Day 21 Undressing a Poet

Billy Collins metaphorical love affair with Emily Dickinson operates at both a literal and figurative level.












Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes
by Billy Collins

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.

  The illustration used above comes from Taking Off Emily Dickinsons Clothes, produced as a limited edition of thirty copies. It employs buttons, ribbons. feathers and lace and a pastel monotype by Charles Hobson with a feather sewn to it. Accordion binding. 8 1/2 x 7 x 1 inches (closed). Seven pages with hidden definitions and fold out stanza from an Emily Dickinson poem. Out of Print.  

Your Turn: It’s your turn to get intimate with a poet. Pick someone whose poetry inspires you and “undress” them. Directions Handout and Student Poems.

Listen to Collins read this poem.

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Updated 15 January 2023.