Dickinson, Collins and TMI

Enough with Emily Dickinson. She’s been getting a lot of attention lately for a long dead person. I’ve got nothing against her poems–I like some of them very much, but there seems to be an obsession with her this year. A recent biography suggests she may have had epilepsy or was a lesbian or was possessed by an alien intelligence and had very bad breath. I haven’t read the book, and probably won’t unless someone gives it to me, because I’m rarely interested in the biographies of poets, especially ones who never left the house. But more interesting is the amount of speculation and word lather fuming up about this poet and the reaction to what others say about the poet.

One of the most amusing responses I’ve seen so far comes from the blogger CAConrad on PhillySound:new poetry in which the writer rants about an interview Billy Collins did on NPR with Terry Gross. For me, the smartest thing Collins says in the interview about the new biography is this: “So there are many speculations about her, but I think the poems are self-sufficient.”

Still he goes on to speculate himself about her sexuality by reading his poem called Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.  I think CAConrad makes quite too much of the whole thing, and clearly doesn’t like Collins anyway. Still, I wish we could put this whole Dickinson hyperventilation to rest for a while. There are so many amazing living poets deserving of the attention.

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.

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