Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes First, her tippet made of tulle,easily lifted off her shoulders and laidon the back of a wooden chair. And her bonnet,the bow undone with a light forward pull. Then the long white dress, a morecomplicated matter with mother-of-pearlbuttons down the back,so tiny and numerous that it takes foreverbefore my hands can part the fabric,like a swimmer’s dividing water,and slip inside. You will want to knowthat she was standingby an open window in an upstairs bedroom,motionless, a little wide-eyed,looking out at the orchard below,the white dress puddled at her feeton the wide-board, hardwood floor. The complexity of women’s undergarmentsin nineteenth-century Americais not to be waved off,and I proceeded like a polar explorerthrough clips, clasps, and moorings,catches, straps, and whalebone stays,sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness. Later, I wrote in a notebookit 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 dasheswhenever we spoke. What I can tell you isit was terribly quiet in Amherstthat Sabbath afternoon,nothing but a carriage passing the house,a fly buzzing in a windowpane. So I could plainly hear her inhalewhen I undid the very tophook-and-eye fastener of her corset and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,the way some readers sigh when they realizethat 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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Firstly, I really like the imagery in this poem. For example, hands dividing fabric as a swimmer divides water and proceeding like a polar explorer are some of Collins’ great similes. When Collins’ is describing the porcess, it reminds me of reading one of Emily’s poems. First, you easily “pull the bow on the bonnet” and pick out the literal. Then with the tiny buttons, you look for patterns and oddities and it becomes a more “complicated” and intricate way of thinking. The stanza starting “you may want to know..” suggests questioning, i.e. another reference to the critical process of reading! When Emily sighs at the loosening of her corset, she is both relieved and pleased. Similarly, as readers, we are relieved and pleased when we meet the author at the top of the mountain (Nabokov). We see her secrets, her amazingly intricate meaning woven with simple language. It is baffling and sinfully pleasing at the same time to find the meaning behind regular words. Collins even gives us a taste of Dickinson’s poetry. For example, “hope has feathers” is referrring to Emily’s poem “Hope is the thing with Feathers”-
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all….