#22: ‘The tight dress suggests I’m prepared to be undressed.’

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.

Tight Dress
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.

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#21: ‘like a pistol in her pocket’

Seven years ago, the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award changed my life. It’s no exaggeration to say that this blog probably couldn’t have existed without the encouragement, support and community to which I was given access as a Foyle winner, and I am deeply indebted to the award not only for the continuing role it has played in my own success (whatever that means) as a writer, but also for the attentiveness it allowed me to develop as a reader of the kinds of poetry being written now.

Today, on National Poetry Day, this year’s fifteen winners were announced; fifteen young writers who are about to have a horizon-expanding experience of which I am retrospectively and unreasonably jealous. In tribute to the part that the Foyle competition played in my life, I’m giving this week’s entry over to the winning poem which spoke to me most powerfully – Ian Burnette’s ‘Dutch Baby’, a tense and tender portrait of an abrupt induction into adulthood.

Dutch Baby
by Ian Burnette

In the bakery, my girl
grips a pregnancy test

like a pistol in her pocket.
The baker hands her

the key to the restroom
and leaves. In the back

there’s a small window
where he watches

men and women and
children—I don’t mind,

I’ve learned I can’t
protect anyone by now.

The raspberry danish
in the pastry cabinet

is the baker’s daughter,
I’ve decided—bruised

purple and swaddled
in puff rope. I imagine

the baker coming back
from his window, filling

my empty hands.
Here’s yeast, here’s flour,

fruit and sugar and water—
make more of her.

*

The considerable threat in this poem emerges in part from its sense of normality, present even in its very grammar – its simple, present-tense, often monosyllabic sentences. The bakery, with its restroom and its pastry cabinet, evokes the warm sense of domesticity and community provided by a traditional (family) business, and the gently-possessive description ‘my girl’ points back to a wholesome teen America, reminiscent of romantic comedy. It is this context which the pregnancy test (even before its result is visible) is about to explode, with a volley of popping plosives. Who is this ‘pistol’ pointed at – the father, the lover, or the ‘girl’ herself? Does she ‘grip’ in fear, or tenacious self-defence?

Burnette skilfully controls the levels of knowledge within the poem – it isn’t fully clear if the baker knows what his daughter is doing in the restroom, or if his window-watching habit (‘children’ last, an unsettling afterthought) is as sinister as the speaker seems to assume. He seems too young for apathy, and we don’t know if his failures of ‘protection’ have a significance beyond the sexual. And where is he within the scene – on the other side of the window, looking in, thus little better than the father-voyeur? Or inside, tapping his toes by the pastry cabinet, nervously waiting for his hands to be filled? When it comes to the bruising of an edible commodity (two images of male-on-female violence and control), ‘I’ve decided’ seems an oddly glib choice of verb. As with the victim in Larkin’s ‘Deceptions‘, it’s hard to know how uneasy to feel about the male’s ‘imagine’d agency within, or ownership of, a narrative of female suffering. Here, also, we shift into the past – ‘I’ve learned’… ‘I’ve decided’ – as Burnett takes us away from the restroom and its uncomfortably intimate suspense into a space of distanced reflection which the female character is currently unable to access.

Perhaps the bruising refers less to domestic assault than to the image of a difficult birth; certainly ‘swaddled/in puff rope’ implies the painful reception of a new-born, one who enters into a world of suffocating restriction. Against this vision of a possible future, the speaker’s ’empty hands’ return us to his prior powerlessness; the ‘filling’ also suggests a kind of surrogate pregnancy for which the ‘daughter’ is present only as a sugary embryo, created by two generations of men within a masculine receptacle. ‘Make more of her’ indicates a desire for replacement – implies, even, a fatherly concern that this new daughter should be treated better than the last – but doesn’t answer the question of where the first has got to within the final movement of the poem. There is a tenderness to this moment of reconstruction, even if the end result will be something flimsy and comestible. We don’t know quite what the yeast will rise into, or how the situation in the poem will resolve. ‘Make more of her’, an imperative, reaches outward to us as readers – it is our job now to build up the narrative, to fill in the gaps Burnette leaves open.

*

To read more about the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and read the full list of 2013’s winners please go to http://www.foyleyoungpoets.org.

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