Eating Her Wedding Dress: A Collection of Clothing Poems edited by Vasiliki Katsarou, Ruth O’Toole, and Ellen Foos
(Ragged Sky Press, Princeton, N.J., 2009)
Of the books I read to review this year, this anthology is easily my favorite. It is well-designed and well-curated. I found myself marking poem after poem as one I would want to revisit later. As Vasiliki Katsarou mentions in her introduction, “Poets from far and wide have responded poignantly and with humor to our call for poetry about clothing.” The editors clearly had a generous selection of good submissions to choose from, and the final selection includes both modern classics (such as Billy Collins’s “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” and Maxine Kumin’s “How It Is”) and oughta-be classics by poets whose work I haven’t encountered anywhere else.
There are sassy, mouthy poems; poems of yearning and of mourning; reflections on gender, reflections on power, and reflections on reflections. There are several varieties of silly, including vicious (Janis Butler Holm’s “If Paris Hilton Wrote Poetry”), droll (Wally Glickman’s “Makinglove” – “I’ve never been so smitten / by any muff or mitten”), and flowery (Rachim Baskin’s “Forsythia, you floozy!”). The better-known poets in the collection include Margaret Atwood, Lynn Emanuel, Jorie Graham, Jean Hollander, Paul Muldoon, and Charles Simic. There is a Susan Stewart translation of “The Apron,” a poem by Alda Merini (“one of Italy’s most important living poets” and twice nominated for the Nobel Prize). Li-Young Lee is invoked in John Estes’s “A few chemicals mixed together and flesh and blood and bone just fade away!”
One of the most appealing aspects of this collection is how many stories it contains, and stories within stories. Marcia Aldrich’s “White Blouse” mentions a suicide attempt, while Shoshauna Shy’s “What Shall I Wear to Meet Your Wife” rejects at least four articles of clothing in the course of determining what’s appropriate. Maxine Sussman’s “Packing for College” addresses a child about to leave home (“Some things / in your toss pile I regret, but why / should I save what you don’t want?”), while Michael R. Brown’s “Parents Held Hostage by Hatless Teen” simmers with the danger awaiting a child outside the home (“knowing our son had put a price / on his head with the hat he’d bought”), and Alice Friman’s “Diapers for my Father” ruefully conveys the panic inherent in the shopping expedition for the items in question, neatly bookending the piece with allusions to Hamlet. Juditha Dowd and her female partner’s grief “For the One Who Will Not Be” is depicted in a vision of tiny coats marching away, while Lynne Shapiro’s “Your Dead Mother” and Daniel W.K. Lee’s “Ties” take shape around the absence of beloved parents. Lesley Wheeler writes of being young, Jewish, and terrified in “Dressing Down, 1962,” and Beatrice M. Hogg’s fond tribute to Richard H. Person, “Fabulous,” vividly portrays a man who looked good in everything from “African caftans” to “US Air Force full dress uniform.” Later in the book, Wanda S. Praisner takes a long look at a photograph of a dress worn by Empress Elisabeth of Austria.
I also relish how frank this collection is about sex. I didn’t expect to like Jan Beatty’s “When Foucault Entered the Body,” but “My friend Aaron said he’d like to give Sean Penn / a tongue bath, & I guess that’s clear enough” is a killer opening no matter how you slice it. John L. Falk declares that “To shed clothing for a woman / Is to don dominion,” and also that “A naked woman with a pen knife / Could rip the day or night sky / Open with a shrug, or the slightest / Flexing of her wrist” (“Clothes and Power”). Shaindel Beers’s “Taking Back the Bra Drawer” bitterly glares at past and future in the wake of a sudden breakup--
I want him here to the degree
of absenting myself. I will be any woman –
one who hasn’t slept with other women, or
who hasn’t been married before – one who will
sew by hand until she is needle-pricked dry.
--whereas Erin Elizabeth Smith seems flummoxed by the contents of her closet, which include a lime halter dress, an orange tube top, and ruffled zebra print: “I barely know myself / through these – what floors they’d slept on, / while I thrashed in some bed.” Mmm!
Last but not least, the poems about red clothing were standouts for me. (I resisted the color as a child -- I associated it with being Asian, which was something I mightily resented back when it was a reason for other kids to pick on me. Now, of course, there being plenty of other reasons for people to pick on me, I wear red as often as I wear black, and I’ve even completed a 5K in a scarlet evening gown.) The anthology spotlights other colors as well -- a white t-shirt, a yellow blouse, a blue dress – but it’s the reds that call out to me: Jane Knechtel ‘s red bra, Christina Lovin’s red hat, Eve’s red dress (given voice by Diane Lockward), and - a favorite among favorites -- Kim Addonizio’s “ ‘What Do Women Want?’”
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me,
to show you how little I care about you
or anything except what
Peg Duthie shares a house in Nashville with a tall man, a large dog, and a short piano. She blogs about poetry at Vary the Line and tweets about it now and then (@zirconium).