A naked Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson's clothes (Annie Leibovitz photo - what about that!)
Emily Dickinson’s clothes (Annie Leibovitz photo – what about that!)

Imagine Emily Dickinson is her many, many layers of clothing. Now imagine Billy Collins taking them all off. Huh! That’s one of the many subjects that came up during our Poetry Reading event at the library, on March 25, 2016.

I love Billy Collins, and our friend Kathleen told us about this poem he’d written that I’d never come across — an attempt to silence all rumors of Ms. Dickinson being a lesbian. (Yes, he explained all that to Kathleen himself, on a postcard.)

I’ve been obsessing about Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Brain is Wider than the Sky” for weeks, since Cathy recited it at one of our meetings. After the poetry reading I’ve been picturing a puzzled Emily, though. By the window. Not making poetry. Not making much sense of anything. Not thinking about the mind. Just feeling her heartbeat. Feeling.

Well, why don’t you read the poem? See it for yourself. Feel it yourself.

“Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes”

By Billy Collins

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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.

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