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“Fugitive Sparrows” Illuminate Dickinson

Dickinson exhibition  

Matt Corriel, ’05, uses a telescope to view excerpts of Dickinson poems placed in Harvard Yard. The telescopes were placed in the Woodberry Poetry Room as part of the "Fugitive Sparrows" exhibition.


April 7, 2010 – Reading is about more than simply absorbing the words of a text – particularly when it comes to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, who played a pivotal role in shaping modern poetry into a visual, as well as written art.

A new exhibition, “Fugitive Sparrows: An Emily Dickinson Installation,” in the Woodberry Poetry Room, explores new ways to “read” Dickinson’s poetry by challenging viewers to confront the act of reading itself by encountering  Dickinson’s poetry in a variety of new and unusual ways.

“The goal of the exhibition is to make people think about how they are reading Dickinson, because all the installations requires you to do different things, physically, to read her work,” said Zachary Sifuentes, ‘99, Preceptor in Expository Writing and Visiting Lecturer on Visual and Environmental Studies. “You have to look through telescopes, or you have to look into a mirror or follow a line of sight into a dictionary. What I hope people take away from this exhibition is though we often think of reading as an inert process, there are a number of ways to interact with Dickinson’s text.”

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Among the installations included in the exhibition are a group of telescopes trained on excerpts of Dickinson poems installed in Harvard Yard, along with wallet-sized print-outs of poems which passers-by will be encouraged to take; a sculpture which links every word in five of Dickinson's “definition” poems with its corresponding entry in the 1844 second-edition of Webster’s Dictionary – rumored to be one of just two books Dickinson read in her lifetime; a “heavy metal” book – a page of Dickinson’s complete works laid out in the lead type used by printers – which must be read in a mirror; miniaturized excerpts of Dickinson poems which must be read through spyglasses provided by the Harvard University Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments; several audio renderings of her poems; and a large abstract work made up of all Dickinson’s complete works which appears as an inkblot from afar, but can be read up close.

A writer and poet, Sifuentes first staged the exhibition two years ago in Adams House, and earlier this year approached Woodberry Poetry Room curator Christina Davis with the idea of staging the exhibition to mark National Poetry Month.

“The goal of each installation in this exhibition is to manifest Dickinson’s poetry visually, to transform language from a word that communicates an idea into a visual object,” Sifuentes said. “Reading is, obviously, a visual enterprise, but this is about seeing how her lines and metaphors work – it’s more about seeing Emily Dickinson than it is about reading.”

  hcl committees

Visitors examine an abstract art piece, made up of the text of Dickinson's complete works, during the opening reception for the "Fugitive Sparrows" exhibition.

At an opening reception for the exhibition on April 6, viewers like Matt Corriel, ’05, found the exhibition engaging for its unusual design, as well as its ability to make visitors consider poetry in a new way.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Corriel said. “I had seen the exhibition when it was staged in Adams House, but it seems so at home here in the Poetry Room. It’s very interesting, because it forces you to engage in a physical response to poetry.”

Lori E. Gross, the Associate Provost of Arts and Culture also commended the exhibition for bringing together several disparate areas of the university.

“It’s wonderful to see how an artistic moment can unite the different areas that are involved,” Gross said. “Here you have HCL, the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, the yard and others, all working together. This exhibition unites the scientific and the artistic and the written with the visual, and allows people to work together.”

“Fugitive Sparrows: An Emily Dickinson Installation by Zachary Sifuentes” will be on display in the Woodberry Poetry Room, located in Lamont Library, through April 30. Hours, Directions