Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes
    Billy Collins


    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.			 
    

    --From Picnic, Lightning
    (University of Pittsburgh Press)


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