Artist Books: Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes

Sometimes, we here at Olivia Waite get a bit nostalgic for our graduate school days. We don’t miss the overload of impossibly dry reading, the slave labor of our teaching assistantship, or the fact that we seemed to understand Kant less the more we read of him — but we do miss the library.

Especially the special collections part of it.

One semester I took a class on the history of printed texts: we learned how to set type, we went on a field trip to see an actual hand press, and we handled a lot more rare and antique books than we ever thought to see in our lives, much less touch.

We also learned about artist’s books. And these are magical things.

My favorite was a book made by Charles Hobson called Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes, whose text was a poem by Billy Collins.

via Charles Hobson

Collins’ poem is full of details about buttons and fastenings and the feel of clothing sliding from skin to the floor, so Hobson wanted the book to reflect that sense of revelation. The pages of the book are therefore tied shut with ribbons, or fastened with buttons and loops — as you read further, you increasingly undress the book. It’s an intimate, luxurious physical experience, and I wanted to own this book more than I wanted to own even that bit of the Gutenberg bible that we looked at the same day.

Here is the full text of the poem:

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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