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Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes -- Billy Collins

Guest poem sent in by Martin Alexander
(Poem #1139) Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes
 First, her tippet made of tulle,
 easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
 on the back of a wooden chair.

 And her bonnet,
 the bow undone with a light forward pull.

 Then the long white dress, a more
 complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
 buttons down the back,
 so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
 before my hands can part the fabric,
 like a swimmer's dividing water,
 and slip inside.

 You will want to know
 that she was standing
 by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
 motionless, a little wide-eyed,
 looking out at the orchard below,
 the white dress puddled at her feet
 on the wide-board, hardwood floor.

 The complexity of women's undergarments
 in nineteenth-century America
 is not to be waved off,
 and I proceeded like a polar explorer
 through clips, clasps, and moorings,
 catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
 sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

 Later, I wrote in a notebook
 it was like riding a swan into the night,
 but, of course, I cannot tell you everything -
 the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
 how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
 how there were sudden dashes
 whenever we spoke.

 What I can tell you is
 it was terribly quiet in Amherst
 that Sabbath afternoon,
 nothing but a carriage passing the house,
 a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

 So I could plainly hear her inhale
 when I undid the very top
 hook-and-eye fastener of her corset

 and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
 the way some readers sigh when they realize
 that Hope has feathers,
 that reason is a plank,
 that life is a loaded gun
 that looks right at you with a yellow eye.
-- Billy Collins
Here's a poem I like. It's sensual without being sordid and seems to do some
dignified baring of Dickinson's heart without making her stand naked and
humiliated - as the title of the poem might lead one to expect. And of
course it's full of references to her work which are affectionate without
smirking. Collins' touch is so delicate here - in both senses.

Martin

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Martin DeMello said...

I think Collins was alluding to the deeply personal nature of Dickinson's work
- IIRC she never intended for most (if any) of her poems to be published, and
one does get the feeling, when reading some of her work, that it exposes her to
an almost uncomfortable extent.

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