Oedipus and Collins
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” (41). Collins proclaims that the tippet is “easily lifted off her shoulders” (2), which lets people know that he is doing the work. Dickinson is simply standing there allowing him to touch and undress her. Perhaps this reflects that Collins is not often in control and never in control when it concerns his mother. He is probably constantly being told what to do, so it is very important that the reader realizes that he is in control of this situation. This may be why he projects Dickinson as immobile; he is simply projecting his inability to be in control onto Dickson.
Collins then turns towards her “bonnet, the bow undone with a light forward pull” (4-5). The way he pulls the bonnet with a “light” (5) pulls shows how he feels it necessary to go about this situation very carefully and gently. He is using Dickinson to hide his feelings for his mother, and if he does not tread lightly, he may be found out. It can be easily inferred who he does not want to know, namely his father because of fear of castration.
Now the attention is focused on Dickinson’s “long white dress” (6), the white on the surface signifying purity, but underneath referring to the innocence that he feels his mother possesses. 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 beholding his “orchard” (17), and she is a little scared, just like his mother would probably be in this situation.
Collins refers to the “complexity of women’s undergarments” (20) and talks about how he works like a “polar explorer” (23) to undo her clothing. “Complexity” (20) seems to be an ironic term for him to use, as it can refer to Dickinson’s clothes or his complex relationship with his mother. He knows that it is wrong to lust for his mother, which is why he hides his feelings. He also fears being castrated by his father, which would be a good reason for trying to replace or at least hide his feelings for his mother with feelings for Dickinson. He knows that he can never fulfill his dream with his mother, which is why he fantasizes about it by creating a sexual encounter with Dickinson. This could also be why he feels the need to be in control of her, because he is not in control of his mother, nor can he ever be. The reference to “sailing toward the iceberg” (26) can refer to Freud’s idea of the id, ego, and superego being like an iceberg. Collins is sailing towards that Freudian iceberg trying to find out his true feelings and desires and what to do about them.
In the sixth stanza Collins says, “of course, I cannot tell you everything” (29), which makes sense because of he told people what he was really thinking about, then society would consider him taboo, his mother would be horrified, and his father outraged. So he leaves things as they are, with everyone thinking that Dickinson is who he is after, not his mother. Also, “the way she closed her eyes to the orchard” (30) shows how she is scared by being so helpless and maybe how repulsed she is by Collins, or at least his genitalia. The sudden dashes-whenever [they] spoke” (32-33) seems to appear because they have nothing to say to what other, or rather they do not know what to say to each other.
Collins says that it was “terribly quiet in Amherst that Sabbath afternoon” (35-36), which seems grossly immoral. He is lusting after Dickinson on the Lord’s Day. This sin is as bad as him wanting to have sex with his mother. He then makes a reference to Dickinson’s poem when he talks about a “fly buzzing” (38), taking advantage of her not only physically, but creatively as well. He is now overpowering Dickinson, just as he wishes he could overpower his mother.
The fact that Collins can “plainly hear her inhale” (39) reveals how vivid he wants this experience to be, as if by making the experience with Dickinson a reality, he is making the experience with his mother real. He is now down to her “corset” (41), which seems to declare that he is getting closer and closer to his main goal which is to be intimate with Dickinson, and in turn be intimate with his mother.
The last stanza seems to bring about a conclusion for Collins, no matter how wrong and awkward it may be. He again steals from Dickinson, and claims that “Hope has feathers/ that reason is a plank/ that life is a loaded gun” (44-46). In essence he seems to be saying that while maybe how he feels is not right, that there is hope, and reason is such a narrow thing, and that life can blow up at anytime, so why bother with pretences. He seems to conclude that the definition between wrong and right can constitute a gray area, and in doing so redeems himself from the idea that lusting after his mother is immoral.
While on the surface Collins seems to want Emily Dickinson, with a close reading it becomes clear that he is actually obsessed with his mother. His displacement shows how he at least tries to hide is incestuous desires, while his anal retentiveness shows his wish to be in control. The indications that run throughout the poem reveal Collins’ true feelings, and his inability to hide them.