Billy Collins “Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes”

“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.

This poem is an extended metaphor for reading an Emily Dickinson poem, not merely taking off her clothes as the title suggests.  In the first stanza, Collins talks about lifting off Dickinson’s “tippet made of tulle,” which to me represents turning past the cover of her book.  A tippet is a scarf that covers the neck, chest, and shoulders the way a book cover protects the pages of a book.  Her “bonnet, the bow undone with a light forward pull” baffles me somewhat.  I suppose it could represent the title page, but you don’t lightly pull a title page forward to turn it.  I think it might represent a type of ribbon bookmark that is included in the book because the strings of a bonnet bow hang down like a bookmark.  Also, the strings of a bonnet hold a bonnet in place much like a bookmark holds your spot in a book.

The third stanza represents the actual page of poetry.  The “long white dress” is a page in a novel, “mother-of-pearl buttons” are the words on the page.  The buttons are “tiny and numerous” because Dickinson was rather verbose.  It “takes forever before my hands can part the fabric, like a swimmer’s dividing water, and slip inside”  because Collins has to absorb the words’ meanings before he can probe deeper into the meaning of the poem.

The fourth stanza of the poem is a bit puzzling for me.  I’m not quite sure what Collins means to say.  Is the “upstairs bedroom” supposed to represent Emily Dickinson’s mind?  I don’t think so, but I’m not quite sure what it could mean.  I’m also a little bit puzzled as to why she is looking out a window to see an orchard.  I think this may be an allusion to one of her poems, but as I’m not a Dickinson expert, I could be totally wrong here.  If it’s not an allusion to one of her poems, oes the orchard represent Paradise/Eden, or does it represent something else?

In the next stanza, the “women’s undergarments” represent Dickinson’s thoughts.  The complexity is not to be waved off because, unlike the men of Dickinson’s time, Collins takes the time to ruminate and explore the deeper meanings of Dickinson’s thoughts.  Collins does not just assume that Dickinson wrote a poem simply for the sake of writing a poem, and by “proceeding through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,” Collins reveals the “iceberg of her nakedness,” or the true meaning of her poem.

In the next two stanzas, I believe that Collins is alluding to various examples of Dickinson’s life and poetry.  I know that Dickinson used a lot of “sudden dashes” in her poems, and based on the reappearance of the orchard, I would assume that she had written some sort of poem dealing with an orchard.  Also, Dickinson was from Amherst, MA, which explains the reference in the seventh stanza.  Furthermore, in a Dickinson poem entitled “Dying,” she starts the poem with the line “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” which I believe Collins references with the line, “a fly buzzing in a windowpane.”  This leads me to believe that this stanza is directly related to Dickinson’s death.

The final stanza is saturated with allusions to Dickinson’s poetry.  The line “hope has feathers” comes from the title of her work “Hope Is The Thing With Feathers;” the line “reason is a plank” is similar to a line in “280” which says “-a plank in reason;” the line “that life is a loaded gun/ that looks right at you with a yellow eye” is featured almost verbatim in her poem “My life had Stood- a Loaded Gun-.”

So what does it all mean?  I think that those poem is Collins describing the very deep and personal connection he feels whenever he reads Dickinson.  It is almost as if he is truly “undressing” her and seeing her very thoughts and feelings, things that he feels only he is privy to.


4 Responses

  1. Hello Raspberrythunderbolt-

    I am a high school student, doing a blog about Billy Collins for my English class. For an assignment, I had to compare Collins to a poetry master. I chose Emily Dickinson, because of a quote Collins said: “From Emily Dickinson, I learned how to use the dash.”

    I noticed that you wrote “I know that Dickinson used a lot of “sudden dashes” in her poems.” She does, and it looks as if Collins is following her path. One of Collins’ poems that I like, “Passengers,” uses two dashes in the first stanza. I commented on that in my blog but did not reference “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” even though I knew about this poem, because it is in the same collection, “Picnic, Lightening,” that I read. However, I still do believe with your conclusion that Collins feels a connection when he reads Dickinson. I read that when he was a child, Collins did not like all the poems he read in school that were written by dead, white males, and I am sure that when he discovered Dickinson, he probably liked her poetry immediately. It would have been much more modern and interesting than what he read in school and a nice change. This could be a reason why he feels this connection when he reads Dickinson’s work.

    The only reason I am a little uncertain about this statement would be that Collins really strives to write simple poetry. I have read very little Dickinson but what I have read, I have come to the conclusion that Dickinson’s poetry is not simple at all. I guess though, that Collins only said he learned the use of the dash, from Dickinson, nothing more.

    That is all I have, feel free to comment on my blog,, if you want. Depending on when you visit, my latest post might not be done. Thanks!

  2. Thank you !
    this helped me on my homework so much

  3. thank you so much, you dont even know how hard it is to find a literary analyzation of one of billy collins’ poems that doesnt cost 20 dollars, and a membership.

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