By Mary-Sherman Willis
May 12, 2014
I began to write seriously when my children were small. I’d read Virginia Woolf and knew that to be a writer I’d need my own room, total solitude, total quiet, a desk to anchor me, and an independent income to buy time. But in my actual life, my brain felt like death by a thousand interruptions. If I didn’t write a thought down, it vanished.
Then I saw Emily Dickinson’s dress.
Her white dress stands on display at the Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts. A visitor comes upon it suddenly, just outside her bedroom, as if taking her by surprise. It’s a facsimile, boxed in glass. “Exquisitely clean white pique,” reported her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson. A size 6 or 8, guesses Dickinson scholar Judith Farr, with fine knife-pleats riffling the skirt, virginal white lace on the cuffs and collar, a row of fussy buttons from throat to knees. It is loose fitting, a housedress, a kind of peignoir, in which—gasp!—she received visitors.
Although she wears brown in the photos of her (“like the wren”) and she was an accomplished gardener (what gardener wears white?), and although those pleats would have taken tedious hours to iron, it’s the Official Dress. Her poet’s uniform, it has become a fetish object for writers like Billy Collins, whose best thought is to pull it off her—“… sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.”
But to me, the most significant thing about it is rarely noted: the simple pocket on her right hip, about the size of a woman’s hand, big enough to hold a scrap of paper and a pencil. It turned the dress into a portable desk, in which she could carry her poems wherever she went—increasingly, as she got older, inside her own house, from kitchen to bedroom to drawing room to conservatory. In her pocket, the envelopes she had opened, flattened, and scribbled upon preserved her lines until she could take them to the real desk in her bedroom. By the light of a kerosene lamp, she made fair copies and stitched them into fascicles.
Her dress was her costume, her persona. It forged an identity. But in practical terms, the pocket made her a poet.
Mary-Sherman Willis ’s book-length poem, Graffiti Calculus, was published in 2013. She teaches creative writing at George Washington University.