(GJ) Canto XVIII (p.7, ll. 1-13).


I hold the websoft edges of her gown and drawing them out to hook them I see through the opening of the black veil her lithe body sheathed in an orange shift. 

Separated by a century and a tenth of the globe are two poets, obsessed with undergarments, with phantoms, with undressing their loves. Onetime American poet laureate and media darling, Billy Collins is one of these. He penned the poem “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.” You can find it here:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=40151

He begins with an overworked and self-conscious line, perfect for his purpose. Collins says: “First, her tippet made of tulle,/ easily lifted off her shoulders and laid/ on the back of a wooden chair.” “Tippet” and “tulle” will drive most readers to the dictionary and are intended to do so. The words pair nicely but are as insincere as Stephen’s argument to the intellectuals in Scylla and Charybdis. When asked if he believes the case he has just painstakingly presented, Stephen surrenders without resistance with a flat and final “No.” 

Boy Dedalus’ argument is Shakespearian theatre, a juvenile acting-out for his elders in an attempt to be noticed. Similarly, Collins here confesses a mere imperfection. He admits his study of Dickinson has been academic and sterile. Joyce knew Collins’ tandem of T-words, we can be sure. He might use one ideally, but not the overkill of two. Neither would Collins when he evolves into Emily’s mature lover. As the poem opens, he has only removed an already transparent scarf. The poem sets about disrobing the modest Dickinson, struggling to know not only her shift but her artistic outer dermis and rhythmic bone structure.

Compare the poets’ treatments of their subjects.

The Gown

Joyce:

I hold the websoft edges of her gown and drawing them out to hook them I see through the opening of the black veil her lithe body sheathed in an orange shift. 

Collins:

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.

The Descent

Joyce:

It slips its ribbons of moorings at her shoulders and falls slowly: 

Collins:

the white dress puddled at her feet
on the wide-board, hardwood floor. 

Final Nakedness

Joyce:

a lithe smooth naked body shimmering with silvery scales. It slips slowly over the slender buttocks of smooth polished silver and over their furrow, a tarnished silver shadow ….

Collins:

and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.   

Joyce’s words convey color, warmth, and the promise of surrender; Collins’ were stark, suggesting cold perpetual virginity. The reader notes Collins’ focus on an inorganic Emily. He is interested in better loving her body of work than her body. Images circle in a cold, watery whirl: mother of pearl, puddled water, and whalebone. Joyce sibilates serpentine, sensual, and sensuous. This intention is not to deeply understand but to possess the love object. 

Look at the use of the word “moorings” in the separate pieces! We examined Collins’ verse just above; Joyce’s follows here. Below words soft and alluring. Above an Artic postmortem.

Joyce:

I hold the websoft edges of her gown and drawing them out to hook them I see through the opening of the black veil her lithe body sheathed in an orange shift. It slips its ribbons of moorings at her shoulders and falls slowly: a lithe smooth naked body shimmering with silvery scales.

More than a few of Collins’ poems begin with him looking from a window. He is a great observer of life at arm’s length. Contrast this with Joyce’s confessional treatment of themes. He is not the juvenile antihero of A Portrait or the unripe intellectual of Scylla and Charybdis. He will bare his blackest soul to the reader. Few writers have been willing to brave the condemnation extracted by critics and censors with a declaration of frailty as James Joyce does.

don ward August 11, 2020

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