In 1847, Emily Dickinson invented lesbian processing. She maintained a passionate correspondence with women throughout her life, often coaxing her interloctresses to reflect on their relationship together, or as she put it in a late poem, “We talked with each other about each other.” Here’s a letter she wrote as a seventeen-year-old to her college friend, Abiah Root (a.k.a. Dickinson’s root), whom she had not seen for “six long months.”
Slowly, very slowly, I came to the conclusion that you had forgotten me, & I tried hard
to forget you, but your image still haunts me, and tantalizes me with fond
recollections… Did my letter never reach you, or did you coolly decide to love me, &
write to me no more? If you love me, & never received my letter — then may you think
yourself wronged, and that rightly, but if you don’t want to be my friend any longer, say
so, & I’ll try once more to blot you from my memory. Tell me very soon, for suspense is
intolerable. I need not tell you, this is from, Emilie.
Lovers of dyke drama will not be surprised to learn that Abiah did not reply with sufficient depth. Soon, Dickinson’s devotion fell on her future sister-in-law, Susan. In her last letter to Abiah, she sings Susan’s praises, declines Abiah’s invitation for a visit, and offers a passive-aggressive goodbye for the ages:
I’m so old fashioned, Darling, that all your friends would stare. I should have to bring
my work bag, and my big spectacles, and I half forgot my grandchildren, my pin-cushion,
Mind you, Dickinson was only twenty-four when she wrote this letter.
Dickinson is famous for everything she declined — publication, fame, travel, marriage — but it would be a mistake to say she withdrew from society. Her correspondence is filled with dejected congratulations sent to (girl)friends getting married, long lists of everything she did that day and wishes for the same in return, pleas for a lock of hair, laments that her dear friend could not see the same silver fairy moon as she, laments that she would be underdressed to see her correspondent, laments that snowflakes were keeping them apart, and promises that no one loved or even thought of her dear friend as much as she did. This is to say: we don’t “know” that Emily Dickinson was queer (“to guess it, puzzles scholars”), but if you are queer, you know Emily Dickinson was queer.
As with so many of our chosen ancestors, there are many places in which to locate Dickinson’s queerness, even if all evidence is coded. There is the Sapphic content of her poems (be careful reading “Come slowly, Eden” in public) as well as her reluctance to either maintain a persona throughout her work or to end her poems on a note of closure. Her vision of the future placed satisfaction on the horizon and refused the heterosexual demand to think of one’s posterity. In her letters, Dickinson longed for a closeness with women through writing, always in anticipation of the next letter, creating a future of pleasure to come. The pleasure is in the processing, after all, and it never comes to a close.
Aside from writing, Dickinson’s preoccupations were baking and botany. Sometimes, she combined all three passions. In the summer of 1883, Emily Dickinson sent her marvelously-named friend Nellie Sweetser a treat: a bouquet of flowers and a recipe for Black Cake. Black Cake is a dark fruitcake made of molasses and spice, wrapped in a brandy-soaked cloth and aged a month. Her recipe for the cake survives and calls for two pounds each of flour, sugar, and butter, five pounds of raisins, and nineteen eggs.
With her characteristic dashes reaching out to the end of each line, the recipe itself reads like her poetry: “Cloves – Mace – / Cinnamon –” And like a poem, there is a mathematical soundness to the recipe, even if the possibility it suggests (how does anyone mix 20 pounds of batter?) is difficult to imagine.
In her time, Dickinson had more renown as baker than a poet; her bread won awards but only six of her eighteen-hundred poems were published. She wrote many of her poems on whatever was closest, envelopes and receipts and telegrams and even once on a recipe for Coconut Cake (“The Things that never can come back, are several—/ Childhood — some forms of Hope — the Dead” and, one imagines, the last serving of cake). Considering that she mostly declined to publish in her lifetime, the difference between a scrap of note paper and a refined piece of poetry may be in the eye of her beholder. After all, the manuscripts of her letters suggest, she put equal amount of care into a note attached to flowers as she did for the poems she composed.
What kind of future did she have in mind for her Black Cake? Working with a recipe of such wild proportions is to stage a domesticity of the absurd. Use five pounds of raisins! Bake for five to six hours! Don’t eat it right away — let it sit for a whole month! The ingredients of the cake are Caribbean in origin, a region she would never see and could only imagine. Even with the help of the domestic laborers the Dickinson family employed, such a cake would likely only be made for a large celebration, and well ahead of time. I like the idea of her giving the recipe as a gift instead of cake itself — it’s a recipe for an imagined celebration, for tomorrow’s party that may or may not ever come. Just the possibility of cake is sweet enough.
Along with the recipe, Dickinson sent her Sweetser flowers and a short poem:
Blossoms will run away,
Cakes reign but a Day,
But Memory like Melody
Is pink Eternally.
As male poets have been so good to remind us for centuries, flowers are not long for this world. This is no seize the day poem, however. She does not beg her reader to get on with any seduction to make the most of fleeting beauty, because the memory won’t fade. The eternal future she has in mind is pink, the color of such momentary delights as a spring blossom, a birthday cake, a blush. Pink might be the color of heteronormative femininity, but it is also a color of queerness. With the help of the Emily Dickinson Lexicon, you can look up “pink” in the dictionary she kept at home and see that the word, for her, could have evoked spring, lava, flesh — things we desire that take time to touch.
Janelle Monáe sings,“Pynk like the paradise found” — it could be a Dickinson lyric, too. “Earth is short Abiah, but Paradise is long,” she once wrote to her girl, dreaming of the day they would have an eternity to talk to each other about each other, knowing that that day would never come on earth. In this lifetime, flowers will wilt, cake will go stale, letters will get lost, and lovers will part. But paradise is an eternity where there is enough time to process. Think of her poem “I dwell in Possibility.” The last word reaches out to a wide open future: “Paradise—”
Dickinson’s gay gifts are cake and flowers: something that will perish and something that will endure, something to be enjoyed immediately and something intended for future use. The cake reminds me of other diaphanously lesbian celebrations, pleasant yet imbued with mortality. The St. Valentine’s Cake, heart-shaped bisected by a knife, in Picnic at Hanging Rock. Or Mrs. Dalloway’s sudden revelation: “Oh! In the middle of my party, here’s death.” Both are a sort of lesbian vanitas, a reminder of death in the middle of an otherwise perfectly gay time. As she wrote in poem that recalls her college late-night processing sessions,
We talked as Girls do—
Fond, and late—
We speculated fair, on every subject, but the Grave—
Of ours, none affair—
We handled Destinies, as cool—
And God, a Quiet Party
To our Authority—
But fondest, dwelt upon Ourself
As we eventual—be—
When Girls to Women, softly raised
We parted with a contract
To cherish, and to write
But Heaven made both, impossible
Before another night.
Every possibility is open to these girls, even the possibility of becoming a “we,” but death interrupts their processing, their promise to forever write.
Historically, asking a queer person to imagine the future, especially a romantic future, is a hazy project. Sometimes the easiest future to imagine is a tragic end. Uncelebrated by society, we have to find kin and celebrate ourselves, or “select our own society,” as Dickinson might put it. If the future is potentially short, then the next party is always on the horizon. There is no amount of cake that could sate that kind of hunger for celebration.
If you might never get to cut the cake, may as well send a recipe, instead. Dickinson’s Black Cake asks us to celebrate a future that is delicious in its potential and nearly impossible in its execution. She didn’t leave the recipe, or any of her writing, directly to us, but we queers are used to belatedly appointing our ancestors. Instead, she left us a future to imagine.🎈
edited by Heather Hogan.