No. 8 (its 5 tracks are included in the playlist, starting at track 1)

Benjamin Britten, String Quartet No. 1, First Movement

Dickinson Envelope-Poem 821 and 821A (Clogged/only with/music, like/the Wheels of/Birds . . .)

Dickinson Envelope-Poem 821 and 821A (Clogged/only with/music, like/the Wheels of/Birds . . .)

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).

22 thoughts on “Gorgeous Somethings

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    They’re gorgeous and they’re something else, not like any old anythings. I need to take a morning and read the essays in the ‘Drawing Papers’ book – so glad it’s online. But I have ‘Microscripts’ – you know what a fan of Walser I am. The kind of microfictions he wrote – even his style – is all over contemporary literary journals right now. It’s become a genre of its own that can be traced directly back to him. Dickinson though always transcends style and fashion. I think we’ll always be trying to catch up with her.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Interesting that Walser is making such an impact now–wonder what he would think! I didn’t know the Drawing Papers book was online. That’s wonderful! It’s a nice book to have, though I’m a little in doubt about the need to fit these works (and EDs) into a “drawing” vs. “writing” or “manuscript” box. They certainly have a visual impact, though, no question about that. But whether they are drawings, I’m not sure–and I’m even less sure it matters. Last not least, of course I love your comment about ED. You’re the one who first really showed me how to think about her. I started off a Whitman fan, but she has such endless layers. You’re right, we’ll always be trying to catch up with her.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Jeremy: I treasure your handmade books! They are beautiful in every way–“gorgeous somethings,” to use my silly little turn on ED’s marvelous phrase, they definitely are.

  2. Britta

    Dear Sue, what a fascinating combination of gorgeous finds! Emily’s writing on envelopes – so understandable – and cute. Robert Walser and his brother lived for a time in Berlin-Charlottenburg, in the Kaiser Friedrichstraße is a memorial plaque. I only have a vague remembrance of ‘Jacob von Gunten’ – but will ask husband, when he is back – think I heard him quote Walser in context with ‘flaneur’.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: I think you would absolutely love Jeremy Dixon’s handmade books. The photographs give an idea, but there is nothing like holding them in your hands. Please do report back on what husband says about Walser–flaneur definitely comes up often in commentary about him, and I’m not so sure he’d disagree!

  3. David N

    I don’t know that I have the sort of mind that gets the connections here, but I do love holding reproductions of the writer’s own artistic work: on Tuesday, had pleasure in handing round a nice facsimile of Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament, written in blood.

    I also have faith in a new wave of book design. To me it’s more than window dressing; it’s belief in the beauty of typeface and a cover that truly reflects what’s going on inside. The smaller publishing houses, who in the UK at least are now especially good at continental European literature in English translation, seem to be forging ahead.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: If I’ve made any connections here, rest assured they’re very loose, so I’m not so sure anyone’s mind would find them! Just beautiful things, all set out together, so as not to let them slide by without remark. As I noted to Britta, Jeremy Dixon’s handmade books are wonderfully tactile, as well as visual, objects. While I couldn’t, of course, hold the ED or Walser mss, seeing them close-up was quite astounding. The “Gorgeous Nothings” and “Microscripts” books treat their subjects lovingly, too, and it’s nice to see. I agree with you entirely that book design is far more than window dressing. You state it so well. I was reminded of it on getting an old book of Reverdy poems out of the library. The book included beautiful woodcuts on a few pages. I’d love to see more of that.

  4. David N

    Oh, and PS – I forgot to add: you’ve led me to the writing of Robert Walser. Searching him out in a bookshop this afternoon, I was captivated by a New York edition of his The Tanners, a family saga with a long introduction by a hero of mine, the late W G Sebald. Now there’s a writer who cares about presentation in the form of a whole range of photographs, of which I see there are some in this preface. Hope to turn to this once a revived Henry James crush has abated a bit.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Well, now, already you’re ahead of me, but that’s no surprise. I’m off to New York City tomorrow, though, and The Tanners, with the Sebald introduction, is definitely on my list. I have finished a first read of Berlin Stories and Microscripts. Berlin Stories contains a number of little jewels, and, anyway, I am a sucker for these fine, personal, recountings of time and place. Microscripts is a bit harder to grasp; his style changes, or so it seemed to me, and many of the pieces are fragments of a sort. Mark is probably the one to guide us there.

  5. angela

    What a wonderful romp in literaryland, Sue! Walser captured me with Berlin Stories…knew not of Microscripts, but after reading your blurb and MK, dare say I do want ALONG with ED latest. I bought the last Poetry mag because it had excerpts from it – how we love her… and the possibilities. (very much enjoying Credo while writing this – thank you)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      angela: You will LOVE The Gorgeous Nothings. The book is beautifully done, I think. I’ll be curious to see how you get on with Microscripts. It’s also a beautiful book–but harder to know how to think about, for me, anyway, than Berlin Stories, which are just full of charm. Ah, yes, the possibilities! And gold star goes out to you for commenting on Credo! I think you’re the only one this round who commented on anything on the listening list. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I don’t know much about the composer, but I have been enjoying Credo and am, as always, pleased to share that enjoyment with you!

  6. The Solitary Walker

    These are gorgeous somethings indeed! Was it Raymond Queneau who used to scribble tiny poems on Parisian café table tops?

    I’ve wanted to read Robert Walser for ages, though I read Martin a long time ago at uni. This is a good prompt for me.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Solitary! How nice to see you here, and all the more because it made me realize my feedreader has failed me on announcing your posts. Fixed now, I do hope! Love the Queneau anecdote–I tried to look it up, but couldn’t find a reference. If you do get around to Walser, I’ll be very curious to see what you have to say.

  7. T.

    I hope to be able to buy Emily’s envelope poems in the near future. Thanks for sharing, Sue! I think you’ve mentioned Jeremy Dixon’s work to me before, or perhaps I saw it in ModPo. Either way his work is gorgeous.

    And Robert Walser! I’m a fan of his work. This is a treat. A quote from something I love:

    I had become an inward being, and walked as in an inward world; everything outside me became a dream; what I had understood till now became unintelligible. I fell away from the surface, down into the fabulous depths, which I recognized then to be all that was good. What we understand and love understands and loves us also. I was no longer myself, was another, and yet it was on this account that I became properly myself. In the sweet light of love I realized, or believed I realized, that perhaps the inward self is the only self which really exists.

    – Robert Walser, from The Walk


    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      T.: Jeremy’s books are wonderful, and great company for your cards on my bookshelf, now, too. I hope you are able to get hold of the ED book; I know you’d treasure it. And your Walser quote is beautiful, beautiful. Thank you so much for noting it.

  8. friko

    Although I am both very familiar with Dickinson and Walser the microscripts collected for an exhibition are a new insight for me. What a great idea. Gorgeous, but certainly not ‘Nothings’.

    Are you going to explore Walser? It won’t be an easy undertaking, but worthwhile definitely. Perhaps a poem or two to start with, to see if his work appeals.
    He was almost forgotten in the German speaking world for a while but has recently found favour again. For him to have made it over the pond is extraordinary, but I see from MK’s comment that he has admirers among the more discerning readers.

    As for Emily, she is one to have by ones bedside always.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: I am indeed exploring Walser a bit, and hope to get a novel or two of his when I get down to New York City this week. Berlin Stories seems to be a nice introduction, little jewels of description from his quite particular point of view. As I’ve noted to others, the texts in Microscripts are harder to get my mind around, so I’ll be looking for guidance from my elders and betters as to that. And oh, yes, that exhibit was a stunner top to bottom. A truly great idea, and I hope it will spawn others.

  9. shoreacres

    My first poem was composed on the backs of pieces of used sandpaper…

    And as for those envelopes, it was a custom in our house to open envelopes carefully and use the backs for grocery lists, tiny calendars, family notes and so forth. Eventually all those envelopes gave way to proper note pads, but after my mother’s death I came across an envelope on which she’d written, “Being disorganized is not a moral problem”. You can imagine how I treasure that – nicely framed now, and where I can see it from time to time.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: So, the question is, do you have any of your sandpaper poems? Clearly, they’re going to be valuable one day–if not already. Speaking of which, the quote from your mother is out of this world wonderful–to think she’d written it on an envelope, too! Absolutely frameworthy, and I hope we’ll see a photograph of the framed treasure on your blog one day soon.

      1. David N

        Yes, that and the Walser quotation from T. above are treasurable – what a fine band of commenters you’ve collected. But like attracts like.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: We have a good time, don’t we? As you do with your merry band, of which I’m so pleased to be a part, over your way. I’m just now reading The Walk, much to do with T.’s lovely prompt. It is indeed, along with shoreacre’s, a treasurable quote.

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