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True Feelings in Billy Collins' Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes

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True Feelings in Billy Collins' Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes

Upon first look, Billy Collins “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” seems to be a wild fantasy for Emily Dickinson that he is entertaining. Upon closer examination, however, the poem reveals his subconscious desire to have sex with his mother and his frustration about his inability to do so, resulting in the displacement of his sexual desires onto Dickinson.

From the beginning, Collins is very detailed with his description. In fact he is quite anal retentive in explaining everything about the encounter. He starts from her outside clothing, “first, her tippet made of tulle” (1) and on through her mass of clothing until finally reaching her “corset”
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The “mother-of-pearl buttons on the back” (7-8) of the dress can be seen as an unconscious “Freudian slip” which reveals Collin’s true sexual feelings toward his mother. He could have referred to the buttons as any color, but he chooses to use the term “mother-of-pearl” (7). Collins then says that he buttons are “so tiny and numerous that it takes forever before [his] hands can part the fabric” (9-10). He seems to be very methodical in his act of undressing Dickinson. He is the one doing the undressing, he is the one in charge, and it is he who is in control of every detail. The simile “like a swimmer dividing the water, and slip inside” (11-12) might refer to Collins slipping into his unconscious and thinking about his mother, forgetting about Dickinson.

The fourth stanza begins with the line “You will want to know that she was standing by an open window in an upstairs bedroom” (13-15) This seems to be more of Collin’s anal retentiveness trying to prove that he is in control. Se is “motionless, a little wide-eyed” (16), which demonstrates her innocence and how helpless she seems to be in this whole situation. By her lack of participation and his over zealous control, one would think that it is more of a rape than a sexual encounter. The phrase “looking out at the orchard below” (17) seems to be a phallic symbol. Dickinson is
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