Dickinson's Birds

A listening machine

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About Dickinson’s Birds

“Went wandering down the Latitudes –” —E. Dickinson, Fr177A

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 still, the specimen case, but become instead a miscellany and a murmuration? [2] 

Dickinson’s Birds arose out of these unsettled questions. A digital-humanities work of the “third wave,” it is necessarily a hybrid work, drawing on elements of the documentary archive and the environmental installation to invite new questions at the intersection of poetics, ecology, and ethics.

Here, however, 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 human past, 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. Composed as an archive of poems and birdsongs, Dickinson’s Birds ultimately seeks the de-archivization of poems and birds, words and sounds. 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.

While opening the always partial but tantalizing possibility of accessing past worlds, 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 with what remains hidden. As such, Dickinson’s Birds is part of 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, the embracing of our existence as “strange strangers” among an infinite number of other “strange strangers.”


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/.