January 11, 2007


The World in a Frame. Poems by Emily Dickinson. Drawings by Will Barnet. Pomegranate. $30.

     This is a book of style, beauty and grace that will bring great joy to any lover of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Will Barnet’s illustrations of Dickinson poems were first published in 1989 and are now available in a highly attractive new edition. Barnet, now 95, is not only an artist but also a teacher and critic. A printmaker as well as a painter, he is known for his involvement in Indian Space Painting, a movement that based its works – usually abstractions – on Native American art. His Dickinson illustrations are not abstract, but they show some Indian Space Painting influences as well as a great deal of sensitivity to the poet’s words. The fact that Dickinson’s poems were often inspired by paintings and the visual impressions of landscapes gives this book a kind of circular feeling – visualizations of poems inspired by visualizations – and turns it into a kind of dialogue, as Christopher Benfey calls it in his well-written and well-thought-out introduction.

     The World in a Frame contains 46 Dickinson poems and 24 Barnet illustrations, and while the illustrations are placed with specific poems and intended to illustrate them – or react to them, or elucidate them – Barnet is actually doing something more interesting than rendering the images and feelings of the poems into black-and-white drawings. He is framing Dickinson’s world in emotion-laden pictures, to highly apt and often very moving effect. Poem 1275, for example, opens with the line, “The Spider is an Artist,” and Barnet shows a casement window with an elegant spiderweb in the upper right. The window is seen from outside – and Dickinson’s silhouette appears inside the house, her back turned to the window, in a lovely image that may also be an ironic comment on the poem’s final two lines, “Neglected Son of Genius/ I take thee by the Hand—“

     In a similar vein, Poem 535 opens, “Two Butterflies went out at Noon—” and Barnet shows, quite appropriately, two butterflies, wings spread, flying above Dickinson’s head and shoulders. But her eyes are closed – a response, perhaps, to the poem’s final line, “No notice—was—to me—“

     Barnet’s illustrations have a great deal of power, and will help readers see the poems in new ways – or intensify their previous views of them. For Poem 783, which opens, “The birds begun at Four o’clock—“ Barnet creates a bare landscape over which a large flock of black birds is flying, as Dickinson stands in the right foreground, facing the birds (so her features are unseen), her stylized black shape complementing the stylization of the birds she is observing. Just how well Barnet empathizes with Dickinson is clear throughout this book, and indeed from its front cover, which shows the poet in profile, sitting, eyes closed, with shelves of books behind her and two on the table before her – her left hand resting gently on one of them. It is a lovely, evocative picture, and turns out to illustrate, not at all surprisingly, Poem 604, which opens, “Unto my Books—so good to turn—” The World in a Frame is a book to which it is good to turn again, again, and yet again.

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