Estampe XVI: blemish

In waters off Chicago the 1901 race for the Canada’s Cup is on, and judges on board the yacht Pathfinder are recording the progress of its history. From a distance, a man with a black curtain over his head watches the racers as they move upside-down across ground glass in an apparatus belonging to the Detroit Photographic Company. Between it and the boatload of judicial sportsmen rides another craft, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Morrill, and off Morrill’s quarter can be seen one of the yachts competing for the cup, the American Cadillac of Detroit or the Canadian Invader.

On Morrill’s lower deck some sailors have grouped themselves into a pyramidal composition signifying youth and eagerness. Over the course of the century that is beginning around them, their pose will be restruck again and again, in posters and movies and wartime photoessays in a magazine that will comprehensively call itself Life. As of 1901, however, the sailors and their way of being in the body haven’t yet become a cliché. Just now they are only angled over the rail that way because they want to see the race. Immediately influenced only by the physical law that prevents two objects from occupying the same space at the same time, the array of sailors’ bodies immediately communicates nothing more than subjection to force. During the open-shuttered instant of that communication, the sailors’ entry in the historical record need be read only innocently.

Innocence also seems to govern the rest of the image. It’s an image of events unfolding by game plan in accordance with a kind of prehistory, but during a single instant in 1901 a shutter opened and closed on the sequence and demarcated it from time. The shutter was open for only a fraction of a second, and when it closed it separated the time now secured in the camera from time’s slow accretions of win and loss, closure of the record book and judgment, good and evil.

Here, then, during the innocent instant before the close, the judges on Pathfinder are executing historiography under a pair of delicately rigged awnings. Atop Morrill’s bridge ride more observers of the yacht speeding from right to left across the negative. These observers, three civilian men and an officer, are depicted in costumes and body language connoting a dignified connection with the boys below them. Filled full with its boys and men (and, by my count, one woman), Morrill displays itself to the light under some such name as “diorama” or “microscosm.” In the light, before the camera that has been waiting for it per plan, it models a life as regulated as the universe. Black smoke tumbles from its funnel and a white wake streams behind. Inside the white hull, men we can’t see are busily at the boat’s work. Outside, the Great Lakes’ waves are their customary tidy selves. On the shore of Lake Erie a month later, the President of the United States will die at the hands of an assassin and a team of surgeons, but here on the water of Lake Michigan this August day, everything that the camera is capable of recording appears shipshape.

However, this particular shipshape happens to be blemished. Click the image to enlarge it and you’ll see: at either end of the line marking the horizon, somebody in 1901 touched the image’s gelatin matrix and marked it with the print of a finger or (I’d guess, as I think of the surgeons probing President McKinley’s abdominal wound with ungloved fingers and then try to visualize how a man in 1901 would hold a wet 8-by-10 inch glass negative) a thumb. The cute little freshwater waves, the tumbling smoke, the pretty boats, the eager young men, everything that filled this fraction of a second of the Detroit Publishing Company’s place in the chronicle of 1901, were intended to fill a sheet of hard transparent permanent glass to overflowing with photography, from margin to margin, instantly. That instantaneous filling is the unique trait of being in time that Emily Dickinson realized on behalf of photography when she said, “Forever is composed of nows.” But here a pair of thumbs has come blundering into the forever, birthmarking the glass with two smudges left by the not photographic.

You see what a problem that is: the thumbs have become a permanent, physical part of a conceptual record where they don’t belong. The record was intended to immobilize time forever in a realized idea of light and shadow and silver halide crystals. Then, however, two thumbs supplemented it with the illiterate X-marks of life. More, and something terrible: those marks are now as clear and as permanent as anything on this plate that was recorded by the camera. Made hard and historical by the chemistry of fossilization, they require us to see them in the same way we see the boats and the waves. But they can only be seen. Unlike the images of the boats, they can’t be interpreted because they aren’t a part of any record. Off the record, the only power they possess is the power to remain silent in the face of question, communicating nothing. As Wallace Stevens observed of the guest of honor at a funeral,

If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.

The Chicago Tribune’s record of the Morrill event is less a photograph album than a sentimental movie in two scenes, segueing from a captain yelling on his bridge to a yachtsmen’s chorus singing “Hear, hear” back on land.

The ability to segue is what enables a movie or an epic poem to turn what is seen into narrative. Photographs and lyric poems don’t command this power to create sequence and story. Because they are unmoving amid the flow of time, they can do nothing with remembered events but illustrate and exemplify. But one August afternoon in 1901, a blemish moved itself so far into a photograph that the photograph took on the blemish’s property of warm, soiled life. Its glassy image has been tainted ever since by life’s grease spot of the mortal.

You could call that a spoiler alert. It gives away the surprise ending in which a photograph turns into a story.


“The revenue cutter Morrill and yacht Pathfinder.” Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

“Canadians Win Back Their Cup.” Chicago Tribune 15 August 1901: 4.

Emily Dickinson, “Forever is composed of nows,” Fr690.

Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”

“Bloom opon the mountain”: several notes, one not in words

1, the text: Emily Dickinson’s “Bloom opon the mountain stated,” poem 787 in the Franklin edition, is accessible online, in manuscript facsimile and in diplomatic transcript, at the Emily Dickinson Archive,

2, the textual history: thanks to R. W. Franklin’s chronological reordering of the manuscripts, we can now see that during the second half of 1863, when Dickinson wrote “Bloom opon the mountain,” she was thinking about the incommensurability between human language and the impassivity of the phenomenal world. From this period, three other poems that explore the theme are Fr768, “The mountains grow unnoticed”; Fr776, “Drama’s vitallest expression”; and that deep exploration of the void, Fr778, “Four trees opon a solitary acre.”

3, the glosses:

For stanza 1, the 1844 dictionary that Dickinson used (online at the Dickinson Archive) defines “stated” (line 1) as “Established; fixed; non-fluctuating; regularly occurring.” This may mean that the mountain and the sunset obey a natural law that has no concern for such merely human contingencies as emotion or (more generally) life itself. I suppose Dickinson could have been influenced in that idea by Tennyson’s In Memoriam, Clough’s Dipsychusor any number of other anguished midcentury texts.  At least one more of the poems from this 1863 group, Fr780, “The birds reported from the south,” may also allude (as Cristanne Miller says) to the vast silent grief that come flooding northward to Amherst from the battlefields of the Civil War. But Dickinson was already exploring the silent void beyond words two years earlier, in Fr259, “A clock stopped.”

In “Bloom opon the mountain,” then, I read the beginning of stanza 2, “Seed had I,” as a subjunctive: “If I had seed.” If the poet had words, she might think of bringing them to the mountain for the tilling/telling. But on the mountain, words cannot be uttered. As in “A clock stopped,” the phenomenal replies to any human proposition only with a monosyllable from which any possible meaning in human terms (Dickinson’s precise term is “concern”) has been drained. In the emptied interiority that remains, the word “concern” has been so completely freed from the strictures of what used to be meaning that it now plays a game with its own combining form. In the absence of anything else to do, concern bats syntax back and forth with “cool – concernless No,” and the score is never anything but zero.

Advised by “A clock stopped” to read concernlessly, I read stanza 3 of “Bloom opon the mountain” as beginning with an implicit “However.” She who brings her seed to the mountain in a poet’s effort to endow the day with a light of her own will only go to zero herself. For its part, the mountain, having effected the annihilation of the lightbearer’s seed, will continue passing, unhearing and unchangeable, on its route through time toward the stated moment when bloom goes dark everywhere.

Work cited: Cristanne Miller, Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. 160.


Professor Foucault asks an Indonesian computer, “What is an author?”

At in 2011, somebody named M. C. Hewins wrote of her college composition text, The Little Seagull Handbook:

“This was required for a writing class I took this quarter, but has proved useful in several other classes as well. The handbook is very well organized with no fluff or nonsense. Most college writing focuses on MLA style, which this book covers in excellent detail, but occasionally you will be asked to write in a different and unfamiliar style and at that time, this book will come to the rescue. I was able to write a history paper in Chicago style with the help of the Little Seagull.

“Additionally the book has an online website for reference and further details, with complete sample papers in all the styles, that you can explore in depth. I used the website resource on multiple occasions this last quarter and my papers benefited from the attention to detail on style.

“Finally, the greatest benefit of the Little Seagull Handbook is that it is in fact, little. It is small, compact and light as a feather, which is a godsend to all of us students who are already carrying around too much weight in our backpacks. Its light enough that I don’t mind bringing it around ‘just in case’ I need it, although I would prefer a kindle edition to reduce the weight even more. Highly recommended!”

Thereupon, this site

engaged itself in a process of what I suppose Foucault might have called plagiotraduction. In a similar spirit before the cyber era, Emily Dickinson produced several copies of an all-purpose social text in three major variant forms which begin, respectively, “Going to him! happy letter!,” “Going to her! happy letter!,” and “Going to them! happy letter!”

Such a beau geste privileges expressivity over mere words. It reduces language to an ancilla, humbly-dumbly serving the primary necessities of emotion and commerce. In tribute to the beau geste, then, let us affix a Zamenhof stamp,

kiss the page, and read from the blog:

This was appropriate for a autograph chic I took this quarter, but has accepted advantageous in several added classes as well. The handbook is actual able-bodied organized with no boner or nonsense. Most academy autograph focuses on MLA style, which this book covers in accomplished detail, but occasionally you will be asked to address in a altered and alien appearance and at that time, this book will appear to the rescue. I was able to address a history cardboard in Chicago appearance with the advice of the Little Seagull.

Additionally the book has an online website for advertence and added details, with complete sample affidavit in all the styles, that you can analyze in depth. I acclimated the website ability on assorted occasions this endure division and my affidavit benefited from the absorption to detail on style.

Finally, the greatest account of the Little Seagull Handbook is that it is in fact, little. It is small, bunched and ablaze as a feather, which is a advantage to all of us acceptance who are already accustomed about too abundant weight in our backpacks. Its ablaze abundant that I don’t apperception bringing it about ‘just in case’ I charge it, although I would adopt a blaze copy to abate the weight even more. Highly recommended!

“Gorgeous Nothings”: the colors of crumbling

Dilapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays –

— Fr1010, “Crumbling is not an instant’s act”

For the visual study of poetry in English,  the most important manuscript publication of the last half-century must certainly be Valerie Eliot’s 1971 facsimile of the manuscripts of The Waste Land, with their annotations by Vivien Eliot and Ezra Pound. By clearing and opening the trace of Eliot’s inspiration, Mrs. Eliot institutionalized a permanent corpus of theses about the modernist canon. In that canon, the proper interpretive questions now come to us as mere obvious corollaries, not followed but preceded by their crushingly definitive textual answers. Question: what did Eliot mean when he called Ezra Pound il miglior fabbro? Answer: you’ve already passed through the life-originating darkness of Pound’s thick pencil strokes. Question: what did Eliot mean when he wrote, “Only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things”? Answer: you’ve already overheard, as from behind a hastily closed door,  the muffled quaverings of Vivien Eliot’s marginalia to “A Game of Chess.”

Because those answers come to us fully saturated with immer schon, they don’t need the confirmation of beautiful detail. The facsimile publication comes to us as a set of low-resolution black-and-white photographs facing pages of diplomatic transcript in conventional letterpress, and for reading The Waste Land in a room furnished with a black- or whiteboard, the letterpress is to be preferred. Running in parallel but a  few steps off the trail to institutional certainty, the facsimile pages represent a distraction, even a threat. We would rather consult them only as it may be necessary to verify Mrs. Eliot’s editorial accuracy. Canonical fences, the confinements of diplomatic transcript render the poem of the twentieth century safe for readers to look at.

But the wing-shaped, brilliantly colored creatures of Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings slip through the bars. These tiny manuscripts, each written on a scrap of an envelope, pre-fragmented yet complete, represent a lexicon arising out of antonyms to The Waste Land. They are not fragments shored against ruins; they are assemblages and rebuildings. In her introductory essay to the volume, “Studies in Scale,” Jen Bervin quotes the principle from a book that Dickinson’s mother owned, Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal Housewife: “The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing is lost” (9). As Mrs. Dickinson and her daughter would have understood, Mrs. Child was alluding to the nourishing miracle of the loaves and the fishes: John 6.12, “When they were filled, he said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.” She added, “Preserve the backs of old letters to write upon.”

But The Gorgeous Nothings comes to us pleading the inadequacy of preservation. Of the two envelope manuscripts on the cover, one may be a display of prosodic purpose across the centuries: a found name in bold black ink, Mi∫s Emily Dickinson, past which flutter two tiny orthogonal lines in delicate pencil

to light, and
then              return

with the last two letters of “Dickinson” thrusting upward to force a pause after “then.” The other communication is visually bolder still: the entire inner front of an envelope covered with the pencil trace, and a brown chevron at the left margin. But of course this second boldness shows no trace of human agency. It’s only the mark left by the passage of entropy through the system marked down by the poet on her bit of paper — specifically, the oxidation of the glue on the envelope flap. Having failed of the touch of a tongue,  the glue now darkens its way through a poet’s web of words.

The Gorgeous Nothings, then, arrives in read life to mark a brief pause in the poetics of browning and crumbling. Its date of publication was a memento mori of impending escape from the uniqueness of a manuscript touched by a poet’s hand to the impersonal memorandum of letterpress. As long as I can remember a poem and say it back without a piece of paper in my hand, I won’t regret the loss of the part of it that I once might have seen. But during this moment I am grateful, while I can be, for the visual testament of The Gorgeous Nothings.


T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts, Including the Annotations of Ezra PoundEd. Valerie Eliot. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

Marta Werner and Jen Bervin, Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings. New York: New Directions, 2013.

The Eliot quotation is from “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

Photographs by Jonathan Morse, October 26, 2013.


Mistah Tennyson — he dead

Ten years ago, Wikipedia’s article about Emily Dickinson read like a high school project full of beginner’s mistakes. That’s the Wikipedia problem in general, I would tell my students during the last days of the floppy disc. Sure, Wikipedia is handy. Sure, I use it myself. But you can’t trust it.

But Wikipedia’s crowdsourcing algorithm has kept on doing its relentless eugenic good. Now, in the tablet era, Wikipedia’s article about Dickinson has become as useful an introduction as you’d find in a reputable print encyclopedia. The entire process of reference is evolving through a sequence of change as earnestly, unidrectionally Victorian as the project of “Locksley Hall”:

Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new;
That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do.

But about those men . . .

Early in 2013, the writer Amanda Filipacchi discovered that her Wikipedia entry had been moved from the category “American novelists” to a brand new category, “American women novelists.” The change seemed to have been the unexamined idea of a single Wikipedia editor (male), and after Filipacchi complained in print she was joined in protest by a number of other writers, female and male. Immediately after that, her Wikipedia article was re-edited in an apparent attempt to trash her into oblivion.

The news brought me back to this memory.

A few years ago I was surprised and gratified to find an article of mine cited in Wikipedia’s article about Ezra Pound. The next time I looked, however, my article was gone. Some time later it was put back, and then it disappeared again. Puzzled, I went searching through the pages reserved for Wikipedia’s editorial use, and that’s when I discovered what men they were who had taken charge of my online reputation.

Well, not exactly men, or at least not men yet. One of the Pound boys had given himself the modest nom de guerre of “Truthtalker” and another, no doubt in the spirit of the Master himself, wrote for the Wikisource as Malleus Fatuorum, “the hammer of fools.” A third boy wanted to call the others’ attention to something interesting from his own experience. He had met several people named Ezra, this boy said, and every one of them without exception was Jewish. So could it be, asked the boy, that Ezra Pound was a Jew?

Well, you know along what river of knowledge these young belated Victorians steam. No, it isn’t the Congo. This is still one of the dark places on the earth, and Mistah Kurtz — he dead. The River Wikipedia is a comment stream, and on its banks its bands of savages still shriek and gesticulate. The only difference is that the old savages lived in grass huts and the new savages live in their mothers’ basements.