Emily Dickinson, “The Leaves like Women interchange” (987)

The Leaves like Women interchange (987)
Emily Dickinson

The Leaves like Women interchange
Exclusive Confidence –
Somewhat of nods and somewhat
Portentous inference.

The Parties in both cases
Enjoining secrecy –
Inviolable compact
To notoriety.


“Portentous:” the inference that “somewhat” composes the confidence of leaves and women can be either obnoxious or prophetic. Leaves and women are tied to generation; they create the future. But leaves are headstrong in the paths they take. They go nearly anywhere in some of the most tortuous ways. Do those paths make any sense? If traced, do they yield the future? “Inference,” “nods,” “confidence” perhaps indicate there’s something less certain than knowledge at stake. That the leaves and women “interchange exclusive confidence” makes me wonder if the confidence is the only thing they transmit to each other. An audience to both the women and the leaves may only see confidence because of exclusivity. Is obnoxiously keeping others out really confidence, or just bigotry?

Still, the future is at stake. So something else has to be communicated, right? And therefore we have to consider “to whom.” I surmise the first stanza is leaves “interchanging” with other leaves, women with other women. But “secrecy” between parties forces us to revisit who we are talking about. Women and leaves perhaps only project confidence to other women, other leaves. Maybe the imposing exteriors the rest of us see are masks for what is truly exclusive, their own. Leaves will settle on a particular patch of earth, after all, and women have partners in generation. If that’s true, then nothing is being communicated even as something that looks like the most secret, informative code is passed along. The “inviolable compact to notoriety” tells us what has really been going on. Madison said compact was the essence of free government. What is a compact? The resolution to keep some things inviolable, to have property and possessions of one’s own. What truly guards one’s own are the elaborate games we have where what we want is masked. Women and leaves mask that want through the appearance of perfect freedom. The “notoriety” includes the games where fake, exclusive confidence is projected. But the notoriety also has a second meaning: the path the leaf takes does make some sense. We can see where it will settle, and our frustration over seeming unpredictability should never be confused with someone actually being unpredictable.


  1. I had to google portentous.

    But then I read through the poem again and came to a similar conclusion about the “inviolable compact to notoriety” only I called it mystery instead of unpredictability. Notoriety never has to be based on truth.

    1. yes I had to Google it too lol, for that word portentous I tried to connect the word sincere (deep sincerity) to inference and figure out if it made sense or not. I tried to connect/relate the word enjoining to compact but based on the reasoning they gave on President Madison, made it clear to me that I was wrong.

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