Wednesday

Jan. 16, 2002

Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes

by Billy Collins

WEDNESDAY, 16 JANUARY 2002
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Poem: "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes," by Billy Collins from Picnic, Lightning (University of Pittsburgh Press).

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.

On this day in 1991, at midnight, an international coalition of nations led by the United States and President George Bush, Sr., attacked Iraq and started the Persian Gulf War. The war lasted about five weeks. One hundred twenty-five American soldiers were killed in the war; many of these deaths were later determined to be accidental or the result of friendly fire.

It's the birthday of critic and novelist Susan Sontag, born in New York City (1933). She first came to fame with her 1964 essay "Notes on Camp." She's also the author of the novels Death Kit (1967), The Volcano Lover (1989) and In America (2000), and an account of her battle with breast cancer, Illness as Metaphor (1978).

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Laura Riding Jackson, born in New York City (1901).

It's the birthday of poet Robert Service, born in Preston, England (1874). He came to Canada as a banker, and worked in Victoria and British Columbia. In 1908, he was transferred to a bank in Dawson, Yukon Territory, which became the setting for his best-known verse, including "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," which appeared in Songs of a Sourdough (1907). He left Canada in 1912 to cover the Balkan wars, and during World War One he served as both a correspondent and a stretcher-bearer. After the war he went to Paris, married, and stayed in Europe. He died in Monte Carlo in 1958.

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