There was a woman I made love to and I remembered how, holding her small shoulders in my hands sometimes, I felt a violent wonder at her presence like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat, muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Boy, he doesn’t give us much warning when he changes the subject, does he?
In the middle of line 16, we get airlifted out of the conversation about philosophical ideas (and not a moment too soon), and he starts discussing a memory of a woman he makes love to. Cue the soft lighting.
We don’t know anything about her, except that she has "small shoulders," which makes her sound fragile – don’t break her, Mr. Speaker! In fact, her shoulders are small enough that he can hold them in his hands.
He feels a "violent wonder" or amazement at her "presence" with him.
Like the woodpecker, she is a very particular thing, and not a general idea. The poet seems to say that, despite our lofty and general ideas, we can’t ever pull ourselves away from the singular and specific – the things which, like this woman, can’t be completely defined in words. We need particular things like a thirsty person needs salt in his body.
(Strange, but true – that’s why athletes who sweat a lot need to consume things with salt, like sports drinks.)
The woman also reminds him of his past – specifically of his childhood. This is a large part of the reason that he's so attracted to her.
For some inexplicable reason, her presence brings to mind this one super-specific memory of a "childhood river," as well as music and fishing.
Like the description of the woodpecker, everything here feels solid and real, not dry and intellectual. Thus, even the name of the fish – the pumpkinseed – sounds like something we could reach out and taste. The name isn’t just an idea – it’s a thing.
The speaker even goes so far as to say that his attraction to the woman has more to do with the things that she reminds him of, rather than anything relating to her: "It hardly had to do with her."
At this point, we've got to wonder what she would think of this statement. Note to the reader: it’s probably not a good idea to tell someone that you only like them because they remind you of something else – save it for poetry you write later on and, for goodness sake, keep the person’s identity anonymous! This may sound brutally honest – too honest – but, hey, that’s what poetry is for.
The speaker tries to get at the root of our attraction for real, touchable, taste-able things. At least he associates her with a good memory. Imagine if he had said: "She reminds me of having to wash the dishes after dinner." No good.
Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
Now, more explicitly, he makes the idea from the previous lines. We desire or feel attracted to things because they remind us of "endless distances," like the distance between the present and the past.
In other words, a desired object reminds us of things which are gone and lost. Sounds pretty sad. We even use the word "longing" to describe desire because it has the word "long" in it, which is a distance.
And, if we are tempted to get mad at him for saying that he only likes the woman because she reminds him of a childhood memory, we have to give him some points for admitting that it is probably the same way for her. That is, he reminds her something from her own past, and "it hardly had to do with him."
He doesn’t seem too upset by this possibility, so maybe it isn’t such an offensive thing to say after all. But, we’re not ready to let him off the hook just yet – he’s still on thin ice.