The following is a guest post by Katherine L. Blood, Curator of Fine Prints in the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.
When Rob Casper invited me to share a favorite example of art intersecting with poetry in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division, I was delighted to feature Lesley Dill’s exquisite Poem Dress of Circulation (1992). The Library’s extensive collections of artworks on paper offer researchers the opportunity to explore a wealth of narrative/storytelling images as well as artists’ books, broadsides, posters, and prints in dialogue with specific works of poetry and literature. However, Poem Dress of Circulation is a truly hybrid artwork—with its unique blending of fine printmaking and sculptural collage with the words of American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), it defies categorization.
Though Poem Dress is grounded in representational imagery, Dill handles image, text, texture, light, and paper, poetically. A blue anatomical heart placed near the center of the dress bodice anchors the composition. River-like veins and arteries radiate out from the heart and trail down the long, bell-shaped skirt. Here, the artist deliberately conflates the body’s covering with its usually-hidden inner workings. The dress is made of a shimmering, translucent paper that lends further ambiguity as the heart seems to emerge from just below its surface. The paper is reminiscent of the tissue-like type still used for commercial clothing patterns.
Dill has famously observed: “As clothing cloaks or reveals , so does language, which can selectively present or obscure.” The Dickinson poem she invokes here underscores these ideas as an equal partner in the artwork:
The healed Heart shows its shallow scar
With confidential moan—
Not mended by Mortality
Are Fabrics truly torn—
To go its convalescent way
So shameless is to see
More genuine were perfidy
Than such Fidelity—
The words are studded with ambivalences that invite questions and multiple readings: healed but scarred and maybe truly torn, shown but confidential, genuine perfidy (deceitfulness), mending and mortality. Dill places the first three words in a roughly triangular arrangement inside the bodice, then threads the rest from left to right then up and down along the veins and arteries. The overall effect is map-like. Dill’s green letterpress text plays with rhythm and emphasis through selective use of capitals, bolding, and spacing. All of these elements combine to trigger associations with domesticity, sewing, and costume while challenging assumptions about the body, spirit, healing, authenticity, and what is and isn’t hidden. Lesley Dill’s nuanced weaving of text and image in Poem Dress of Circulation reminds me just how porous the boundaries between these languages can be.