As an English teacher, I should probably not admit to the near terror I encountered when I realized I couldn’t avoid Emily Dickinson if I wanted to be true to the American canon. She’s a strange one, Miss Emily. Dashes thrown haphazardly about. Capitalized letters littering the lines. Was she merely paying homage to Dickens? I mean, their names ARE similar. More likely the penchant for capitalizing important (and often abstract) nouns was a ‘nineteenth century thing,’ and I simply ‘wouldn’t understand…’
Surely, surely I encountered this giant of American literature in undergrad, but she left no great impression, I’m embarrassed to confess. When I could no longer avoid her, I acknowledged her greatness, alluded to her weirdness (dashes, fascination with death, reclusive), and hoped that my students would remember her name if they ever made it as a contestant on JEOPARDY!
And then, while my students were busy doing other things, I grew up. Turns out, Emily Dickinson likely wrote for an adult audience, and not the late twentieth century junior in high school. Turns out, her revolutionary form and wholly unique syntax demand that we be long-suffering in our approach. (And of course by long-suffering I mean patient.) Turns out, her eccentric view from an Amherst bedroom window sheds a blinding light on Life, if we will choose to look askance, rather than headlong into it. Proving once again (I know, I know) — Literature (there I go, capitalizing a noun!) transcends its time period to speak to any age willing to tune an attentive ear its way. Literature gathers us in, the common threads of our humanity stretch across the years to weave a tapestry of sorrow, wonder, joy and fear. But Miss Dickinson’s threads, strong and supple as they are, aren’t best suited to the flip-flop generation.
Until Billy Collins refashioned her:
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 all 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.
Mmmmmmmmm. SO GOOD.
Not only do I see Emily Dickinson’s works strewn across the poem (rather like her clothes???), but I see a poet’s genius at work. I love Billy Collins. Of course something else of his will show up this month. Today, I love Collins a bit more, because wow, he helps me love Miss Dickinson. (Of course something of hers will show up this month!) If you want to love either one of them a bit more, you can find more of Billy Collins in great collections like Sailing alone Around the Room (where this poem is published). To get a taste of Emily Dickinson, you’ll find Collins alluding to quite a few in “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” : “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers,” “My Life Has Stood a Loaded Gun,” “As if some Little Arctic Flower,” “Some Keep the Sabbath going to Church,” “Summer Shower,” “I Heard a Fly Buzz when I Died,” “Because I could not Stop for Death,” “I felt a Funeral in my Brain.” (and I bet he references others that I still don’t know.)
He, and she — well, they are both just that good.