Ecology, Ars Poetica, & the Erotic


Earlier this spring, I sat down with a collected works of Emily Dickinson and read more ED than I ever had before (and as a student of poetry, trust me, it’s been a lot). I was fascinated as several themes emerged over the course of this bounty! I became enamored by her focus on ars poetica, ecology, and the erotic. Even though I know ED was not the spinster poet history often makes her out to be, I was pretty surprised by just how often I wrote “sexy!” in the margins of my book, and I’m interested in the way ED connects these three themes in poem 44(211)“Come slowly – Eden!”

It may not be historically accurate to associate the word “Come” in this line with sex, but the word “Eden” evokes not only paradise or pristine natural beauty but also the garden where Adam and Eve first lived and of course ate from the tree of knowledge. The next line begins with “Lips,” a sensual part of the body, also used to speak or communicate. The second half of the first stanza create a simile, and with ED’s grammar, it can take some time to parse out who is doing what, so here’s the poem as I understand it: the speaker is asking the lover (or muse) to approach her slowly, as she is unused to the touch. She likens the interaction to a bee in search of nectar: the bee doesn’t immediately enter a blossom but first “Round her chamber hums.”

Ecology is the prominent image of this poem. We can picture a bee landing on a blossom, walking around it before entering in search of nectar or pollen. Once the bee (and the flower, if the conversation construct stands) are good and ready, then it moves inside. Hooowooof! So this is the image ED sets up for us, and it feels like a metaphor for an erotic encounter focused on foreplay (our speaker is “Bashful” above).

I think it can also be read as an ars poetic: the poet in conversation with the muse about writing. Rather than the more Romantic call to the muse to shower her with inspiration, she’s asking for it to come slowly, gently; she is “Bashful.” As I write this, I’m wondering why: Why would a poet distinguish the kind of inspiration she requests from her muse? I’m starting to think it’s indicative of her style. There’s a lot of pause for contemplation. These lines feel as fast-paced as they do crawling; and every word is heavy with weight and meaning (I mean, look at the three possible narratives at work in these 8 lines).

All three cases are supported by the final line: “Enters – and is lost in Balms.” While so many other poems feel more focused on the end result of love or the erotic, this poem ends with the beginning: the entering. I am smitten with the use of “Balms” here because the word is so ripe with meaning. Ecologically speaking, a balm is an herb of the mint family. Bee Balm is one specific variety, which—you guessed it—especially attracts bees. As a physical object, “balm” can also describe a cream or salve; metaphorically, a balm is anything that has a soothing or restorative affect.

“Restorative” is such a fantastic word here, as it ties us back to the opening of the poem, that call out to an other to provide something the speaker is missing. Perhaps what’s missing is our speaker’s inspiration, or perhaps it’s something more physical: human touch. This poem especially resonated with me during this pandemic life on a (less erotic) physical level: I’m still not used to touching anybody! It’s not just “Lips” that are unused to thee, but as the vaccine continues to roll out and outdoor spaces become more hospitable as spring awakens, some sort of Eden is indeed emerging slowly.

Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft. Find her online at