Back again to Emily Dickinson who was the opposite of tame, the opposite of conventional.
Our Emily, who would never use proper punctuation.
How that shocked the literary bigwigs! No commas or semicolons for her! She favored the dash.
This killingly beautiful poem by Billy Collins gets at her nature and the world she lived in too. You might have to be somewhat knowledgeable about her poems to recognize the fly buzzing and the plank and the loaded gun – she really did say Life was a loaded gun – but you don’t have to know a single thing about all that to see the beauty and eroticism of this piece. And for you strictly 21st century readers, a tippet is a brief ornamental garment that hovers about the shoulders. Tulle is like organdy if that helps at all: stiff and somewhat gossamer in nature. And whalebone stays were the joists in a corset that kept the whole edifice erect.
I’ll assume you know what a bonnet is and can visualize the ever-startling iceberg of human nakedness. Here is the poem then. Hold on tight!
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.
What a relief to undress and be undressed as she undresses and is undressed in this the poet’s fantasy! Every woman who ever wore a bra or girdle, or pantyhose,or Spanx understands the feeling. “Wild nights!” she said in one poem, a gossamer-spun fantasy of her own.
And now the poet laureate himself, reading the piece aloud: