Taking off Emily Dickenson’s Clothes

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

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