(22 March 1941 - / New York City)

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.

by Billy Collins

Comments (12)

Of the voice- Does Stephen Hawking's voice synthesizer also do the readings? To hear the poet himself recite this poem would be a treat. And as I just saw him reciting his poems with accompanying visual rendering of them as the cartoons. It might stack 'em up like cord-wood the blue-haired ladies with fits of the vapors, yes. And so an even more rarer treat it might then be...
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this poem today along with the interesting comments below. You made my day, PH! Thanks for choosing this poem as the 'poem of the day.'
Okay but this isn't totally just about Billy Collins fantasizing about having sex with Emily Dickinson. I think it's a metaphor for his journey through her work, how with each poem he understood it was like stripping a piece of clothing off her character until he could truly understand her through her poetry.
it reminds me of William Butler Yeats; A Coat let us all go about naked
Well put, Frank. Billy Collins was a great man, but I think he might have dabbled in drugs. And how does he know so much about 19th-century undies anyway?
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