Cylindric equilibrium


Past the French Art Shop they come, coats swinging, with a jaunty ID provided by the Bain News Service: anarchists on the march, in March. If anarchists could have a captain, their captain might be the man on roller skates. Dressed like a boy in cap and Norfolk jacket and knickers, he swings his arms and pouts. All with him is precarity, stopping just short of hilarity. Click his image to enlarge it.


In 1926, a work of French art, Marcel Duchamp’s Anémic Cinéma, rolled up to offer first aid and counsel. Between spinning spirals, M. Duchamp’s words advise the marching anarchists to take, as necessary, “Bains de gros thé pour grains de beauté sans trop de Bengué.”

All with the spirals is lucid geometry. All with the words is lucid balance. Dragées Bengué were sold at the time as a cough drop. Their active ingredients were menthol and cocaine.


One way to see Labor Day 1915 was as an affair of cylinders. Upright in the exact center of his image, the shaved and neatly suited man raising funds is holding a metal pail which is dented but still round, round. His mustache is a perfect horizontal, and above it the placard on his hat makes it into another cylinder. Mustached and cylindered, the man looks now like the always endangered, always genially victorious capitalist who rides his train from rectangle to rectangle along the route of the Monopoly board. On the man’s right, a narrow, perfectly horizontal beam of light sets up a reflection within the camera’s lens. On his left, in perfect balance, the beam of light bounces back from a window in specular reflection. On each of the man’s two cylinders, a sentence in English reads, “Help the furrier strikers.” Just below that, a sentence in macaronic American Yiddish reads, “Hilft die furrier strikers.”

The English reads from left to right. The Yiddish reads from right to left. On their cylinders the words counter-rotate in equilibrium. Wallace Stevens, who once walked into a restaurant, walked out again, and explained to his chauffeur, “Too many Jews come in here,” might have made an exception for this one.


The two photographs are in the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, at

The Stevens anecdote is in Peter Brazeau, Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered: An Oral Biography (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), 248-49.

A friend wonders whether the caption “Labor parade” may refer to Labor Day or, on the other hand, May Day. I don’t know, but the photograph is identified as from Labor Day at . Speaking of ambiguous attribution, I wonder now whether the man dressed as a roller-skating boy in the first photograph may in fact be a boy — a boy who looks as tall as the marching men behind him because he is closer to the camera than the image makes him appear.

White – unto the White Creator –

The Time magazine images at

show the current Republican candidates for President and Vice President campaigning and fund-raising in New England and Long Island. One hundred percent of the people in every photograph are white.

But in one of the photographs (by Lauren Fleishman) the personnel have become invisible. Their traces exist only outside the image frame. A moment prior to the image’s time, something human, perhaps even something unwhite, created its composition and then removed itself. Alone before the composition now, we see a still life of an airplane’s tray table in repose. Resting upon it are a plastic plate in green and yellow imitation wicker, a white napkin on which rests a single chocolate chip cookie, and a transparent plastic cup of milk. As the beloved hymn of the party of the War on Christmas says,

All is calm, all is bright.

Like a tag on a toe in a morgue, a caption informs us that the cookie is still warm. When old age shall this generation waste, it will remain.

Malevich, just think how much greater an artist you might have been if you had only owned a dacha in East Hampton!

Sources: Emily Dickinson, “Publication is the auction” (Fr788) and Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White. Click to enlarge.

Area (adv.)

The paper on which George worked had one policy. It strove to mention by name in each issue, as many as possible of the inhabitants of the village. Like an excited dog, George Willard ran here and there, noting on his pad of paper who had gone on business to the county seat or had returned from a visit to a neighboring village. All day he wrote little facts upon the pad. “A. P. Wringlet has received a shipment of straw hats. Ed Byerbaum and Tom Marshall were in Cleveland Friday. Uncle Tom Sinnings is building a new barn on his place on the Valley Road.”

Sherwood Anderson, “The Thinker,” in Winesburg, Ohio (1919)

In small American newspapers during the twentieth century, little facts like George’s would be changed into narratives by complementation with headlines. Typically, a headline will create a sense of narrative by implying an answer to at least one of journalism’s standard queries.

Area Man Has Interesting Hobby

Who? You know: man. Where? You know: area. In rewrite, the abstracted record of an event has become the promise of a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Furthermore, the story will name the man, and while it’s at it it will name his hobby too.

But “area” is a word that never needed a name. “Area” has already and forever included all of us – not just the man with the hobby but everyone who can read a newspaper’s mastheaded name (The Winesburg Eagle), because everyone under the shelter of (for instance) this eagle’s wings has been given to believe he has always known where he is, and who and how and why. “Area,” the noun, is a word that first enters our vocabulary through the inner ear, where the sense of balance makes us know ourselves to be at home upon firm earth. But after this particular noun has pervaded all of the ear and set to work modifying the sounds there, it begins to function as an adverb. Its grammar communicates a mode which once changed a man, for the brief instant it took to read his name, to this man. This man became one of the the marks left on George Willard’s scrap of newsprint (boldly, ephemerally – take your pick of any adverb ending in –ly) to implore the passing tribute of a sigh.

That wasn’t enough to hold a reader’s interest, of course. At the end of his book, George himself boarded a train and rode out of the Eagle’s range, his head filling with an idea of vanishing people doing vanishing things: “Butch Wheeler the lamp lighter of Winesburg hurrying through the streets on a summer evening and holding a torch in his hand, Helen White standing by a window in the Winesburg post office and putting a stamp on an envelope.”  By now, George’s scraps of newsprint have vanished too. A different kind of newspaper, The Onion, now transmits packets of information about events lacking who or why, and in those stories “area” is a word that can be understood only as an objet d’art.

Area Panty Lined,25102/

With narrative and its illusions gone, nothing remains but a decontextualized, defamiliarized word: panty, odd retroconversion of an adjective to a noun. But that gives the grammar its own narrative happy ending, doesn’t it? After all, the silence surrounding panty is as much fun to hear as any word The Winesburg Eagle could ever print. In Winesburg, Ohio, says newsprint history, there once was a prose factory that manufactured garrulous sincerity out of short declarative sentences. But at the same instant, just two states to the east, there lived a doctor who noticed one rainy morning that a red wheelbarrow had begun automatically and inexhaustibly and wonderfully to fill itself with readable silence.

Emily Dickinson composes herself

“When you had gone the love came. I supposed it would,” wrote Emily Dickinson to her friend Elizabeth Holland. And then she thought about sitting down to table with her love and added, “The supper of the heart is when the guest has gone” (letter 318).

Dickinson often thought of love that way, as a communion with the sole self. Sometimes, in fact, the communicant even excluded those whom it was ostensibly inviting sub tectum. After Dickinson’s cousin Eudocia Flynt returned home from a visit with the Dickinsons, for instance, she was followed by a letter which began, “You and I, did’nt finish talking. Have you room for the sequel, in your Vase?” Then the chalice approached Eudocia, brusque and unbidden. Its ministrant said:

All the letters I could
Were not fair as this –
Syllables of velvet –
Sentences of Plush –
Depths of Ruby, undrained –
Hid, Lip, for Thee,
Play it were a
Humming Bird
And sipped just
Me –

(Letter 270, with poem Fr380A lineated by Alfred Habegger as in the manuscript)

All Cousin Eudocia could do in response was to try to compose herself. To herself she wrote a diary entry made up of 60 percent words, 40 percent doodled exclamation points: “Had a letter from Emily Dickinson!!!!” (Habegger 460). The stunned memo lies as inert on its page as a blasted flower, and there’s no record of any words spoken back to Emily.

And as to the bouquets Cousin Emily was capable of dispatching to someone who was close:

In January and February 1859, Susan Dickinson’s school friend Catharine Scott Turner paid an extended visit to Amherst, staying with Sue and Austin at The Evergreens. More than fifty years later, Kate would recall “Those celestial evenings in the Library – the blazing wood fire – Emily – Austin,– the music – the rampant fun – the inextinguishable laughter, the uproarious spirits of our chosen – our most congenial circle” (Habegger 373). In due time, of course, the laughing came to an end and Kate went away, and that, of course, was when the love came. “Dare you dwell in the East where we dwell?” demanded Emily in the letter that followed Kate. “Are you afraid of the Sun?–”

And then: “When you hear the new violet sucking her way among the sods, shall you be resolute?” (letter 203).

In 1951, Rebecca Patterson’s hints at a lesbian reading of sentences like that one caused scandal. As of 1951 the Johnson editions of Dickinson’s poems and letters were yet to come, feeling was under Cold War censorship, and the Dickinson of the bookstores’ poetry nooks was still the sweet little girl dressed up in white by her enterprising niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Sixty years on, we’re more open to the possibility that if Emily said she loved Kate, she may have meant she loved Kate. On the other hand, the past sixty years have also taught us that Emily Dickinson was a writer of literature, and some of the literature she wrote was fiction. Poems like “All the letters I could write” and “I tend my flowers for thee” (Fr367) have erotic undergrowths just as lush as the sods in the letter to Kate, but they don’t seem to arise from any desire experienced by what Dickinson called the biographied. If they are love poems, “All the letters I could write” and “I tend my flowers for thee” tell of love conceived not as something communicated but as communication’s metaphoric aftermath. The poems communicate love, but they aren’t love. They’re love letters.

Which brings us to this double daguerreotype portrait.

Click to enlarge.

This low-resolution reproduction appears in a 2012 article, “Is There a New Dickinson Daguerreotype?” on the web page of the Emily Dickinson Museum. The original may have been made in the area of Springfield, Massachusetts, it may date from about 1859, and the woman on the right has been positively identified as Kate Turner. The question that the article asks is: is the woman on the left Emily Dickinson?

Historians and anthropometrists are now working on an answer. While we’re waiting for their data, however, let’s study the picture in our own way: as if we were linguists reading a corpus written in body language. If we do that, we’ll see that the two body texts in this image are quite different. Kate, for a start, presents herself before us as fully composed. Her shoulders are relaxed, as are her hands. She is balanced in bilateral symmetry, with a vertical line clearly visualizable from the part in her hair through her nose, the narrow V of her white collar, and the wide view of her crossed hands. We can’t see her chair because her clothes drape evenly over both sides.

But the woman on the left is sitting entropically. With her spine twisted, she barely perches on the edge of her chair. From there she edges away from Kate, but at the same time her right arm (like most daguerreotypes, this one is a mirror image) reaches itself out behind Kate’s back as awkwardly as a teenager’s on a first date. Meanwhile, the left arm is stiffly and unnaturally hinged: elbow close to the body, forearm held away. It lies like an iron bar across the woman’s lap, and the hand’s fingers are rigidly extended and rigidly held together. This body language is of the bone, not the flesh. It is not even organized into a skeleton. No composition regulates it. Its words are not yet in order.

Now compare another composition — this one made up equally of body language and of words from beyond the body. Because the body in this daguerreotype is dressed in the style of the daguerreotype era, its wordy accessory proclaims, “I am daring.” The proclamation isn’t a mere fashion statement, either. Yes, it was daring for a woman dressed in the style of that history to strike her pose with a volume of Whitman. That pose could have carried real consequences. It was especially daring for a woman to pose with this particular volume, the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, because the 1856 edition was the first to include the body poem now called “A Woman Waits for Me.” In 1856, Ed Folsom reminds us, that poem had a different title: “Poem of Procreation” (33).

This is the image downloaded from the Daguerreian Society link in Ed Folsom’s article. However, a better image is the zoomable high-resolution one at
The Daguerreian Society’s site,

The woman’s compositional tactic for making Whitman’s dangerous words feel welcomed and loved is simple: she sits the words down on her chaste and motherly lap. There they compose themselves and, from behind the shelter of the woman’s hands, look us readers calmly in the face. The full significance of the composition’s paraphrasable content is as lost to history and us as the woman’s name (is she saying, “I love Walt?” is she saying, “I love Fanny Fern?” is she saying, “All right, I took your dare?”), but the act of composition certainly is meant to achieve something. Because the picture of the woman exhibits forethought (an answer to the question, “What should I do with my hands?”), it has a consciously assumed form. Posed together within their form, the woman and her book are a work of art – specifically, a work of art illustrating in some way the sense of a work of literature, one that has taken in some words from a dictionary (“leaves,” then “of,” then “grass”) and comprehended them in a new formal body whose parts include satin and lace and sheaves of hair and a book held lovably upside down. We readers like that new body. It makes us feel well disposed — toward it and toward Walt, the child who went forth. In body language, that feeling is a work of art.

But there is no art in the way the other woman’s body is piled up in its half of the other daguerreotype plate, and we aren’t entitled to suppose that a poem must ensue after the daguerreotypist’s chemistry has done its work on rigid arm and stiff fingers, fleshy lips and large half-averted eyes. Perhaps, after all, what we see on this silver surface is only a clumsy accumulation of some words belonging to the language of body. But perhaps, too, Dickinson’s letters 270 and 318 offer us a way to read this picture as a conspectus of a body poem. Perhaps this stiff clumsy thing before the lens was an Emily Dickinson after all – an Emily whose body language is saying to itself:

“When Kate goes away and my body is able to resume its solitary hunger, I will be able to open my mouth again and take in. Then the supper of the heart will lay itself on the table and its poem of invitation will arrive.”

Works cited

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

—. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R. W. Franklin. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Folsom, Ed. “The Sesquicentennial of the 1856 Leaves of Grass: A Daguerreotype of a Woman Reader.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 24.1 (2006): 33-34.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Modern Library, 2002.

“Is There a New Dickinson Daguerreotype?” Accessed 10 August 2012.

Patterson, Rebecca. The Riddle of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951.

A morse of resin

Notice: this Jonathan Morse is not the one who wrote at on June 22, 1911:

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