Emily Dickinson is so often a poet of elusive definitions. She rhymes and riddles; she poses impossible questions and goes on to answer them, but leaves always an escape clause—something that slips away from meaning, or exceeds it. I’ve been thinking and writing for some time now about space and embodiment in Dickinson’s work—about the ways she renders human subjectivity as neither continuous with nor separate from its environment; about the persistent (and fascinating!) oddness of the spaces and bodies in her poems.
There’s one word in particular in which I find a center of these concerns. It appears in a short poem, written in 1864, which goes like this:
A nearness to Tremendousness –
An Agony procures –
Affliction ranges Boundlessness –
Vicinity to Laws
Contentment’s quiet Suburb –
Affliction cannot stay –
In Acres – It’s Location
Is Illocality –
I’m still looking for a way to explain why some thread in me has so long been caught on the fishhook of this word, this illocality. I’ve found one way in through a series of questions that the writer and scholar Sara Ahmed asks in the introduction to her book Queer Phenomenology: “How do we begin to know or feel where we are, or even where we are going, by lining ourselves up with the features of the grounds we inhabit, the sky that surrounds us, or the imaginary lines that cut through maps?”[ii]
In reading the poem above—to which we’ll be returning—I find myself asking a question I’m not sure can be answered—where is illocality? Can it be said to be inside or outside of the body? Is it a place, or a feeling, or is the distinction between those things part of the problem? (“Is Heaven a Place—a Sky—a Tree?” Dickinson asks elsewhere.[iii])
Here’s one version of my question, which I’m suggesting was also one of Dickinson’s: how do we locate ourselves, and what does it mean when we can’t? I remain uncertain whether a map of illocality is actually possible—and yet nevertheless I want to try to sketch one; to use it, hopefully, to go somewhere; to send you a letter from there.
A message from illocality: Dickinson sent us so many. Ahmed writes: “It matters how we arrive at the places we do.”[iv] It matters how we arrive at Dickinson. When we read her, what we’re reading is always the result of someone else’s work as well as hers. (This is, of course, true of most—maybe all—writing, but here becomes especially apparent.) Her myth so often precedes her—readers (myself included) have long been, and continue to be, fascinated by her secluded life and her copious writing, by her secrecy and what the archive can and can’t say about it. Some of the same questions surface again and again: How well can we know her poems? How close can we get to them? How much do we need to know in order to read her—about her life, about poetic tradition and form, about the nineteenth century? Do we need to see the poems in manuscript? Do we need to know to whom she sent them, and when, and in what order she sewed them together into the little volumes called (by others, not by Dickinson), wonderfully, fascicles?
All these are problems of orientation. I’ve spent time turning over some of these questions in my head, and I’ve read the writings of others who’ve spent far more time doing so, and I’m still not sure. There’s an expansive archive of readings of Dickinson out there, and readings-of-readings, and at the heart of all of that there are the poems themselves—again, so many of them! In confronting these thousands-on-thousands of poems and their critical edifice, I’ve clung to Ahmed’s insistence that we think about one aspect of orientation as the attempt to work out a vocabulary for the sort of things we don’t always find ourselves able to talk about, a vocabulary that may not yet exist. Ahmed wants to think about what disappears into what we think of as normal, and to draw it out, and to become able to speak about it. One of her examples shows some of what I mean: Ahmed describes the ways in which a philosopher’s table, for instance, might disappear into the background. We might not even notice it’s there—and yet the table produces the condition of being-able-to-write. It’s so necessary, so fundamental, that it becomes invisible. When using the phrase “sexual orientation,” we may not think about said “orientation” as a matter of direction. Ahmed draws our attention to this, reminding us that “orientations involve different ways of registering the proximity of objects and others,” as well as determining much about “how we apprehend this world of shared inhabitance.”[v]
I’m increasingly convinced that Dickinson, too, wanted to invent a new vocabulary for the mysteries of the ordinary world, its proximities and impressions. In other words, I’m drawing a line between Dickinson’s illocality and Ahmed’s queer phenomenology, towards a suggestion that there’s something to be gained from reading Dickinson as a queer phenomenologist. Her poems also register, and inventory, “the proximity of objects and others.” She continuously interrogates modes of attachment, including attachments I think it’s safe to say we’d now call queer. I hesitate to attach labels to Dickinson’s sexuality, because categorizing anyone else’s orientation is tricky business, especially across the distance of time and its shifting social norms—but it’s impossible, to my mind, to read any substantial selection of Dickinson’s letters and poems without recognizing that her life included intimate and intense attachments to women as well as to men.
That queerness is and isn’t the queerness I want to think about in the poems. In other words, I think that recognizing and naming Dickinson as queer (as many people have been doing for a while now, gladly) does something, but I want to leave what that “something” is open-ended. There’s a bit of a balancing act here, which also has something to do with drawing on various systems of knowing. Tracing the history of her own engagement with phenomenology, Ahmed notes the hesitation that can come from reading and writing across disciplinary boundaries: “I write this book as someone who does not reside within philosophy; I feel out of line even at the point from which I start.”[vi] Following her mode, I zero in on the words out of line. I attach to these sentences because I am making of them a mirror: I am so uncertain about, so skeptical of, my own inclination to use the word “queer” to mean just-about-anything. How easily overdetermined! This word is so difficult to use precisely that I hesitate to use it at all, but it’s boring, too, to fetishize indeterminacy. What I mean is that I wrote a seminar paper once thinking about related topics to what I’m taking up here. A careful student, I mostly considered the arguments of others. I titled the working draft “Emily Dickinson’s Queer Poetics of the Interior”—then changed it. I felt I’d no idea how to defend my own use of the word “queer.” So I erased it.
We know queer texts are full of ghosts. Maybe that essay was haunted by its own queerness, by everything I cheerfully banished to the margins. I always want this kind of story: the story of what didn’t get written, or what got erased, then carefully excavated: glimmering fragments of precarity. But it’s true, too, that this kind of consideration takes up so much space! Already the word “queer” envelops everything in its own vagueness and my search for a way into or out of it. It’s taken us so far from the poems, when what I meant to do was use it as a way to live inside them.
Here is a poem which I take to be about something we might call “illocality,” something that’s also rather queer. Dickinson writes:
It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down –
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.
It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos – crawl –
Nor Fire – for just my marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool –
And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial,
Reminded me, of mine –
As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ’twas like Midnight, some –
When everything that ticked – has stopped –
And space stares – all around –
Or Grisly frosts – first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground –
But, most, like Chaos – Stopless – Cool –
Without a Chance, or spar –
Or even a Report of Land –
To justify – Despair.
This poem’s center of gravity is an absent referent—“it” is at the heart of the poem, the whole reason for the poem’s being, but we aren’t told what “it” is, only what it’s not, and then what it’s like. “It was not Death, for I stood up” wears its search for meaning on its sleeve: there is something at the other side of “it,” an experience, but the poem’s subject is as much the lack of accurate language to describe that experience as the experience itself. Dickinson draws a map of disorientation, orienting us around the third-person impersonal pronoun. “It” becomes both saturated with and empty of signification.
How, exactly, does this happen? We’re propelled through the poem by several patterns of sound and of reasoning. Dickinson’s writing in ballad meter, a form often used for hymns during her lifetime—this means that lines of eight and six syllables alternate in quatrains, with the second and fourth lines landing in rhymes. (It also means that you can sing quite a number of Dickinson poems, including this one, to the tune of “The House of the Rising Sun”—go ahead, try it.) In the poem’s first two stanzas, the poem’s speaker repeats a structure in which she suggests a possible point of comparison for “it,” then negates that point of comparison. The possibilities include different kinds of sensory experience—death is discarded because “I stood up,” which the dead do not. Sound, touch, and temperature are considered, too—“it” can’t be night, because it isn’t quiet; not frost, because “on my Flesh” the “I” feels a warm wind; not Fire, because the speaker’s “marble feet” are freezing.
One way of framing the poem’s situation surfaces here: what happens if we read “It was not Death, for I stood up” as voiced by a statue? It’s these “marble feet” that point me towards this reading, though, again, I hesitate—I don’t want to ‘solve’ the poem, to close down its possibilities. Imagining a statue as the “I” of these lines, though, offers some insight: the “it,” here, has something to do with consciousness limited by motionlessness, with an inability to act. The “I” is suspended at the edges of aliveness, aware and yet stripped of agency; she compares herself to a lifeless body “Set orderly, for Burial,” and also to an object—what’s “fitted to a frame, / And could not breathe without a key” sounds, to me, like a door.
This poem’s last two stanzas are its strangest and also its most interesting. Dickinson locates us in the inability to measure time or space: “When everything that ticked – has stopped – / And space stares – all around” elaborates on the last stanza’s “like Midnight,” but this midnight is also timelessness. What “ticked” is clocks, and it’s relevant here to remember that Dickinson didn’t learn how to tell time until she was an adult. I’m even more interested, though, in what happens in the phrase “space stares,” in which awareness is attributed to the environment rather than the speaker. This could be the situation of a queer illocality: a conscious subject’s inability to clearly determine the boundaries between self and world.
The poem’s real heart, though—and perhaps the point at which its ticking begins again—lives in the words “Chaos – Stopless – cool,” which we’re told are the “most” accurate description for this “it.” This poem is a poem of tensions: between life and death, frost and fire, order and chaos, time and timelessness, in which what’s “stopped” is also “Stopless.” (Dickinson was fond of adding “-less” to the ends of words; “noteless” is my favorite.) At the utterance of “Chaos – Stopless – Cool – ” the poem turns away from the logical reasoning of the earlier stanzas, and draws its energy as much from the sounds of these words as from their meanings; the echoing of consonants (Ss of ‘Chaos” and “Stopless”; Cs of “Chaos” and “cool”) lets the words blur together even as the dashes break up the rhythm of the line’s iambs. Even here, there’s a careful balance between orientation and disorientation—we land in this moment in which the speaker finally finds a way to describe “it,” but that description is itself enigmatic and elliptical.
What we’re oriented towards, in this last stanza, is disorientation. Ahmed writes: “Disorientation as a bodily feeling can be unsettling, and it can shatter one’s sense of confidence in the ground or one’s belief that the ground on which we reside can support the actions that make a life feel livable. Such a feeling of shattering, or of being shattered, might persist and become a crisis. Or the feeling itself might pass as the ground returns or as we return to the ground.”[viii] Which happens in the last stanza of “It was not Death, for I stood up,” which closes on the word “Despair”? Are we to conclude that “Despair” is really the “it” Dickinson’s been describing all along? That final “Despair” is punctuated with a period, lending the line a sense of closure and finality that the dashes leading up to it resist, and yet it’s also a slant rhyme—“spar”; “Despair”—which undoes some of that closure, especially following the previous stanza’s full rhyme between “around” and “Ground.” There is nothing to “justify,” to account for, this condition of “Chaos – Stopless – cool.”
The ending of “It was not Death, for I stood up” hovers between conclusion and its opposite. In reading the poem as expressing a condition we could think of as “illocality,” I’m arguing that “illocality” involves an attempt—always partial—to situate embodied experience in figurative language: to describe the “space” of the mind as a space. With that in mind, let’s consider again the poem I began with, in which our poet-philosopher coins the word “illocality” while asking an implicit question about how we place ourselves in relation to the world:
A nearness to Tremendousness –
An Agony procures –
Affliction ranges Boundlessness –
Vicinity to Laws
Contentment’s quiet Suburb –
Affliction cannot stay –
In Acres – It’s Location
Is Illocality –
This poem asks us to wonder where the interior is, where the boundaries of the self are and what crosses them. Pain takes us to the edges of ourselves, past the limits of the measurable. The poem ventures into abstraction because it must. “Tremendousness” and “Boundlessness” sprawl across their respective lines, enacting the vastness they describe in the capacious expanse of their syllables.
“Contentment” is a “Suburb,” here, or contains said Suburb, but “Affliction” can’t be figured in geographic terms. According to the poem’s logic, “Tremendousness” and “Boundlessness” are related to “Illocality,” meaning we have to think about it not only in terms of pain (for “Affliction”) but of expansiveness. It’s worth paying attention to the “ill” of “illocality,” too, as well as to its paradox: “illocality” can only be defined by what it isn’t, by thinking of “locality.” It’s a “Location” mappable only according to its own absence.
To me, this makes no sense—and it makes perfect sense. “Illocality” is place and no-place, a word which somehow contains within its syllables the feeling of embodied displacement, a state of being out-of-phase with one’s occupying of physical space. It rhymes with one of Dickinson’s favorite words, “Immortality,” which makes sense, too: both are expansive, unmappable states of being, which elude definition and yet remain captivating.
In fact, maybe thinking of illocality as the absence of locality isn’t quite right—we could think of it as something more like hyperlocation, as a sense of locatedness that continuously exceeds its boundaries. As suggested by its association with “Tremendousness” and “Boundlessness,” illocality might be a state of radical possibility even as it’s also one of dissociation. I find a link to this way of understanding illocality in an earlier poem, from 1861. It’s a species of love poem:
The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea –
Forgets her own locality –
As I, in Thee –
She knows herself an incense small –
Yet small, she sighs, if all, is all,
How larger – be?
The Ocean, smiles at her conceit –
But she, forgetting Amphitrite –
Knowing and unknowing, here and more broadly in Dickinson’s work, are inextricable from the ability or inability to locate oneself in space. Here, the poet and her “Drop” are worried about the boundaries of an inside and an outside. Where do we outline the limits of the interior? Is a drop in a sea still a drop? Where are the boundaries of the self—and if the “I” “Forgets her own locality,” then where is she to be located?
“As I, in Thee” is crucial to how I read this poem; the unspecified addressee may be a beloved, or God, or neither, or both. In any case, it remains true that Dickinson is comparing the condition of a drop of water in the ocean to that of an “I” in some relation to a “you,” whose immensity both enchants and overwhelms. The Drop “wrestles”; there’s a struggle here for self-definition, for an identity with clear boundaries, but the very material of which she’s composed resists this.
I read this “forgetting” of one’s own locality and “illocality” both as expressions of the problem of the individual—these irreconcilable forces of understanding oneself as bounded, separate, and as continuous with the world one inhabits, including the world of other people. Here, in the “now” I write this from—early 2021, approaching a year since the COVID-19 pandemic radically transformed the way so many of us move through the spaces of our daily lives—I’ve found myself turning anew to her poems as little machines of understanding, in which I find a universe as complicated as it is in life, suffused with a sense of wonder: Dickinson had a gift for looking at the world and asking what is it? in ways that still feel so striking, so continuously new. Queer phenomenology offers one way of understanding why these reframings-in-language might matter so much. Ahmed declares that “the ‘new’ is what is possible when what is behind us, our background, does not simply ground us or keep us in place, but allows us to move and allows us to follow something other than the lines that we have already taken.”[xi] Illocality, involving some degree of defamiliarization, could be what precedes the following of a new line, a new attachment, a different source of identification. I keep lingering in the condition of this “Drop”: suspended between the awareness of herself as a particular entity and the understanding that she’s continuous with, inseparable from, something so much larger, almost incomprehensibly immense.
I wrote at the opening of this essay that there’s something in Dickinson’s poems that escapes or exceeds meaning, which might be true. It’s also true that this something-past-the-edges-of-language is made out of language, and that this all might be, too, a fable for what it is to find meaning in words—a disappearance into something that can’t quite be called outside or inside; a sense of being located in a place that is abstract, unchartable: this is so much what happens when we read.
[i] Poem citations refer to R.W. Franklin’s reading edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Harvard University Press, 1998); “A nearness to Tremendousness” is numbered 824. Franklin’s numbering places the poems in chronological order.
[ii] Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, Duke University Press, 2006, p. 6.
[iii] “We pray – to Heaven” (F 476)
[iv] Ahmed, 2
[v] Ahmed, 3
[vi] Ahmed, 22
[vii] “It was not Death, for I stood up” (F 355)
[viii] Ahmed, 157
[ix] “A nearness to Tremendousness” (F 824)
[x] “The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea” (F 255)
[xi] Ahmed, 62