A couple of weekends ago I ran a close-reading workshop at the Ilkley Literature Festival, and chose as one of the poems under discussion ‘Tight Dress’, by long-standing friend of the blog Amy Key. I was pleased to find a real diversity of interpretations, and I’m going to try to engage with a few of them in today’s post. But I think we could all agree on what Key’s poem does best – ‘Tight Dress’ brings together an arrestingly self-conscious voice with an equally vivid sense of detachment, negotiating the feelings of presence and absence which are part of any physical encounter.
by Amy Key
I’m in the tight dress. The one that prevents dignified sitting.
The tight dress suggests I’m prepared to be undressed.
Do my thighs flash through the seams?
I try to remember if the bed is made, or unmade.
The wind is wrapping up the sound of our kissing.
I wonder should I undress first or should you undress first.
I’m not sure I can take off the dress in a way that looks good.
I consider if I should save up sex until morning.
We are far gone and I’m better at kissing when sober.
I find that your earlobes provide the current fascination.
On my bedside table are three glasses of water
and my favourite love letter.
I try to untie your shoes in a way that is appalling.
In ‘Tight Dress’, the ‘I’s have it. As a group, we noticed the sheer insistence of the left-hand margin – of the twelve instances of the first-person pronoun I counted in the poem, seven are used to begin a line. When each line (but the second- and third-from-last) is one clean sentence, one grammatical thought, what this means is that every time we stop, we start again with ‘I’. A sense of personal identity, alternating between physical and mental, within a single, present-tense moment is what drives the poem; or rather, what evokes its powerful sense of stasis. Key’s speaker is frozen in an instant of exposure, both of mind and body, caught in the act of consideration – verb phrases such as ‘I’m not sure’, ‘I try to remember’, ‘I wonder’ and ‘I consider’ hold us on the brink of uncompleted thought.
And yet, this sense of something not quite settled seems contradicted by the self-containment of its lines, not to mention the restriction of the dress itself and the definite articles which introduce it: ‘the tight dress’, ‘theone which prevents dignified sitting’. A familiarity, a recognition is suggested. And that word ‘suggests’ contains something of the fabric of the poem – it loosely holds together its own line, and those around it, as the densest cluster of the ‘s’ sound which sussurates throughout the poem. Is the profusion of this element (‘flash’, ‘undressed’, ‘sober’, ‘save up sex’, ‘sure’) indicative of drunken slurring? In and of itself sensuous, something to savour in the mouth? Or reflective of the experience of being in the dress, the soft scuff of its fabric on upholstered furniture?
Whatever else they do, it was clear from the discussion that all these ‘I’s and suggestive esses helped establish an intimacy with the reader, in a poem where so many other details of the relationship are unclear. Who, for example, is the author of the ‘favourite love letter’, off-set beneath the eleventh line of this near-sonnet like a queasy afterthought? Given the apparent spontaneity of this encounter – the potentially unmade bed, the suggestion that sex remains a future prospect – then it surely doesn’t come from the figure whose kisses are being ‘wrapp[ed] up’ (like a birthday present, yes, but also like a meeting which has gone on too long.) Who is this barely-mentioned ‘you’, other than a pair of fascinating earlobes? This sudden, intense focus on the previously hazy shares a quality with Key’s frequent half-rhymes (‘sitting’/’kissing’/’morning’/’appalling’; ‘water’/’better’/’letter’), achieving a brief clarity which the general wooziness is always threatening to consume.
With almost no decisions taken, by the end of the poem ‘I’ is the only thing which emerges intact: an inescapable self-awareness, where all else is ‘far gone’. Kissing aside, the last line is the only moment of direct physical contact, the only place where we can see the poem’s ‘I’ touching the poem’s ‘you’. And yet, in this very moment of connection with the other, ‘I’, ‘try’ and ‘untie’ all interlink like laces, a kind of phonological compulsion pulling us inexorably back into the echo-chamber of the single self.
As may be apparent, what with academic work and other poetry-related commitments, I haven’t had much time to update here recently, and the Scallop-Shell won’t be a weekly concern for a while. A new post once a month might be more realistic, but if I can do more, I will, and once again, I’d welcome contributions from other writers – send me your ideas at richardtobrien [AT] gmail [DOT] com.
Amy Key’s debut collection, Luxe, is forthcoming from Salt on November 15th. There’s a launch event at Paper Dress Vintage on November 28th. ‘Tight Dress’, along with ‘Caramel Swirl’, features in The Emma Press Anthology of Mildly Erotic Verse, and she is reading at the Poetry Café, Covent Garden on October 31st, and the Birdcage, Norwich, on November 2nd, as part of the Mildly Erotic Poetry Tour which accompanies the book. She is also editing an anthology – ‘Best Friends Forever’ – on the theme of female friendship. More details here.