Dresses in Poetry, Billy Collins edition

by Erin on March 26, 2006

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.

from
Taking off Emily Dickinson's Clothes,
by Billy Collins

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous March 27, 2006 at 9:25 am

This right away reminded me of a little poem I’ve loved since high school, written by Robert Herrick in the early 1600sUpon Julia’s ClothesWHENAS in silks my Julia goes, Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows The liquefaction of her clothes! Next, when I cast mine eyes and see That brave vibration each way free, O how that glittering taketh me! It’s so visceral.

Reply

lyd March 27, 2006 at 9:53 am

and this reader sighed too. how absolutely lovely

Reply

Lou December 3, 2007 at 6:56 pm

now that is something quite spectacular and gorgeous. i sighed too.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: