Prose is a trap, my professor looks up from her computer when she says this.  She has a tendency to hit realizations so simply— it doesn’t feel like a realization.  Prose is inherently patriarchal, and I will never be able to escape it as long as I continue to rely on this demand, on these ordered sentences.  My hands— they are unsure— as Emily would say— differently.  But I am good at manipulating the patriarchy, I am good at writing these sentences even if they have set me up to fail.  It will be a beautiful failure.

In a different class people keep insisting on prose being indulgent or sparse but it all feels like indulgent prose to me, in comparison, to Emily— and I am sorry for being so informal.  I don’t know if I would do the same if writing about a man.  Maybe I am failing. 

Our relationship has failed to transcend gender roles.  We acknowledge this and it feels heavy.  Beyza has their handon my calf.  I have my hand in my hair.  The conversation keeps switching but I am trying to figure out why I want to dress for them, why this is important to me after three years of dating.  Why I don’t want to be Cute all the time, but something else, Sexy.  Why I get upset when they do not want to eat the food I have made for us.  Why they want me to be the one who has the kids, when they want the kids more.  Or do they?  I am not sure anymore.


in one week three of my friends ask me about squirting & suddenly i am an expert on something i can barely define for myself.  i shrug & say, it makes me worry i’m peeing.  but maybe it is just this acknowledgement because i am suddenly very zen about it & later, during the fucking, i just let it happen.  beyza laughs at me & at first i am embarrassed but then they kiss my neck.  we move our bodies.  later they pull at my hair & i think i am going to ascend to some place better, i tell them, harder.

/i am trying to remember what it’s like to be a little body &


My pain tolerance is higher, don’t I remember when we got tattoos?  I only cried because the artist asked me about my grandmother.

These poems break all the rules by existing.  But they still follow a lot of rules, even self imposed ones: rhyme schemes, meter, etc.  These are not—usually— blank verse.  They follow a pattern of something that came before, even while building something new and remember: that is okay.

I want to write but that is not how people make money.  Beyza has figured this out by working at a feminist bookstore, by working at a literal foundation for poetry.  They have navigated this but.  I have found myself in big houses, in apartments.  I have found myself walking children home from school and reading them bedtime stories.  This type of work is referred to as Domestic.  I am constantly reminding people that nannying is different from babysitting, but it is different because the children are becoming partly mine.  Not quite Motherhood, but something along those lines.  Something serious.

If this was a different story, I would begin with my grandmother giving me Molly, the American Girl Doll.  I screamed so loudly my mom thought I had hurt myself.  Excitement.  And then.  Boredom.  


/willa has me lay down on the carpet.  she wants to turn my stomach into a bridge that leads to the interstate.  she calls it the high road.  her favorite car is bright red & it is her favorite because when she pulls it backwards until it makes clicking noises & then lets go it races faster than all the other cars.  the mechanics don’t work so well on fabric, on my body, so she directs it slowly over me.

/i don’t want to play princesses with her & i loved cinderella.  i used to rewrite versions of that story.  at first in my head, then on paper.  how these were my first stories & they were basically smut.  i tell alexis, i tell beyza, that’s in me now, there’s no point in hating it.  but i don’t want to play princesses with willa.


 I didn’t want to create a voice for her or dress her, really.  I didn’t want to create a life for her.  She spent months at the back of my closet and my mom rolled her eyes at the waste of a hundred dollars.

I am good at watching Alexis’ daughter.  I am not creating a life for her but helping her live one well.  I know how to perform this way.  I know how to make it enjoyable and this, this is what scares me.

Katie tweets, I like to clean up after people’s children when they are off at work.  When they are making their lives happen.  It gives me a sense of purpose in the world.  I wish I was kidding.

And we are always wishing that we are kidding.  That we had not learned how to straighten a room, how to make a dinner for people besides ourselves, how to thrive off of these things.  We worry that this means we cannot do other things, we cannot be fulfilled without this side of Us.  That in attempting to fulfill the domestic, we will let the other parts of ourselves fall away.  We remember our mothers before us, who slowly stopped retreating to studies, who worked part time, who made us dinner every night.  We are so thankful for this, but we want a way to avoid this for ourselves.

I am trying to remember the moment I realized my parents– in love, wonderful, happy— had a heteronormative marriage.  On a walk after dinner— my mom told me herself.  It had to be spelled out to me and even then.  But then, does it matter?   They are happy.  More specifically, since my mom is happy, does it matter?  That my dad makes the money, that she makes the food?  I come home for a night and I lay next to her in their bed, Modern Family is on in the background and I avoid talking about how much I hate the show, but I cannot avoid it entirely.  Then she says, Sometimes I wish we had had a third kid.  She says, Sometimes I wish I could have one now.  My sister is fifteen, almost grown.  I am twenty.  I


/the problem with pain is, it’s impossible to remember.  our brains refuse to keep the feeling in us.  we call that: evolution.  i have only read about this in the context of giving birth and torture.

/I’ve finished threading—too—


think, What would it mean, to start that process again, at almost 50, to forfeit the independence she was just about to gain, for another helpless human, to guide through this world, to create more helpless humans.  I think, How awful.  But then.  Not for her.  Wonderful.

Alexis can’t decide how to put it— she glances at the television as she talks.  I like to live with someone, in a partnership, taking care of her together— domestic— but I hate what that says about me.  And the rest of it, of what it means.  I don’t like that.

In all these essays about all these poems— the queer ones, the ones in which we insist on seeing Emily as opposed to any other narrator (and for this I am especially guilty, reading is to insert yourself, I suppose)— the word subversion is used again and again.  As though by writing Might I moor— tonight—/ In thee! Emily’s conjuring of penetration in a relationship with no penis is her upending heteronormativity.  But I can’t stop asking myself if it isn’t just a failure, like mine, to overcome heteronormativity.  And then I wonder why it matters.  Why does the most talented writer of her time, arguably of any time, need to subvert, and why do I?  Why do queer women feel the pressure to become something that society has not yet allowed room for and why do people keep insisting Emily Dickinson was a lesbian when she has piles of love and fuck poems written for and about men too?  And why is that a failure as well?  Is it not enough of an upending— enough of a subversion— to have written these poems, to have fallen in love with her sister in law, to have fallen in love with men as well, and to have told these stories in her own way.  


/on the brown line i worry that people will think i am a bad mother.  she keeps asking me if she can watch alvin & the chipmunks when we get home & the answer is yes but i try to say it quietly because an older woman is staring at us, willa & i— the smallest shake of her head.  it takes me minutes to remember: i am not a mother.

/the only time she ever tattles on me: alexis arrives home from work & willa tugs on her shirt sleeve, she whispers loud enough so she knows i can hear, she whispers, isabelle did something really mean.  she whispers, isabelle ate my pretzel sticks.


She allowed space in her mind for a world beyond binaries— sexuality and gender.  She did not, Subvert the cult of domesticity by obeying its letter but defying it’s spirit.  She lived in a way that allowed her to pick parts of that cult, of that life that every woman was compelled to live and that they may have liked living, & she got to let go of some other parts.  She let her sister take care of the house & wrote.  

Before the mooring in another woman, Emily writes, Done with the Compass— / Done with the Chart!  Done with following a path set out for her, set out for anyone.  Done with doing anything but spending time with her lover.  And though, in reality, it seems her lover existed in the space between her pen and her paper, she still managed to do exactly what she wanted.  She lived how she wanted.  Which is to say, outside of expectations.

Emily kept up a friendship, one people presume to call an editorial relationship, with Thomas Higginson.  But to call it that would be to overlook the way she ignored every piece of writing advice he ever gave her.  She asked for criticism again and again, sending poem after poem, but I can only imagine an eye roll at Higginson’s responses from her.  In her most famous letter to him, you can almost feel her exaggeration with him, this man who she respected only to a point.  You think my gait “spasmodic.”  I am in danger sir.  In danger of what?  Mediocrity, I suppose, if she was to listen.  Her signature of, YOUR SCHOLAR, a joke more than anything.


/in rugrats in paris chuckie cries on the airplane thinking about his mom—he sees in the clouds.  willa wants to know if she’s dead because willa knows all about death, the first time i met her she told me, it’s when you lay down and you never come back. she told me, you just can’t.  & i think chuckie’s mom is probably dead but i can’t be sure & willa has to get on a plane to see her dad & when she comes back from those trips something about her has gotten a little tougher.

/i tell beyza my favorite pets are fish because they are so low maintenance & they tell me i probably shouldn’t tell any potential employers about that.  but something in me has started to melt.  when i see fluffy dogs i bend down to pet them now.  my googling has not revealed if this is caused by love or hormones.


After her death Higginson took her poems.  He edited them.  People later called this, a destruction.

We play pretend for an hour and a half before I suggest putting on the TV.  I know, I shouldn’t have suggested it first, but being a King can become exhausting because I have to keep telling Willa that women, Princesses, cannot be bought and sold into marriage.  That I wouldn’t want to do that.  She says okay and then comes up with a different way of saying the same thing.  She wants to play all the princesses, but then she wants to play the Bad Witch too.  The bad witch freezes me in my sleep, she turns Sleeping Beauty into soup.  I understand the need to be more than one thing.  The need to perform multiple roles.  Willa isn’t allowed to watch princess shows anymore, we put on Rugrats again.

And that’s it, Performance.  How I am doing that all the time.  How it has become impossible for me to tell what things I actually like and what things have been ingrained into me.  Aesthetics.  I love them.  At the Forever 21 my sister tells me I am going for a Twin Peaks Aesthetic and she is totally right.  I want to be Audrey Horne but I buy a diner girl dress.  From the dressing room I snap a picture to Beyza and they send back so many starry emojis.

Maybe, Alexis is sick and we are drinking wine anyway.  We want Willa to sleep through the night so we sit in the living room with all the lights off.  Maybe the problem isn’t that you’re not subverting whatever, but that we’ve decided that taking care of children and making food are intrinsically feminine.

Alexis is so tired but she cannot sleep until the kitchen is clean.  My mother is like this too and I know one day, I will wake up, and I will feel that pull.  I tell Alexis to go to sleep, I tell her I will do the dishes— but I am wine drunk & my Uber arrives before I can finish.

My dad fails to notice the clutter that surround him until my mom is falling into a tailspin.  We call this an example of nurture verses nature.  He grew up watching his mother clean and his father leave things lying around in separate houses.  My mom’s parents were both unbelievably messy, and so was she until she wasn’t.  The wasn’t is the question, when asked she references my birth.

But then, Emily was supposed to clean up after her family.  Emily was supposed to take off her white dress every once and a while, put on something darker so she could dig into the floors.  But she chose— decided— not to, to leave her white dress on and close her door. We have one picture of her and in it she has been transformed.  They put makeup on her retroactively.  Other things.  She was not something simple, and They don’t forget, just cover up.  Her bigness, her complexities, fit best into small spaces.  A poem, a room— you know— we or They, put her in something pretty, later.

When she writes, I’m wife— I’ve finished that— we know that Emily is not the narrator of the poem.  She never got married, she never entered a safer space and in turn, never allowed herself to be eclipsed— however softly.  This narrator cannot decide if it is better to be safe and accepted in society, but not quite reaching her own potential.  She, at the end says, I’m Wife!  Stop there!  As though it could ever be so simple.  To become a wife, specifically in this time, but still now for some people, was to trade in a freedom for a sure place in society.  A trade that results in both pain and comfort.


/the winters create something in us that is not god.   on the red line a man sits next to me.  he is the type of person where it isn’t clear to me if he’s a man or a boy, but i think he likes to ride that line.  we aren’t god but we both wear heavy jackets & this creates something different in our dynamic.  his elbow rests on my side.  in a month this will not be acceptable but right now we have a closeness i haven’t had with a stranger in a year.  more.  we don’t look at each other, but we allow the other person to get comfortable.  in the summer he might be sweaty & i would be wearing a crop top & this would never fly.  but here.  in february.  it is okay.  it is a comfort we both need to get through this maddening darkness.


And then, later, she writes, I’m ceded— I’ve stopped being Theirs.  That capital They, so present in her work.  That insistence on freedom, another meaning of ceded, within everything oppressing her, the They, the needle that she says she has put down.  It’s all here, in this poem, being let go of, but still being.  Still as important as what she builds to— that diademAnd I choose, just a Crown—  Emily has never been more self assured than she is here, every analysis I read insists on this, and yet in choosing greatness, she is deliberately opaque about what that means for her, for anyone.

So often Emily allows herself to be a volcano, but one that lives, as Rich points out so vitally, at home.  Emily has constantly been pigeonholed into either the demure, small girl who wrote about nature, or the dark, subverting woman who ignored all expectations, who lived a completely original life.  The patriarchy and second wave feminism, just like in real life, are both incorrect, even if one is less wrong than the other.  She lived in her head— & it was a brilliant one— but it stayed on her father’s estate for decades.  Poetry is power, language is power, my professor tells us.  She had so much power, & she used it in the way that she felt comfortable, which is to say, often very domestically.  Can my prose do this?  Can any woman’s?

Willa wants to know if I have any children, if she can meet them.  I tell her no, I don’t, and she asks me why not.  At first I think, because I am twenty, but there is more to it than that.  Don’t you want to be a mom?  I remember every conversation I have had about not wanting motherhood & then being in love.


/she wants me to sing her a song, but a new one.  a song she has never heard before.  i scan my mind for something simple, something pretty.  every song pretty enough to sing to her has the word love in the chorus, a romantic love i try to skew into a platonic love, into something understandable for a four year old.  i tell her okay, but she has to close her eyes during the song.  she thinks this means it is time to play peekaboo, or.  i’m not sure what she really thinks, but this is the most enjoyable thing for her.


Staring at paint samples with Beyza, picking the one yellow that would look perfect in a baby’s bedroom.  And then, loving.  Willa.  I imagine my stomach expanding.  The hormones, the crying.  I imagine how I would have to stop working for a while.  How Beyza would rub my back at nights but it would never be enough.  Carmen Gimenez Smith, the way she loves her children, regrets the time they take away from her writing, her teaching.  I don’t know, kid.

In Her sweet Weight on my Heart a Night— Emily dreams for something incredibly domestic.  Or her narrator does.  My bride had slipped away—.  My bride.  Not just another woman, a fling, but a deep love—a word which could have implied an elect lady, an immortal soul at most, and at least, a partner in nature, a human being.  Either way this human, this immortal soul, she slipped away or never existed, or always existed.  The speaker cannot be sure, and doesn’t want the reader to be either.  And it doubles in on itself when the speaker offers up the confirmation of a God we know Emily did not believe in.  If ‘twas a dream—made solid— just/ The Heaven to confirm— She offers us a Schrodinger’s love.  She offers us an unknowable queerness.  A queerness steeped in the traditions of the heteropatriarchy— yes, of course, this poem was written in 1863.  


she is trying to put off sleep again.  she has developed new stratagies.  will i tickle her?  just for like… two minutes!  & who am i to say no?  she has a tummy like mine, we are both small but that flatness alludes us.  & on willa, who is four, that is adorable, it is perfect.  i think on me it can also be adorable.

 /katie lies in my bed with me, wine resting between us—the kind of red that looks nothing like blood— almost empty.  we both have our fingers in front of our faces, counting.  she has just started dating someone new & i have been in the same relationship for years, but still. we are trying to figure out how many days it will before we have sex.  the answer is not soon enough.  we have both masturbated while the kids we nanny watch TV or slept or did whatever else.  she asks me, what other job are you going to have that kind of freedom?  & i fall into myself, laughing but— knowing the needing of it.  to own something erotic as i allow myself to help raise a child.  as i allow myself to take care.

A still— Volcano— Life—

That flickered in the night—


But a queerness that does not even need to have the trappings of reality to exist.  A Fiction superseding Faith—/ By so much— as ‘twas real— Faith, at one point, meant truth.  Of course.  We—humans, Dickinson, the speaker— have the ability to imagine so well, to love so largely, that it goes beyond truth.  These imaginings are more important than whatever reality has to offer.  And that is what this moment with her love her was to the speaker.  More important.

And this prose, it’s trying so hard to not play into the patriarchy, by being mine.  These comas are all in the wrong places and that wasn’t intentional but it feels like the best failure— good.  Not like being touched feels good, but maybe that’s in the dashes.  


she wants to know what boys are made of.  if there is something different there.  us against them.  she sees a picture of a sumo wrestler & she knows nothing about her body would allow that.  willa turns to me— an answer required.  the only answer i can provide, i worry later she will apply to all boys, i worry she will forget the other things i’ve ever whispered to her, remembering only, the same stuff as your or i, only more of it.  more.

/ she makes her little feet dance, at just the right distance from the door.  i am lying on the ground on the other side of it because she asked me to.  i am positioned so i can see her feet, but i also have two fingers pushed underneath the crack of the door, so she knows i haven’t gone anywhere.  in this way i have entered an inbetween space, i am not on the other side of the door but i’m not on this side either. the floor is hardwood, my back cracks when i push into it.  willa is all, can you see my feet now?  yes.  what about now?  no!  now?

Isabelle Davis

is a Chicago based writer and Pushcart Nominee. She works as an editor for Big Lucks Books. Isabelle is the author of the chapbook, I’m Sorry Because This is Not About Sex. Her work can be found or is upcoming in The Iowa Review, alice blue review, xoJane, Quaint, and others.

Contributions by Isabelle Davis