- The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson
New Directions, 255 pp, £26.50, October 2013, ISBN 978 0 8112 2175 7
- The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping by Francis Nenik, translated by Katy Derbyshire
Readux, 64 pp, £3.00, October 2013, ISBN 978 3 944801 00 1
Until quite recently, paper played a crucial role in the composition, and transmission to posterity, of most poems in English: they were written down on paper, or antecedents such as parchment or vellum, or typed on it, and then printed in pamphlets, newspapers, magazines or books. Computers and digitisation have changed all that: the poemhunter.com version of ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ that floats on our screens may reproduce exactly the same words as printed editions of Keats, but while reading it we are no longer engaging with a material object that is linked to a series of earlier material versions of the poem, all deriving from the impress of pencil, pen or type on paper.
Digitisation has, however, inspired all manner of new approaches to materiality, which over the last two decades has developed into a boom subject in academic criticism; at the click of a mouse one can access the various different holograph versions of, say, Emily Dickinson’s ‘Safe in their alabaster chambers’, one of the ten poems – she wrote nearly 1800 – which found its way into print in her lifetime. Dickinson’s fragile manuscripts, which are divided between the Houghton Library at Harvard and the Archives and Special Collections of Amherst College, can be consulted and handled only by a select band of Dickinson editors and scholars. The Dickinson Electronic Archives website allows a simulation of these elect scholars’ and editors’ experience, and encourages us to think of print editions of Dickinson’s work – like Thomas H. Johnson’s 1955 edition or R.W. Franklin’s 1998 one – as fundamentally flawed. In the early 1990s Jerome McGann argued that any print version of a Dickinson poem, however copious its list of variants, ‘alters the original scriptural version in drastic ways’. McGann insisted that we ought to treat all Dickinson’s ‘scriptural forms as potentially significant’:
Some of her scripts are highly ornamental, some are not, and we must attend to these variant features of the texts. In the same way we have to read closely the lineation patterns, and the spacing of the scripts at every level, as well as the choice of papers and other writing materials. In a poetry that has imagined and executed itself as a scriptural rather than a typographical event, all these matters fall under the work’s initial horizon of finality.
‘Finality’, of course, is just what a scrupulous and attentive reader of Dickinson must at all costs avoid: it is only through the provisionality of all the manuscript variants and ‘scriptural forms’ that justice can be done to Dickinson’s concept of poetry as ‘possibility’, which, as all her readers know, is ‘A fairer House than Prose –/More numerous of Windows –/Superior – for Doors –’
The insistence that the only valid insights into the authentically Dickinsonian are available from the manuscripts has been made possible by state of the art technology, but it has deeply atavistic motivations. Consider the way Marta Werner, a pioneer of the pro-manuscript movement and one of the editors of this sumptuous volume of Dickinson’s ‘envelope-writings’, describes her handling of A 821, a 25-word fragment (if one excludes a stray ‘of’ and a stray ‘I’) pencilled on the inside of a cast-off envelope, with a separate piece of envelope flap pinned to it. It was first published in Johnson’s edition of the letters in 1958, and runs: ‘Clogged | only with | Music, like | the Wheels of | Birds [on left-hand flap] Afternoon and | the West and | the gorgeous | nothings | which | compose | the | sunset | keep [on right-hand flap] their high | Appoint | ment [on added triangle of envelope – with ‘of’ and ‘I’ in margin].’ ‘I found it by accident,’ Werner writes, ‘in the Amherst College Library, when it fell (rose?) out of an acid-free envelope. If I had not held it lightly in my hands, I would never have suspected the manner in which it was assembled … Look at it here, flying on the page, vying with light.’ Behold, Werner’s sacramental tone urges, a saint’s relic, a fragment blessed with mystic powers, miraculously rising from the sacred site of the archive.
The complex nature of this archive was well captured in 1945 by Millicent Todd Bingham in her introduction to Bolts of Melody, a selection of more than six hundred poems culled from the vast trove of papers then in her possession. The papers were given to Bingham’s mother, Mabel Loomis Todd, by Dickinson’s sister Lavinia. (This is the collection now housed in Amherst.) Dickinson, Bingham explains, wrote on
backs of brown-paper bags or of discarded bills, programmes, and invitations; on tiny scraps of stationery pinned together; on leaves torn from old notebooks (one such sheet dated ‘1824’); on soiled and mildewed subscription blanks, or on department or drug-store bargain flyers from Amherst and surrounding towns. There are pink scraps, blue and yellow scraps, one of them a wrapper of Chocolat Meunier; poems on the reverse of recipes in her own writing, on household shopping lists, on the cut-off margins of newspapers, and on the inside of their brown-paper wrapping.
What’s more, most of the poems on these ‘scraps’, as they became known for a while in Dickinson studies, ‘were smothered with alternative words and phrases crowded into every available space – around the edges, upside down, wedged between the lines’. In editing Dickinson, Bingham chose, as her mother had, to ignore all variants, to regularise spellings and punctuation, and to impose titles.
Because Dickinson never prepared her own work for publication, it has been uniquely vulnerable to intervention, and issued in forms determined by the publishing, cultural and academic orthodoxies of the day. Johnson’s 1955 edition is now routinely taken to embody the ideals and blindnesses of the New Criticism, while an editorial commitment to the variant-strewn manuscripts – a kind of ‘choosing not choosing’ (to borrow the title of an influential book on Dickinson’s manuscripts by Sharon Cameron) – brings Dickinson’s work into line with the currently preferred postmodernist template of provisionality and deferred meaning. As Lena Christensen points out in her excellent Editing Emily Dickinson (2008), to edit Dickinson is to offer a critical reading that is inevitably shaped by the preoccupations of the time; no doubt Susan Howe’s declaration in The Birth-mark (1993) that Dickinson’s ‘manuscripts should be understood as visual productions’ will at some point in the future seem as wholly of its time as Todd and Bingham’s blithe imposition of titles and removal of dashes.
The Gorgeous Nothings is evidence of the wind still bellying the sails of the manuscript movement. It presents photographic reproductions, both front and back, of 52 (one for each week of the year?) of Dickinson’s ‘envelope-writings’, a term somewhat more dignified and purposeful than Bingham’s ‘scraps’. This focus on poems, or drafts of poems, composed on envelopes fulfils McGann’s injunction to pay attention to Dickinson’s choice of paper; all these writings are in pencil, a pencil, Jen Bervin surmises in her introduction, that Dickinson may well have kept in the pocket of her famous white dress. Dickinson’s ‘one surviving dress has a large external pocket on the right side, where her hand would fall easily at rest’. The ‘economy’, Bervin continues, ‘of the pocket is worth considering. An envelope is a pocket. An envelope refolds discreetly, privately, even after it has been sliced completely open.’ Below her introduction there is a life-size image of the two-inch stub of pencil that Dickinson sent to Samuel Bowles, the editor of the Springfield Republican (in which ‘Safe in their alabaster chambers’ was published anonymously under the title ‘The Sleeping’). Behold again the trinity of relics being staged for our contemplation: the pocket-envelope of Dickinson’s dress, in which her hand would rest; the discarded envelope, prepared carefully for the moment of inscription, or indeed transfiguration, now archived and haloed in glory; and the sacred stub of pencil, kept in the fabric pocket-envelope, ready for the moment when inspiration strikes and the no longer resting hand makes its all-transforming marks on the paper pocket-envelope that the poet is thriftily recycling.
Reading an author’s manuscripts inevitably prompts thoughts of the original scene of writing: in Dickinson’s case of the imposing Homestead in Amherst, of her bedroom there, of her diminutive writing desk (18 inches square), of her stitching together the booklets of poems that Todd christened fascicles, of her talking to visitors through doors, or appearing unexpectedly, like a wraith, holding a white flower … In other words, we enter the gothic world of Dickinson legend that has proved so enduring and alluring. And while treating a Dickinson holograph as an artwork can certainly make for sophisticated analysis of the ‘scriptural forms’ that print can never reproduce, it can also license a degree of hagiography, and lead to some very purple critical prose. Susan Howe, doyenne of the manuscript movement, figures Dickinson in the preface to this book as a quasi-Christ figure, on the threshold of transcending the limits of mortal words but refusing to reveal that she has achieved the impossible, an enigma forever eluding our grasp, one who communicates by hitherto unknown means:
Is there an unwritable unknown poem that exceeds anything the technique of writing can do? We will never know. Maybe this is her triumph. She has taken her secret to the grave and will not give up the ghost.
To arrive as if by telepathic electricity and connect without connectives.
Clearly, engagement with the manuscripts can make Dickinson devotees as light-headed as the speaker of ‘I taste a liquor never brewed’, who is described as an ‘Inebriate of air’ and ‘Debauchee of Dew’, as they leave behind the materiality they are so concerned with and head towards the mystical or transcendental.
All but one of the 52 poem-envelopes reproduced in this exceptionally handsome volume come from the Amherst College Library. The division of Dickinson’s papers between Amherst and Harvard was the final act in a long and complex war fought over two generations: on one side was Mabel Loomis Todd, succeeded on her death by her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham; on the other was Dickinson’s brother’s wife, Sue Dickinson, née Gilbert, who passed on the feud to her only surviving child, Martha Dickinson Bianchi. For the combatants far more than the matter of how Dickinson should be punctuated was at stake, since the irrepressible Mabel Loomis Todd might be said to have taken illegal possession not only of a large portion of Dickinson’s papers but of Dickinson’s brother Austin, with whom she embarked on a 13-year affair in 1883, more or less under the nose of his wife. Austin and Sue lived in the Evergreens, next door to Emily and her sister Lavinia in the Homestead; the dining room of the Homestead became one of Austin and Mabel’s favourite locations for their adulterous liaisons, although, according to Lyndall Gordon, who tells the whole story in lurid, gripping detail in Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (2010), they proved adept at finding a range of love nests in Amherst, and even, or so their diaries suggest, took to experimenting with group sex.[*] As soon as Emily was no longer alive to prevent it, Austin made over to the Todds a plot of land on which they built a thirteen-room house called the Dell, where Austin, Mabel and her husband, David, established what seems to have been a largely harmonious ménage à trois.
Mabel, much to her chagrin, never managed to meet the elusive poet face to face, although she claimed Dickinson enjoyed hearing her play the piano, and received from her a number of gnomic, but indubitably barbed, notes. Still, when Lavinia found herself uncertain as to what she should do with the vast mass of papers and stitched-together booklets of poems that she’d found on her sister’s death, she turned to Mabel for help: she was brisk, efficient, indeed brazen, and had some experience of the world of publishing. Mabel at once set about creating printer’s copies of the poems that Lavinia brought over by the basketful to the Dell; she enlisted as co-editor the influential man of letters T.W. Higginson, whose opinion of her work Dickinson had sought back in 1862, but to whom she had insisted the idea of publishing was as ‘foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin’. Together they selected 116 poems and for the cover Mabel chose to reproduce her own painting of Indian Pipes (a white fungal plant of ‘stillness, shadows and secrecy’ that she claimed was one of the poet’s favourite flowers). Dickinson’s Poems was launched on the world in November 1890. Much to the surprise of its publishers, the Boston firm of Roberts Brothers, it sold spectacularly well, with 11 reprintings over the next two years.
Would Dickinson’s work have entered the public domain had the Todds not arrived in Amherst in late August 1881, and been received at the Evergreens a month or so later by Amherst’s leading hostess, Sue Dickinson, and her venerable husband, Austin, known, like his father before him, as ‘the Squire’? Austin was 54 when he embarked on an affair as transgressive and unconventional as his sister’s poetry – in which, incidentally, he never expressed the slightest interest – and Mabel was 27. The sheer unlikeliness of the events that led to the moment when Mabel Todd, the implacable foe of the poet’s cherished sister-in-law, and the lover of her hitherto utterly respectable brother, decided to put her own painting on the cover of the first volume of Emily Dickinson’s poems ever to be published, calls to mind the Dickinson line ‘Not probable – the barest Chance’. Did Todd detect, one wonders, an extra irony in the last line of the poem she titled ‘Mine’, and put first in a section called ‘Love’: ‘Mine – long as Ages steal!’
And yet, without this cuckoo’s invasion of both the Evergreens and the Homestead, and the Dickinson land on which the Dell was built, it is not at all certain that Dickinson’s work would ever have been published, or her manuscripts preserved. It’s certainly a wonder that what Bingham called the ‘scraps’ were deemed worth keeping. The scribbled-on, scissored-up bits of envelope so lavishly and lovingly reproduced in The Gorgeous Nothings were – apart from the Harvard envelope flap – among the papers Lavinia took to Todd in the decade between Dickinson’s death in 1886 and their decisive rupture in 1896. (The argument was over a strip of land that Lavinia had legally gifted to the Todds, only to claim later that she had been hoodwinked into signing the deed of transfer.) Austin, besotted to the end (he died in 1895), frequently pressured his sister to bequeath half of the copyright in Dickinson’s work to Todd in recompense for her editorial labours, but Vinnie (as she was known) stoutly refused. During the decade of Todd and Vinnie’s co-operation, two further collections of Dickinson poems were published, in 1891 and 1896, as well as a two-volume edition of letters. Sue Dickinson, meanwhile, though in possession of a similar number of manuscripts, made few attempts to bring her sister-in-law’s work to the attention of the public, even after Vinnie died in 1899 and she inherited everything that hadn’t been given to Todd. Her side entered the publishing fray only in 1914, the year after Sue herself died, with The Single Hound, a volume compiled from her cache of Dickinson material by her daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi. To Bianchi’s credit, The Single Hound was the first volume not to impose titles. By this stage, however, interest in Dickinson had waned, and in the first decades of the 20th century she figured little in anyone’s tally of America’s poetic achievements.
In the wake of her legal battle with Vinnie, which she lost, Todd refused to return the manuscripts that had been entrusted to her care. She locked them in a Chinese camphorwood chest, which she put in a barn; it stayed there for nearly three decades – some of the scraps getting soiled and mildewed – while the Todds themselves decamped to Coconut Grove in Florida. Not until 1924 did Mabel and Millicent retrieve it, goaded into action by Bianchi’s publication of The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson and The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, a title of which their trove, they knew, made a mockery. The chest contained, they were pleased to discover, enough ammunition to restart the war, and for the next twenty years the sides hurled at each other both slanderous insults and Dickinsonian ‘bolts of melody’. The 1945 volume of that title was where 35 of the poems composed on these envelopes were first published; six had made the cut for one or other of Todd’s 1890s selections, and a handful of others had to wait until Johnson’s Letters of 1958; the Harvard fragment contributes two lines to a poem first published in The Single Hound.
By the 1950s, with Dickinson’s canonical status assured, and Johnson at work on the first scholarly edition of the poems, the battle to acquire the manuscripts had reached fever pitch. Bingham was put under intense pressure to allow the collection she had ‘inherited’ to join the rest of Dickinson’s papers at Harvard; but having, as she felt, been ill-used by those now taking control of the Dickinson estate, she decided to hand them over, in 1956, to Amherst College. Johnson’s three-volume variorum edition had appeared the previous year, its texts for the Todd-owned portion of Dickinson’s oeuvre based only on photostats. For a few decades this authoritative print version made it seem as if Dickinson’s manuscripts were like those of any other poet: interesting drafts of work that achieved its destiny only when carefully edited and published in a printed book. But in 1981 R.W. Franklin’s facsimile edition, The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, opened many Dickinson admirers’ eyes to everything that was elided or sidelined in a print edition of one of her poems. Franklin, ironically, would undertake the next major print edition of Dickinson’s poetry.
Old envelopes were just one of the many types of discarded paper on which Dickinson, particularly in her later, post-fascicle years, jotted down lines of poetry, so this book offers only a sample of the vast Schwitters-style compendium of fragments that she amassed in her bedroom. The editors invite us to consider the possibility that Dickinson razored or scissored the envelopes in a deliberative manner, and the book’s visual indexes offer a wonderful taxonomy of envelope shapes and styles: flaps and seals, arrows, pointless arrows, envelopes with columns, envelopes with pencilled divisions, envelopes with multidirectional texts, envelopes turned diagonally. While it’s likely that most poets have occasionally put this or that idea down on an old envelope that came to hand, there is certainly something curious about Dickinson’s regular use of them: ‘This is my letter to the World,’ she observed in a poem of 1862, ‘That never wrote to Me –’ In fact the world wrote to her quite a lot: one can’t overstate the importance of the postal system to Dickinson’s life, and it has even been argued that the circulation of her poems through letters should itself be considered a form of publication, and one superior to any vulgar appearance in print, which Dickinson derided as ‘the Auction/Of the Mind of Man’ and a reduction of the ‘Human Spirit/To Disgrace of Price –’. Dickinson’s epistolary and poetic worlds overlap insistently: letters, kept safe from prying eyes by their envelopes, wing their way from one domestic space to another, and the reading of their contents can change everything: ‘A great Hope fell/You heard no noise [crash]/The Ruin [havoc/damage] was within’ (variants in square brackets). We will never know if a great hope really fell, and if it did what it was, but should this refer to an actual disappointment, it’s likely she learned the bad news by letter.
Dickinson, whose correspondence fills three volumes, wrote many letters she never sent. The most famous of the unsent ones that survive are known as the Master Letters, a series of frankly erotic declarations of love for an older married man who has been tentatively and variously identified over the years – although some argue that he existed only as a figment of her imagination. A number of the envelopes on whose backs or insides Dickinson wrote are inscribed with the name of one of her regular correspondents – Helen Hunt Jackson, Dr J.G. Holland or his wife, Mrs Holland – making one feel that for Dickinson the decision about whether or not to send a letter she’d written could be almost as problematic as the decision about whether or not to publish her poems. (‘What a Hazard a Letter is –’ she wrote in a late fragment, ‘When I think of the Hearts it has Cleft or healed I almost wince to lift my Hand to so much as a superscription.’) Unseamed, opened out, filled with pencilled lines of verse, these unsent envelopes register as telling emblems of her urge to communicate, and her almost equally strong urge to withhold communication. The four stanzas of ‘A great Hope fell’ and ‘A not admitting of the wound’ (printed as one poem by Bingham and Johnson but as two by Franklin) were drafted on two such undispatched envelopes. Did Dickinson relish the contrast between the enormity of the traumatic experience for which these verses seek various metaphysical or gothic metaphors, and the diminutive bits of repurposed stationery on which she wrote them out?
A not admitting of the wound
Until it grew so wide
That all my Life had entered it
And there were [was] troughs [space/room] beside –
A closing of the simple lid [Gate] that opened to the sun
Until the tender [sovereign] Carpenter [Unsuspecting Carpenters]
Perpetual nail it down –
There was a great deal Dickinson needed to ‘admit’ before her own simple lid was nailed down, but she knew that she could only do so by delivering her words obliquely – ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant –/Success in Circuit lies.’ Her idiosyncratic compositional habits, like her avoidance of print and her cultivation of a coterie readership, reflect a fundamental compulsion to maintain a ‘slant’ relation to the world. It was only by preserving this that Dickinson could maintain an unwavering faith in her poethood, and a steadfast belief that her work, like the carriage of ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, was headed ‘toward Eternity –’.
Mallarmé wrote regularly on envelopes, but I know of only one other English-language poet whose oeuvre includes a series of envelope writings, or as he called them, ‘pomenvylopes’. Nicholas Moore (1918-86) was one of the most conspicuous stars of the London poetry scene of the 1940s, during which decade he published seven collections and two pamphlets. For a variety of reasons, however, he gave up writing at the start of the 1950s: he became a landscape gardener and sold seeds. Alas, when he started writing again seriously in the 1960s, he found himself decisively out of fashion: his work was rejected by all the editors to whom he dispatched it, although in his twenties he had regularly appeared on both sides of the Atlantic in publications such as Horizon, New Directions, View and Prairie Schooner, and between 1945 and 1948 had had 31 poems accepted by Poetry (Chicago), which awarded him, in 1947, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize.
Moore’s marginal status in the last two decades of his life, when he nevertheless composed thousands of pages of poetry, somewhat allies him with Dickinson, although their posthumous reputations could hardly be more different. The canonisation of Dickinson means that even a fragment of envelope gets digitally photographed, front and back, and elegantly reproduced in a book, because she happened to scribble a few lines on one side of it; Moore’s vast archive of unpublished poetry was drawn on by Peter Riley for two posthumous collections, Lacrimae Rerum (1988) and Longings of the Acrobats (1990), but for the most part sleeps undisturbed in the Cambridge University Library. Moore’s few, but fervent, admirers are hoping that a fresh Selected to be published later this year will revive interest in a poet whom John Ashbery has described as ‘tremendously exciting and unaccountably overlooked’.
Moore’s pomenvylopes are more unambiguously ‘visual productions’, to use Howe’s phrase, than Dickinson’s, and while hers seem like inner chambers in a labyrinth of carefully guarded privacies, Moore’s could be read by anyone: he would type away on the front and back of an envelope, leaving a small square free for address and stamps; any Royal Mail employee might get a meditation on what goes to make a poet (‘A pen, some paper,/Maybe even a typewriter’), a poetic version of a bit of Ariston, a satirical dig at ‘Big Spender’ or ‘El Scior Alvarez’, a squib poking fun at ‘The Poetry Boob Society’ or ‘The Darts Council’. I worked for a while as a postman: how refreshing it would have been to find amid the bills and circulars and birthday cards one of Moore’s fantastically mottoed and illustrated envelopes, sporting both his own name and a variety of anagrammatic pseudonyms – Armin Coolhose, Alonso Moriche, Lhoso Cinaremo. And while Dickinson’s are all composed in pencil, Moore’s come in a cheerful array of coloured typewriter ribbons: turquoise, green, brown. One ‘translation special pomenvylope’, passed on to me by the publisher and writer Anthony Rudolf, a frequent recipient, offers a witty version of a Greek epigram once attributed to Plato. The original was addressed to a boy called Aster (i.e. ‘star’); Moore’s version is date-stamped 26 January 1970, the year the Beatles broke up:
You gaze up in the night sky,
Ringo, having chosen yourself to be one of the Starrs,
And I only wish that I
Had all those eyes to gaze back into yours.
Moore’s own slant relationship to the culture in which he found himself during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the height of his pomenvylope period, is lightly gestured towards in the central pun of his neologism: a degree of envy certainly drives his rambunctious riffs on poets and rock stars and newsmakers of all kinds. ‘Fame,’ as Dickinson observed in a late poem that neatly captures the disappointments of the second phase of Moore’s poetic career, ‘is a fickle food/Upon a shifting plate/Whose table once a/Guest but not/The second time is set.’
In striking contrast to the unwieldy Gorgeous Nothings, The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping by the German writer Francis Nenik weighs a mere two ounces. It twins the life story of Nicholas Moore with that of the Czech poet Ivan Blatný (1919-90), whom Nenik figures as Moore’s Iron Curtain doppelgänger. Blatný, like Moore, had had success as a poet in his twenties, publishing eight volumes between 1938 and 1947. Shortly after the Communist coup of 1948 he came to London on a cultural exchange trip funded by the British Council; the night he arrived he announced on the BBC that he would not be returning to Czechoslovakia and would seek asylum. In his home country he was denounced, declared officially dead, and his poetry banned.
Blatný worked for a while in London as a freelance journalist and writer. His mental health, however, became fragile; in 1954 he was admitted to Claybury Hospital in Essex, where he remained until 1963. The last 27 years of his life were spent in institutions. In the House of Hope, where he was first admitted, everything he wrote was thrown away by attendants who thought him just another lunatic nurturing delusions that he was a writer, but after he was transferred to St Clement’s Hospital in Ipswich a nurse happened to discover during a trip to Czechoslovakia that Blatný was indeed a poet of some repute. He was, accordingly, given a supply of paper and allowed to write poetry rather than make lampshades; the nurse, Frances Meacham, preserved his manuscripts in a bin in her garage. Like those of Dickinson, stored for decades in a barn in Amherst, they too would eventually make their unlikely way into an archive, being acquired, after the Velvet Revolution, by the Museum of Czech Literature in Prague.
Nenik’s ingenious little book is in two halves. In the first he develops a series of parallels between Moore’s and Blatný’s experiences through an adaptation of the technique of double-entry book-keeping. The verso presents the melancholy events of Moore’s life, the recto Blatný’s; each paragraph makes use of roughly the same syntax and they share much vocabulary, allowing their stories to overlap and intertwine. The result is a haunting lament for two voices on the perilousness of poetic election, on the random collisions and attritions and strokes of fortune that marked their lives and might refer directly to Wordsworth’s rueful observation in ‘Resolution and Independence’: ‘We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;/But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.’ Here are Nenik’s opening paragraphs, quoted in succession though they appear in the book in parallel:
When the critic George Steiner looked through the entries for the Sunday Times Baudelaire translation competition he was judging in 1968, he was no doubt a little surprised. Someone had submitted more than thirty versions of the same poem.
When the journalist Jürgen Serke came across a slim man with a small cut on his freshly shaven cheek in St Clements Hospital in Ipswich in 1981, he was no doubt a little surprised. The man had been declared dead more than thirty years previously.
That someone was Nicholas Moore, an aspiring English poet during the 1940s, who had somehow disappeared from the radar at the end of that decade and had not made a reappearance since.
That man was Ivan Blatný, an aspiring Czech poet during the 1940s, who had absconded from his delegation on a trip to London in 1948, stayed in London and then disappeared.
That is, Nicholas Moore had never really disappeared; instead he had slipped unnoticed into the workings of time and, in addition, had suffered a series of blows of fate, all of which he had somehow survived. Yet in the world of letters, Nicholas Moore was a dead man, catapulted out of a literary machinery revolving ever faster, and often merely around itself.
That is, Ivan Blatný had never really disappeared; instead he was struggling with paranoia as a result of his escape and exile, which took him behind the secure walls of various English hospitals. Yet in the world of letters, Ivan Blatný was a dead man, his name erased by a literary machinery surviving on suppression and silencing.
Distresses, weird compulsions and misfortunes unite their lives at every turn: Blatný is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Moore with diabetes; Blatný’s poetry piles up in Frances Meacham’s garage, Moore’s in his chaotic flat in St Mary Cray; Blatný composes in a baffling mixture of Czech, German, French and English, while Moore makes use of a range of outlandish personae (Helga Nev vadotoomuch, Phil Okes-Box-Wunnayay, Harrowsmith Blamesworthy) and far-fetched idioms; Blatný is confined to the grounds of his asylum, Moore, after the amputation of a leg, to a wheelchair. Both narratives conclude with their respective poets pursuing their vocation to the bitter end, facing death with pen in hand: ‘he is lying in a hospital bed and writing a poem’; ‘he is lying in a hospital bed and writing a poem.’
Moore and Blatný never met, and indeed probably never even heard of each other, but this doesn’t deter Nenik from imagining a correspondence conducted in late 1962 and early 1963. Nenik claims, in best Borgesian fashion, to have stumbled across these letters, which make up the second section of The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping, in the course of research that he undertook in 2011 in the London Metropolitan Archives; an author’s note even offers an elaborate bibliographical descript-ion of the notebook of Blatný’s in which the correspondence was preserved. The letters themselves are a touching fictional tribute to two poets lost ‘in the maze’ of literary history, to adapt the last line of ‘In Memoriam’, one of the hundreds of poems composed by Blatný during his time in St Clement’s. Despite its title this poetic ‘scrap’ is so delicately slanted that it recalls not Tennyson, nor its ostensible subject Walter de la Mare, but Saint Emily of Amherst:
Walter de la Mare died 1956
the year of the hungarian uprising
so he won’t read my old-fashioned poems
Was he a Londoner?
Did he live in the country?
Why had we to lose him in the maze.