Guest blogger: Courtney Johnston

I met Courtney when she interviewed me for a job at the National Library. I got the job and have really enjoyed knowing Courtney ever since. She’s incredibly smart (in a terrifying way – she  even has a side-gig doing the arts segment on Nine to Noon), reads for about 15 hours a week and is always a super-interesting person to have lunch with. Right now she’s in the midst of reading poetry books… (amongst others).

The poetry quest continues … Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes by Billy Collins

Billy Collins

I wonder whether being described as ‘accessible’ makes a poet’s fists clench? Yet it’s one of the best words I can think of for American poet Billy Collins – along with gentle, thoughtful, funny, domestic. He somehow melds the sweeping reach of history with daily minutiae, in a way that feels effortless.

I think I was predisposed to enjoy Collins after watching him reading his poem ‘Litany’ (a poem not included in this anthology). Read straight, ‘Litany’ is potentially cod-sentimental; read with humour, it is marvellous to hear an audience laugh out loud at something so beautiful, as well as so crookedly funny.

There is often a smile at the end of Collins’ poems, a neat little tick in the final lines. I had mentally noted that trait early on in the collection, and then found ‘Lines Lost Among Trees’, a wry elegy for a poem that came to him when he was out walking, but disappeared before he got home:

… So this is my elegy for them,
those six or eight exhalations,
the braided rope of syntax,
the jazz of timing,

and the little insight at the end
wagging like the short tail
of a perfectly obedient spaniel
sitting by the door. …

Music – jazz in particular – is a frequent detail or subject in the poems, woven into Collins’ life; this is ‘The Blues’

Much of what is said here
must be said twice,
a reminder that no one
takes an immediate interest in the pain of others.

Nobody will listen, it would seem,
if you simply admit
your baby left you early this morning
she didn’t even stop to say good-bye.

But if you sing it again
with the help of the band
which will now lift you to a higher,
more ardent and beseeching key,

people will not only listen;
they will shift to the sympathetic
edges of their chairs,
moved to such acute anticipation

by that chord and the delay that follows,
they will not be able to sleep
unless you release with one finger
a scream from the throat of your guitar

and turn your head back to the microphone
to let them know
you’re a hard-hearted man
but that woman’s sure going to make you cry.

Painting by Edward Hopper (title unknown - by Emma)

I also loved the suite of poems wrapped around artwork – him imagining a minuscule version of himself escaping into a Frederick Church in the Brooklyn Museum, his glee at Goya’s outrageous, candle-festooned hat for night-time painting, the creation of an all-American beauty by reference to Edward Hopper (a poem that bookends nicely with ‘Litany’, linked to above) in ‘Sweet Talk’:

You are not the Mona Lisa
with that relentless look.
Or Venus borne over the froth
of waves on a pink half shell.
Or an odalisque by Delacroix,
veils lapping at your nakedness.

You are more like the sunlight
of Edward Hopper,
especially when it slants
against the eastern side
of a white clapboard house
in the early hours of the morning,
with no figure standing
at a window in a violet bathrobe,
just the sunlight,
the columns of the front porch,
and the long shadows
they throw down
upon the dark green lawn, baby.

But I have to say that I fell, head of heels and most predictably, for the collection’s title poem, ‘Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes’, given here in full:

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.

‘before my hands can part the fabric,/like a swimmer’s dividing water,/and slip inside’ – shiver.


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