Janet Holmes: The ms of m y kin
Published February 2009
Paperback, 180pp, 9x6ins, £10.95 / $19
If you write out "The Poems of Emily Dickinson" and erase some of the letters very neatly and precisely, you can get to The ms of m y kin—the manuscript of my kin, as it were; the manuscript of my family. It might also be said to be the manuscript of my kind.
The practice of erasure was most famously accomplished (and perhaps invented) by the British artist Tom Phillips in his book A Humument (an erasure of a Victorian novel titled A Human Document) and later, by the American poet Ronald Johnson, who erased Milton's Paradise Lost into a book called Radi os. In Phillips's books—he did more than one version of A Humument—the artist created paintings over each page of the novel, reserving only certain words that told a different story than did the original work. (A new character, called "Toge," emerged from the word "together," for example.) Johnson, a poet, simply removed the words he did not wish to use as if whiting them out—the remaining words stood in the same relationship to each other as they did in the original poem.
Following tradition, that's the method I used. The idea is that my poems would look identical to what you'd see in the Franklin Reading Edition of Dickinson if I were to go through it with white-out and preserve only the words you now see on the page. And in fact, in my typescripts of the poem, I actually type in the poem and then "color" the erased words white. They're there, but they don't show up when printed. That my resulting Dickinson-derived poems resemble in appearance Charles Olson's open-field poems of the mid-twentieth century is a delicious coincidence: two New Englanders meeting fortuitously in a most unlikely place.
I use Dickinson's poems of 1861 and 1862 as my source texts. My rules
for the erasure were this:
• I must use at least one word from every poem.
• The words must be used in order.
• The placement of words on the page must reflect the omitted words.
• I would let various speakers emerge as the language dictated.
The technique of erasure might be regarded as an Oulipian restriction. The
poet is limited to the vocabulary of the chosen text, to the order of the
words and their placement on the page. From my perspective, and why I refer
to it as "collaboration," erasure allows a second set of poems
to emerge from within the originals. It allows Dickinson's original word "Transport" (for
example) to be read as designating a literal military vehicle while still
retaining her original meaning, luminescent and now tinged with irony, underneath.
I couldn't have engaged in this process without a deep reverence for the work of Emily Dickinson. My intention was to share both her language and her tone in poems that reflect a substantially different war than the one that raged during her lifetime. In my ideal imaginary, a reader would feel compelled to go back to the original poems, and would experience some resonance between the originals and the erasures. I hope the layout of the poems, with Dickinson's originals floating, ghostly, behind them, encourages such reading. —Janet Holmes
"If Ronald Johnson had an epic (Paradise Lost) to erase in creating his masterwork, RADI OS, then Janet Holmes has chosen a more difficult task, namely that of erasing from the most compressed poetry there is. Emily Dickinson's poems come to us so nearly pre-erased that their further erasure by Holmes dramatically frees instances of prophecy, voices from 1861–62 rediscovered in contemporary political discourse. It seems that the best of the embeds in Iraq was Emily Dickinson; read her reports from the (af)front here." —Susan M. Schultz
"In the tradition of Tom Phillips' A Humument and Ronald Johnson's RADI OS, Janet Holmes mines or excises Emily Dickinson's Civil War period poems to engender a vision of the current wars in the Middle East that is both a ticker-tape of the spirit and a Spoon River Anthology of the soul; that war is war and its words already written." —Tom Raworth
Read Ron Silliman's comments on this volume here.
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