Billy Collins

(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.

Submitted: Wednesday, January 07, 2004

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Comments about this poem (Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes by Billy Collins )

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  • Emily Lardner (2/8/2014 2:19:00 AM)

    I like the way this poem asks you to consider Emily's sexuality, and if that is too complex for you, Collins satisfies with a 3 easy references at the end. (Report) Reply

  • Code Master (11/11/2012 2:19:00 AM)

    Putting Billy Collin's Clothes Back On

    First, the stained boxer shorts
    To cover his flabby white ass
    He tries to pretend he is not blushing
    I can plainly hear him gasp in the cold air

    I can't help smirking
    He looks like a little weenie naked
    No loaded gun there
    Perhaps he needs
    An introduction to poetry

    Next, the brown sock
    And the mismatched black sock
    Taken from the pile
    Of odiferous clothing
    Mounded behind his door

    I suppose poets think they are showing respect
    When they take a dead poet's name
    And create a rag-doll character out of thin air
    Stripping it naked to sell a poem
    Miss Emily would not approve

    Now he puts on the ill-fitting white shirt
    Sighing with relief as he covers his torso
    Just as his readers sigh with relief
    When he is fully clothed
    He still looks a bit uncomfortable
    Being a puppet to another poet's whims

    I toss him the faded blue jeans
    The ones with the hole in the rear
    He hurriedly tugs them on, tucking in his shirt
    In his haste, he knocks an ugly framed photo
    Of nine horses off the wall, breaking it
    No loss there

    Finally he puts on his hush puppies
    And his dark blazer, at last looking semi-professorial
    I think he is beginning to sympathize now
    With Miss Emily, and all of the other dead poets
    Whose names and characters
    Are appropriated by lesser lights
    To sex up their poetry (Report) Reply

  • Debi Von Trapp (8/6/2009 5:06:00 AM)

    Billy Collins' work is inspiring to say the least and this is by far my favourite of his poems.

    I adore how he writes and conveys his thoughts, so wonderfully lighthearted and almost innocent.

    Undressing Emily Dickinson is obviously as hard as understanding her can be. I love the reference to her own works:

    'how there were sudden dashes
    whenever we spoke. '

    I shall never tire of reading this exquisite piece of poetry! (Report) Reply

  • Ben Casteel (2/2/2008 11:45:00 AM)

    Who knew fantasizing about sex with Emily Dickinson could be so.... interesting. Billy you are a gem. (Report) Reply

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