Dickinson's Birds

A listening machine

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Project Overview: Coordinates

Went wandering down the Latitudes —E. Dickinson, Fr177A

The digitization Dickinson’s manuscripts, begun more than two decades ago and now in its final stages, has largely fulfilled the call for wide-scale access to the contents of her private archive, ensured the preservation of her papers, albeit in a different medium, and disclosed the singular textual conditions of her fascicles, unbound poems, drafts, fragments, letters, and letter-poems. The near-completion of this foundational work frees us to shift our focus from conservation to curation. 

How could we make a virtual book of Dickinson’s birds — that is to say, her poems, that is to say, the birds of her world — addressed to readers of the Anthropocene that would not be a snare? How could a book of Dickinson’s birds “conjure an awareness of what accepted categories cannot contain, what familiar taxonomies cannot order, what one medium cannot express”?[1] How could an archive not turn into an exhibit, with all  its ties to the old cabinet of curiosities and, worse, the specimen case, but become instead a miscellany and a murmuration?[2]

Dickinson’s Birds arose — and continues to arise — out of these unsettled questions. A digital-humanities work of the “third wave,” it is necessarily a hybrid, drawing on elements of the documentary archive, the scholarly edition, and the environmental installation to invite new questions at the intersection of poetics, ecology and ethics. Instead of aspiring to fulfill the requirements of a specific genre or mode, it is a thought-experiment in speculative worlding: first, in bringing to song in small, intimate ways the sounds of the birds of Amherst, Massachusetts in the C19 world in which Dickinson lived; and second, in listening to the birds in our own later and latening world. 

While opening the always partial but tantalizing possibility of accessing the past, Dickinson’s Birds is also a screen or “blind” through which the data of worlds — Dickinson’s remote world, our more immediate world — flickers. What is visible and audible is illuminated as existing side by side and simultaneously with all that is invisible and inaudible. What is revealed exists adjacent to and concurrently to what remains hidden. As such, Dickinson’s Birds proposes an experiment in inhabiting the Anthropocene — especially as that experience entails the welcoming of ambiguity, the letting go of the human as a privileged category of thinking, and the embracing of our existence as “strange strangers” among an infinite number of other “strange strangers.”

In an inversion of the conception of the archive as a human-made and centered site for storing — holding forever in place — the precious, inert fragments from a lost human world, Dickinson’s Birds imagines the archive it composes as a living, entropic site whose vitality inheres in its involvement in both cultivating and decomposing its contents. Formed initially as an archive of poems and birdsongs, Dickinson’s Birds ultimately seeks the de-archivization of words and sounds, poems and birds. As an archive that is always passing over and passing by, Dickinson’s Birds engages us in the durational, contingent and vulnerable nature of sounding, singing, writing, listening, and falling silent in the complex ecological meshwork that is our common, only, and last home.. It seeks, moreover, to stir intensified concern with the smallest, most vulnerable and ephemeral of things—poems and birds, sounds, words, spider-silk, and mud —in the belief that these things, too, bear in them a second of infinity

Three wishes sheltering many other less lucid ones, flow through Dickinson’s Birds

  • first, to listen in, as far as possible, to one narrow bandwidth of Dickinson’s lost 19th-century sound-world—the calls and songs of the birds of Amherst she heard from her window and her garden—to experience something of the sonic fullness and infinite variation of that world and to begin to intuit its diminishing measures in our own;
  • second, to let go of the age-old concept of the archive as a silent, stable repository of the artifacts of human history and cultural memory and re-envision it as a living, sounding  environment—a “spring tide” and a “murmuration”—sheltering traces and debris—sounds, words, spider-silk, and mud from both human and more-than-human worlds— that is also always passing on, preparing for its evolution or its vanishing; and 
  • third, to open a private and public listening experiment dedicated to fostering increased awareness of the fates of the distant descendants of Dickinson’s birds in the 21st century and to gather and disseminate reflections from diverse perspectives and in all media on poetry, birds, and ecology in the era of the Sixth Mass Extinction.


Orra White Hitchcock, “Crust of the earth”, 1828-1840, 184 x 187 cm., Pen and ink on linen. Courtesy of Edward and Orra White Hitchcock Papers, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.


[1] See Lisa Pearson’s It is Almost That: A Collection of Image + Text Works by Women Artists & Writers (Siglio, 2011), 280.

[2] The first meaning of murmuration is sonic: the action of murmuring, i.e., making a soft, indistinct sound, sometimes at a distance. For a brief but interesting note on starling murmuration, see https://www.wired.com/2012/03/starling-flock-dynamics/. For a video of this phenomenon, see also https://petapixel.com/2020/04/02/this-video-captures-the-mesmerizing-patterns-traced-by-a-flock-of-starlings/.