Pointless Arrows

Following on from yesterday’s blogpost on the illustrated table to Frarin’s Oration, I wanted to mention briefly another visual index, this time from a contemporary book. The book is The Gorgeous Nothings, Marta Werner and Jen Bervin’s edition of Emily Dickinson’s ‘envelope poems’.


The envelope poems are a trove of scraps – envelopes and parts of envelopes – on which Dickinson composed fragmentary poetry. Werner and Bervin’s edition reproduces the envelopes themselves, and alongside them includes transcriptions of the text.

It’s an absolutely beautiful edition, but what I love most about it is Bervin’s ‘Visual Index’. Rather than indexing the poems by their textual content, Bervin arranges the material by various other means:

  • Index of Envelopes by Page Shape
  • Index of Envelopes by Addressee
  • Index of Envelopes with Columns
  • Index of Envelopes with Pencilled Divisions
  • Index of Envelopes with Multidirectional Text
  • Index of Envelopes Turned Diagonally
  • Index of Envelopes with Cancelled or Erased Text
  • Index of Envelopes with Variants


Many envelopes appear in several different indexes, but as you can see from the titles, each index explicitly concerns itself with the envelopes rather than the poems: their shape, their orientation, who they’re addressed to, etc. Like the Auden & Garrett anthology, this is the index-as-argument again: an index designed to tell us how we should think about the book. It instructs us that the envelope poems are material texts rather than poems-in-the-abstract. So if you’re looking for that poem about Hair or Mushrooms then you’re on your own – good luck with that. But if you’re looking for the poem written diagonally on an arrow-shaped envelope, then that’ll be A364 (‘Summer laid her simple Hat’).


Personally, I’m not a very visual thinker – I don’t think this index will ever be a useful finding aid for me, and I’m not sure it would be for anyone (‘Pointless Arrows’ – one of Bervin’s categories of envelope shape – would be a good name for the locators here). But that’s rather missing the point. With the ‘Visual Index’, Bervin has come up with a wonderful, impish way to make a serious argument about what Dickinson’s envelope poems are, about their materiality, and their resistance to being reduced to mere text.


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