Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Hello darling. Cool overcast morning, back from my walk at the conservation area. Now sitting at my desk paging through the facsimile edition of Emily Dickinson's Herbarium. I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to borrow it from the library - it was on the order of $138 at the NYBG shop (wow). It is a beautiful book. I wish I could show it to you. Dickinson's compositions of plant matter on each page are so beautiful. It's more than Nature's beauty - the forms, structures, shapes, colors and complexities of each floral species itself. It's the way she arranges them, tucks the stem of each into a paper slot labeled in her careful script. Each of the 65 pages is different.

Emily Dickinson put the herbarium together when she was 14 years old. To me (not only me) they are visual metaphors for poetry, harbingers of her poetry to come. Spare, economical, perfectly chosen, masterfully arranged statements, all subtly relating to one another, within a page and within the album as a whole. I'm really quite blown away by it.

Taken together, it suggests a musical composition to me, a piece of chamber music perhaps. There is movement - patterns shift and the number of objects varies on each page, suggesting an abstract narrative as I go through the book, or the reflection of the order of a higher plane. (It would make an amazing slide show or film, accompanied by a musical score.) Page 1 (as numbered in the facsimile edition) is an image of the front cover of the stationery store-bought album. ED's composition begins on page 2.
It seems to me to start with a strong chord: a large specimen at the center of the page surrounded by four smaller specimens, one in each corner (a total of five on the page). The composition proceeds in a measured slow movement; the following six pages have three specimens per page, except for one which has four. Page 8 introduces another movement, becoming increasingly complex. Later there is a sustained, rapturous series of pages that leap to 6, 7 and as many as 9 or 10 unique elements in exciting juxtapositions on a page. The final plates lead back down to a stately finish: 7, 5, a dramatic 2, 4, and a final chord of 5. Throughout the book there's discussion, an attempt to show, to convince, argument, truth to be expressed, to lead you to an overwhelming question, do ask what is it and make the visit.

A piece of chamber music comes to mind as I turn the pages. What is it? It takes me a few moments of whistling (which attracts Gwynnie who comes running up to rub against my legs) to remember what it is. A Brahms sextet. I find the CD and put it on. A wonderful recording with Isaac Stern, Jaime Laredo, and Yo-Yo Ma, among others. I put it on, the String Sextet in B-flat major, Op. 18, for two violins, two violas, and two cellos, composed (according to liner notes) in 1860.

So Emily wasn't thinking of this piece when she composed her herbarium in 1844-45. But I wonder what music she might have been aware of at her young age - besides hymns that is - Beethoven perhaps? Perhaps her own melody, what she had already glimmered of the music of the spheres. Very mysterious how the music comes to you, says Jerome Charyn in a video that I watched the other day. Indeed.

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