Fashion can be a statement, a trend, a business, an object of fascination, a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, and likely any number of other things. Poet Juliette van der Molen wants to tell what it isn’t, or what it shouldn’t be — the wrapping that turns a woman into an object. The 16 poems of her newly published Anatomy of a Dress are a kind of declaration of independence; in her author’s note, she says that the collection “explores messages sent and interpreted regarding how women have historically been encouraged to dress, mainly for the pleasure and subjugation of the patriarchy.”
When I read that, I took a deep breath, and asked Tweetspeak Poetry’s editor if she was sure she wanted a man, one who is mostly conservative, to review this collection. She said yes, so I took another deep breath, and then took the plunge. So let it be noted at the outset that I’m generally suspicious of any poetry that falls into the category of “message poetry,” whether it’s from the right, center, or left. I’ve read message poetry many times and often enjoyed it or been challenged by it. But I approach it initially with a healthy dose of skepticism, because I don’t know what’s more important here — the message or the craft.
What I have trouble with, I believe, is seeing poetry as a political means to a political end. People can and do write message poetry and political poetry all the time, and particularly these days, but poems have to stand as poems first. To see the phrase “subjugation of the patriarchy” even before the poems begin causes me to frown, my eyes to narrow, and my mind to begin to close.
With that as background, I can say after three readings that the poet should have ditched that part of the author’s note. It wasn’t necessary. The poems tell a story and make the poet’s meaning clear, and they are better than the author’s note led me to believe.
Van der Molen considers different aspects of a dress — zipper, hem, buttons, darts, decorative aspects, pleats, eyelet, neckline, and many others. Who knew there were these many parts of a dress? Certainly not men, other than fashion designers. She calmly and deliberately uses each part of a dress to make a point, perhaps an overall point, that this is not what you think it is, and the person wearing it is the one to decide what that is.
my hem is not
of marked desire
it is just
edge that falls
it is not
to send hands
or to obstruct.
it is not up
I never knew the hem of a dress could carry such baggage, but I can see how it does. The poem does that by itself. I don’t need someone, including the poet, telling me how I’m supposed to read the poem. That’s not how poetry works. I can see what others have to say, including professional critics. But in the long run, a poem is both a personal act of creation and a personal act of reception and understanding.
Van der Molen is an expat American living in Wales. She has published a chapbook, Death Library: The Exquisite Corpse Collection, and another collection of poetry, Mother May I? Her next collection, Confess: The untold story of Dorothy Good, is scheduled to be published in the fall of 2020. Her work has been published in The Wellington Street Review, Nightingale & Sparrow, Burning House Press, and several other publications. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize (2018) and Best of The Net (2019), and she also serves as editor of Mookychick Magazine.
This short collection called Anatomy of a Dress is a good one. It stands on its own and doesn’t need to be explained.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem) to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish