February 11, 2015KR BlogReadingShort Takes/Mixed TapeUncategorizedWriting

Nerve Games, Love Notes

for they had begun the rare epistolary communication that seems, somehow, more real than bodily contact, with its averted eyes and fidgety hands, its blushes and shuffling feet.

–Brenda Wineapple on the relationship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, White Heat.

If your Nerve, deny you—/ Go above your Nerve—”

-Emily Dickinson, poem 292

The mailbox shines calmly; what is written cannot be taken back.

–Tomas Tranströmer, “Late May”

It’s an appropriate week to talk about letters and the wild heart. Emily Dickinson wrote a lot of letters prompted by a wild heart, to the degree that entire relationships were sometimes transcribed by hands that never, or nearly never, touched. It could be easy to argue the lonelinesses of an epistolary relationship, but I like Dickinson biographer Brenda Wineapple’s take on the matter, that communication through letters can in fact seem “more real than bodily contact.” What exactly does this mean? Words, by hand delayed, and precisely because of that delay, can be bold where body cannot. Consider the most basic example of written flirtation, a note passed between crushee and crush in elementary school:

Do you like me?  Circle one:    YES      NO

What energy is contained in the wad of notebook paper held sweating inside a desk all morning before it’s finally dropped in the lap of the desired! Think of the recpient’s heart, swing and boom, upon unfolding and reading those words, “you,” “like,” “me,” placed in proximity on the damp, creased paper. The suggestion:  I wasn’t brave enough to brush knuckles with you at coatroom hooks, but here, fled, I touch you through transference. Then the open-ended choice!  YES   NO:  to circle one is to begin something unknown, set the first nerve blazing.

For how long can handwriting hold the body in waiting? Consider that when Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily Dickinson’s “friend and literary advisor,” once asked Dickinson for her photograph, she returned with a self-portrait in language, enticing in ways that, if translated to actual flesh, would suggest something more than what a cursory eye would otherwise meet: “I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves.””[1]

Oh, coquette indeed. To compare her eyes to sherry left in the glass by the guest, is to suggest Higginson that guest, is to suggest intoxication has been shared. Holding the glass to the light where the guest’s lips lingered, the very liquid that touched his mouth, become her eyes here, as his past is merged with her present, in that mingling of dark and light amber fluid. It conjures a scenario Dickinson must have known would likely never occur in real life. As it is, the two only ever met twice in all the years of their correspondence.

Interestingly, a minor investigation of sherry reveals it is “widely regarded by wine experts as ‘underappreciated’ and a ‘neglected wine treasure.'” Such adjectives were applied to Dickinson’s poetry in the years after her death, and by her own accounts we can gather she was certainly aware of a sense of her own poetic power—for one thing, she felt brave enough to send her work to someone so distinguished as Higginson. She knew the weight of its worth, at least to a degree. In contacting him, Dickinson was ousting herself from neglect, asking to be acknowledged. And perhaps Dickinson also felt a sense of neglect as applicable to her physical self. Here, she seems to offer, is the light of her eyes, glistening in the bottom of the glass, undrunk and to remain undrunk always, fixed as she’s made herself in language. As she once wrote, “‘A Letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.’” The mind alone making a body immortal, that is.

One further particularly intriguing note about Dickinson’s choice of sherry has to do with its storage. Sherry is kept in oak casks filled five-sixths full, leaving “‘the space of two fists'” empty to allow for proper fermentation. Dickinson started something in this private description of herself; her boldness is language dressed in a flesh that can heat, a rib that can reveal, a lip that can shine. Of course she only starts the description.  Space remains for the rest to ferment.

In his own room, Higginson must have stared at the deceptively little bird he had unfolded.

[1] Wineapple, 17.