How Janet Malcolm Turns Emily Dickinson’s Poetry Into Visual Art

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 23 2014 2:55 PM

Janet Malcolm Turns Emily Dickinson’s Poetry Into Visual Art

Janet Malcolm, author of The Journalist and the Murderer and, most recently, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, is also a collage artist. Her most recent collection, “The Emily Dickinson Series,” juxtaposes clippings of Dickinson’s “fragment” poems, taken from scholar Marta Werner’s 1996 book Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios, with pieces cut from astronomy textbooks, found photographs, and other ephemera.

Rebecca Onion Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

Alice Gregory pointed out in Slate last year how heavily Malcolm’s writing leans toward quotation and allusion. The collages do much the same work, with the images excavating meaning from the slim Dickinson poems. “Something in Dickinson’s words evoked the night sky,” Malcolm reflects in Granta’s Winter 2014 issue, where some of the collages appear. “It seemed almost obligatory that images of stars and plants and moons accompany her gnomic utterances.”  

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Malcolm writes about the process of collaging with mystical reverence (see: that “obligatory”). For one collage, she chose a photograph of a “bearded, depressed-looking man”—David Peck Todd, an astronomer—only to find out from Werner that Todd was the husband of Mabel Loomis Todd, who edited and popularized Dickinson’s poems after her death. (Loomis Todd was also Dickinson’s brother’s longtime mistress.)

Malcolm and Werner, who struck up a correspondence in the process of Malcolm’s work, mulled over the coincidence. Malcolm wrote to Werner that her choice seemed to be emblematic of something “occult” moving her hand. Werner wrote back: “I have my doubts about the invisible world, but something strange and lovely may be at work.”

The collages are on view at Lori Bookstein Fine Art in New York City, through February 8. Click on the images below to enlarge.

David Todd

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“David Todd (from The Emily Dickinson Series).” Janet Malcolm, 2013.

Courtesy of the artist and Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York. Photos: Etienne Frossard.

Abyss

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“Abyss (from The Emily Dickinson Series).” Janet Malcolm, 2013.

Courtesy of the artist and Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York. Photos: Etienne Frossard.

Crater

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“Crater (from The Emily Dickinson Series).” Janet Malcolm, 2013.

Courtesy of the artist and Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York. Photos: Etienne Frossard.

The summer that we did not prize

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“The summer that we did not prize (from The Emily Dickinson Series).” Janet Malcolm, 2013.

Courtesy of the artist and Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York. Photos: Etienne Frossard.

Vinnie

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“Vinnie (from The Emily Dickinson Series).” Janet Malcolm, 2013.

Courtesy of the artist and Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York. Photos: Etienne Frossard.

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

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