Emily Dickinson, “My River runs to thee” (162) & “Distance — is not the Realm of Fox” (1155)

Dickinson, utterly unshy about her desires, introduces a problem for those of us reading her. On the one hand, her frankness about sex is refreshing after so much poetic and religious idolization of it. Sex is just sex — people have needs, there are one night stands, there are “experiments,” some people are hot, others not so much, you might want it, you might want something else, it can be bad and gross, the baby is crying in the next room, that meal didn’t sit with me right, etc. — and then, somewhat separately, there are the questions of giving love and being truly loved. Regarding sex, there are poems like “Wild Nights — Wild Nights!” and “My River runs to thee,” below, where Dickinson would clearly like to have some. On the other hand, this is not without complication:

My River runs to thee (162)
Emily Dickinson

My River runs to thee —
Blue Sea! Wilt welcome me?
My River wait reply —
Oh Sea — look graciously —
I’ll fetch thee Brooks
From spotted nooks —
Say — Sea — Take Me!

She self-consciously makes herself a river (“My River”), the object of her desire the sea. In effect, she identifies desire with water. If her thirst, as the kids say, is pronounced, the thirst of her audience is that much more. Blue Sea! Wilt welcome me? / My River wait reply — it is nearly inconceivable the sea will say no. Still, one must not look too eager, even with someone whose lust is like a lake compared to a trickle of water. She has to offer someone with legendary lust something different, she has to make clear that he would miss out on an opportunity. Oh Sea — look graciously — / I’ll fetch thee Brooks / From spotted nooks — would you, dear reader, find someone offering you “brooks from spotted nooks” attractive, or would this be when you mention you have work in the morning and can’t stay up any longer?

“I’ll fetch thee Brooks / From spotted nooks” — I will show you other things worth desiring. Lust does not reduce to simply one object, e.g. water. There are other beauties privately developed and enjoyed, like still waters in quiet reaches, surrounded by verdure, spotted with leaves and light. I can’t help but feel this appeal of Dickinson’s failed. If the object of desire has a reputation and she hasn’t been able to obtain him, this plea is merely a formality.

Perhaps Dickinson realizes this already. The poem contains two conflicting rhetorical arguments. First, there’s the argument of “I have lust, you’ve got lots too, let’s make this happen.” Bringing brooks from spotted nooks fits with this inasmuch it promises something unique. But then there’s the second argument, which is “You should choose me because I understand intimacy in a way you do not.” Even in the midst of what seems to be just wanting sex, there’s a need to be appreciated for what one has developed, what one can give. The rhetoric undoes itself precisely because of Dickinson’s independence; she does not want to worry about being loved even as she chases after someone incapable of giving her that love. Her want to be “welcome” and her command “take me” say more about her insecurity than the actual desirability of her addressee. She’s not entirely sure what she wants, though she possesses unique beauties and certainly has the capacity for love herself.

“Brooks from spotted nooks” might be thought a bit corny, but it changes the poem’s trajectory. Dickinson emerges as someone who can make life’s quiet moments count for more, for she alludes to having command over natural graces. I don’t think we need to leap to one of them being her formidable intellect, though that is ultimately the issue. There are plenty of singles obsessed with their power on the dating market, plenty of couples obsessed with HGTV and making their homestead picture perfect. The only way grace and beauty are really seen, though, is by one willing and able to see them. Someone who wants at least a little wisdom, not someone who can manipulate convention (“I got 50 numbers from women with this simple trick”) or execute its standards (“you’d better like our guest room, we spent 6 months working on it”).

So I think we should glance at a more spiritual love poem of hers. This isn’t to say that there is some magic way around getting rejected, being depressed and anxious, fighting with what love means, making mistakes in relationships. There is a real tension between developing one’s highest erotic powers and actually being an object of desire; if there weren’t, people wouldn’t reread Plato’s Symposium on a regular basis. And there are dumb people in the world and they can make this problem a lot worse. It’s no fun being almost completely invisible or silently shunned by tens, if not hundreds, of people.

Still. What is love like when you think someone does try to understand you?

Distance — is not the Realm of Fox (1155)
Emily Dickinson

Distance — is not the Realm of Fox
Nor by Relay of Bird
Abated — Distance is
Until thyself, Beloved.

Distance — is not the Realm of Fox [abated]. The fox roams, chases, is chased. It marks out a territory, within which there is distance from the things it wants at any given time. It moves swiftly to what it wants. If you could find and move to those you love easily, that would not stop the hurt distance causes. Traversing it quickly does not answer “I need you now.”

Nor does Relay of Bird quell the problems caused. If you really love someone, the idea of them will not do. If you value their presence, then some messages exchanged over that distance do not always help. Dickinson, though, is like the fox, like the bird. She is moving quickly over distance when she can, she is communicating. Her love grows that much stronger because of the difficulties encountered.

We know this because Distance is / Until thyself, Beloved. She moves, she speaks toward. This is continual, progressive. Why? She wants the real person she loves to know he is loved. This is the end result of bringing brooks, from above. When you possess something beautiful, something worth having and sharing, you can value someone else that much more. You can give the support that sustains them, that binds you to them and vice versa. Their presence is needed inasmuch love cherishes beauty, wisdom aims toward the good.

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