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Emily Dickinson Undressing

“Imagine (if possible) a woman dressed in an endless garment, one that is woven of everything the magazine of Fashion says, for this garment without end is proffered through a text which is itself unending.”
—Roland Barthes

In Amherst they’ve just emptied the hundred trunks 
                      found next door in the attic of her brother and sister-in-law, 
                                             trunks of clothing not catalogued yet, 
and Jane Wald, the Dickinson Homestead director, 
lets me touch them. 
                                  I have to wear white gloves: 
                                             a bodice of black lace with tiniest beads, 
                       intricate mobius of lining and shining— 
                       can’t turn it rightside up or sideways-back 
for the white gloves catching at mesh. 

“Black lace was important to the Dickinson women,” Jane says. 

Emily Dickinson does not undress, but unbuttons
                                  the envelopes, the blossoms 
           on the inside of her hat brim, asymmetrically placed, 

                       as in the margins of letters, the poems’ shivery commas slip, 
                                             and sleeves rimple to rivers, hair unwinds 
curly hills, flax sleeves flap, 
sacques billow, gaiters burst. 

Our Birkies form ever more tightly to our soles. 

Across the windowpane a tiny spider wheels itself. How
            do eight legs step to the side all at once? 

                       Divide light if you dare, 
            she thinks, finishing dots of embroidery in the shadow of a door. 

The spider has a bobbin in his abdomen, 
world starting deep in this veil. 
                                             I dote on the word “bobbin” 

but I’m unhappy that anyone had to be a bobbin girl, 
           Lowell textile mills, 1834, Harriet Robinson at the machines, clacking— 
                       the clacking runs the machines— 
                                                       the ten-year-old childbody spinning— 
                                             her body a spun thing. 

Each of the spider’s legs point in each of eight directions, 
                                  the many horizons sewing themselves tight. 

Laces just reveal the surge
                       and if I knew how to pray, 
the prayer words would nudge to stamen, fibrillating— 
           but it’s not prayer, it’s downside-up supplication 
                       sent from someone to me, I don’t get

                                             how crepe can hold and hold, 
and a plain white blouse can illumine a closet
even when it’s slipping off the hanger—especially when. 

The Lowell lungs inhaling, mouths sucking at lint— 
                                  suck called the kiss of death— 

A soul can waver with every breath loosed. 
Some veils are red. 

Time magazine, new dress fashions this week: 
                                                       lit pods, honest to God, 
           blowsy, auroral, gargantuan hexagons 
                       filmy around the woman’s body, 
                                             changing colors with her mood. 
But the model’s only mood is effulgent 
                                  so her mood-dress has just that effulgent color. 

See, spiderlight in the eaves will be growing thicker. 
I may have a prayer for that. 

Time for the unheld to stand and reach. 

As I type, flannel top presses into armpits, denim into kneecaves. 
The seams glow, redden. 
Endless garment. Tulle gashed. 

The boy from West Bengal sewing from dawn to one in the morning. 
the Bangladeshi woman, slave laborer in Mauritius sweatshops. 
The bobbin girl twirling into thread. 

Fashion is the other end of a sigh, 

and in Amherst, I smooth 
the small jacket of her nephew Gilbert Dickinson, 
turn back the lapels to the lining inside, 
satiny, shiny, handmended with hurried stitches, 
                                                      and all of this 

on our sleeves, veil meshing spires and crossing chimneys, 
                                             birds flying through without rowing—  

Daneen Wardrop is the author of two books of poetry, The Odds of Being and Cyclorama, with a third, Life as It, forthcoming later this year. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Poetry Society of America Robert H. Winner Award, and her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Southern Review, AGNI, Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She has also authored several books of literary history.