Calling Emily D

Emily Dickinson

by Nicole Silverberg

When it comes to fucking, it’s not only important to consider how the fucking is, but also how many times you plan on fucking overall. This is called “context.”

Is it helpful or depressing to be someone who creates an algorithm to evaluate sexual partners? It depends on who you are. This is called “subjectivity.”

Could you kill another person? This is called a “digression.” Sometimes when I’m having sex, I feel a flash of desire to be eating my partner, but that’s probably a perverted result of my trademark internal contradiction: Every woman I’ve ever looked up to is alone, but if you leave me, I’ll die. It’s very attractive. It’s the Leonardo DiCaprio of attributes, and it’s all mine.

For years, I’ve idolized Emily Dickinson, and why not? Of course I want to look dope in white, write all day, disappear. There’s something romantic to me about ending completely: no children, two photographs, hundreds of poems with no names. It’s not a fuck-you; it’s an invitation that you don’t have to deliver on, a door left closed but unlocked. I think about my days: busy but not fervent, and even when they’re spent alone, it’s never in solitude. Can I even compare myself to Emily?

People love to talk about whether or not Emily Dickinson ever had sexual or romantic relationships and who with and did she like them and was it hot? Is it part of a cultural obsession to link art with artist, trace every product to its idea, every idea to an experience? Or is it a more sinister fascination with the feminine, obsession with Victorian propriety, a veiled desire to find out, yeah, Emily D was nasty. The pure gets soiled. As if Emily D would want to belong to anyone, much less you. Yet I enjoy the survival of that narrative. This is called a “feminist dilemma.”

In conversations about her personal life, most flaunt “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!”, her oft-discussed poem of lust that, in several audio recordings, is spoken by a woman who literally sounds like she’s coming as she reads it aloud. To listen is a particular form of punishment very few people deserve. Unless your personal kink is to hear some disembodied voice moan Down with the compass. It’s a clumsy attempt to prove how erotic sparse verse can be, as unhelpful as narrating a simple sex act: This should be making you hard because my vagina is warm and wet and penises enjoy that. This instinct to explain is called “unexamined need.”

Of course, the argument that “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” is proof of Emily’s experiences is immature. I don’t care if you contain an e.e. cummings’ worth of multitudes: if you write 1800 poems, some of them are fantasy. To assume otherwise is to reduce Emily’s humanity, to doubt her inner life. As if Emily D needs defending, much less from me. What am I avoiding?

I dressed up as Emily Dickinson for Halloween when I was freshly 21, dumbly proud of my quiet rejection of a sexy costume while secretly maintaining that my costume would in fact be sexy to someone who was right for me. This is called “being a stupid idiot.” Months earlier I had lost my virginity to a cute, quiet brunette who clearly liked me, but certainly never went out of his way to show it. Was he afraid that I would be too much? He should have been. I was smitten, and everything I did could be traced back to a roaring desire to see him.

At that point in my life, I believed I needed a good reason to enter every room, which meant most of the time I stayed put. I lived one floor above him in a spacious but shitty apartment, and spent most of the summer coated in a thin layer of sweat and dust, baking dozens of cakes, pies, and cookies to bring downstairs. I thought I needed an excuse to see the boy I was sleeping with, and even though he and his roommates didn’t eat sweets, I baked and baked. The treats ultimately sat on the counter for days, soggy from the humidity or a spilled beer.

At the end of the summer, he moved back home. I missed him for a month, and then we never talked again, except once, a couple years later, when he texted me to say he had met my doppelganger, except she was Indian.

“How are you?!” he followed up, with a question mark and exclamation point.

“You found her! I hear you’re in L.A. now. I hope everything’s going great,” I responded bland as bread, ignoring his question. At that point in my life, I believed any emotionally vulnerable moment could be won or lost by a singular party.

That boy and I only fucked five times, but it was pretty good. According to my algorithm, the ultimate quality is related to the frequency. Maybe you wouldn’t want that kind of fuck a hundred times, but five times makes it okay, even ideal. It’s possible to say goodbye to that type of fucking. You’ll know where to find it. At the very least, looking at it this way lets you believe the thing you lost, though cherished, isn’t rare.

I want to become Emily Dickinson, but I take no pleasure in abandonment. It’s not, if you leave me, I’ll die. It’s, if you leave me, I hope I die. This is called “thorny desire.”

If I eat my sex partner, they can’t go elsewhere. They also can’t fuck you again, because they’re dead, and you’re probably in jail, but then again, they’re not fucking anyone else either. If I eat my partner, they’ll understand my intensity. Nothing says I’m serious about you like placing an open mouth on their shoulder, then giving a big chomp.

But if you want to eat someone during sex you have to look at it both ways: Would you let them eat you as well? It’s an ultimate type of monogamy to be sure, and to answer “no” points to a more bloodthirsty urge. And yet, I don’t think I’d allow it. This is called “Having your cake.” This is called “Eating it too.” It’s also called “nature:” sexual cannibalism is found in arachnids and insects, but it rarely goes both ways. And therein lies Emily D, again.

I reject those who try to force a particular narrative upon Emily, while I desperately search for proof of our similarities. This is called “obvious hypocrisy.” I want so badly for Emily to have had both the things I crave: ultimate privacy and a perfect partner, to look at the quality of the fucking and think, this is good, even when I consider that I plan on fucking this person thousands of times overall. But as far as we know, she could have had both.

Shortly after Emily’s death, three letters to someone she called Master were recovered, though it’s unclear whether they were drafts or completed letters never sent. Master is assumed to be a man, but may be God or the Devil. No matter what, she calls herself “Daisy.” The second letter reads:

“Oh—did I offend it. Didn’t it want me to tell it the truth. Daisy—Daisy—offend it—who bends her smaller life to his meeker every day—who only asks—a task something to do for love of it—some little way she cannot guess to make that master glad.

A love so big it scares her, rushing among her small heart—pushing aside the blood—and leaving her all faint and white in the gust’s arm.”

This one feels familiar.

A love so big it scares her. If you leave me, I’ll die. Pushing aside the blood. Is this allowing yourself to be eaten? It’s a raw and reckless letter, deafening with emotion, and, ultimately, not for us. But who is it for? Shoved away in a box, closed but unlocked.

Emily chose seclusion. She chose 1800 poems. She chose to wear white. And yet she couldn’t protect herself from writing a letter like this. That’s terrifying to me.

“Didn’t it want me to tell it the truth,” she says.

Alas, here’s mine: in the purplish hours of the morning, with a body sleeping beside me, it sometimes occurs to me: my needs, my algorithm will be my undoing. I will pull away and then thrash towards the fucking, the partnership, the solitude, until I die or get someone’s flesh between my teeth.

What’s that called?

Nicole Silverberg is a writer and comedian in Brooklyn. She is a house performer and writer at UCB, writes for GQ and Reductress, and is an actor/director with arts education company Story Pirates.


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