Imago lacus

The picture above was taken by a dear friend, the American poet Debra Kang Dean (please do not use it without permission). I met Debra three years before, when I went to Walden to work with his late husband Brad, a great Thoreau scholar. Once we spent hours tracking this quotation: "Some men go fishing all their lives without ever realizing it's not fish they are after." We concluded that Thoreau never wrote it, but si non è vero...

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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.

Billy Collins
Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes: Selected Poems (Picador, 2000)

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