Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes Poem by Billy Collins

Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes

Rating: 4.2

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.

Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes
Debi Von Trapp 06 August 2009

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!

19 6 Reply
Joseph Pedulla 15 December 2017

As Code Master's Putting Billy Collin's Clothes Back On says, Collins, like a lot of modern poets and artists, has only a tepid respect for the great poets of the past. They love to speak of them with an inappropriate familiarity, a boorish irreverence: Billy Shakespeare. They are louts. Collins too. And what human truth is he exploring here? Rarely does he explore the human condition the way Dickinson did. He should spend his time reader her rather; he might learn something about poetry.

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Joseph Pedulla 15 December 2017

If that's exquisite, what is Frost's After Apple-Picking, Sacred Scripture? Most of Collins' work is not an attempt to expose for us a truth about our human plight, no. What he does is fantasize about something that could never happen, and then he drags some cheap meaning out of it. I could write a thousand of his poems a day: I woke up one day to find myself a hot dog/But not any hot dog; I was a frank at a ball game/ And I could smell the peanuts being sold next to me... Blah, blah, blah.

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Snakedick Jackson 30 July 2006


16 9 Reply
Pearl Mcelheran 05 December 2010

Wht wit! Wonderful.

7 10 Reply
Rain Knight 13 March 2020

I love the audacity of Billy Collins! His imagination takes him wherever he wants to go and that is just what imagination should do-allow the mind to soar! Billy is my favorite contemporary poet for the reasons I have put down. Billy Billy, Rock on!

1 0 Reply
Ellis Barthe 15 January 2018

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...

3 1 Reply
Jasbir Chatterjee 28 April 2016

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.'

1 6 Reply
Eric Ericson 23 November 2014

it reminds me of William Butler Yeats; A Coat let us all go about naked

2 4 Reply
Gigi Levin 06 October 2014

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?

5 6 Reply
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