Friday, April 30, 2004

Happy Poem on Your Blog Day!

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.

Billy Collins

A poem about one of the most enigmatic and mysterious American poets, by one of the most straightforward and accessible of them. And it's a damn sexy poem too. Emily Dickinson is so cryptic and elusive, I can only handle her in small doses; if I try to read straight through a collection of her work my head starts to hurt. And the collection that I have doesn't include my favorite, "My life has stood, a loaded gun", which makes me cranky. I tend to enjoy her more when she surfaces in an anthology or if I stumble across her in another book. It's that contrast between her dense terseness and everybody else's long rambling epics and flowery language and drawn out metaphors and experimental syntax. I like Collin's poem because it's an attempt to really see the woman behind the poetry.


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