Monday, May 10, 2021

A Tour to the Heart of Skirted




Consider this review of Skirted by Julie Marie Wade not so much critique but map. The Dresser suggests this route in: understand that the journey deals with self-discovery, especially sexuality and independence. How does a grown child detach from the mother and escape from a script written without regard for the maturing offspring?


Map suggests itself because each of the five sections of this book begins with a poem entitled "Pangaea." Pangaea refers to the supercontinent comprised of all our earthy continents fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. “These continents—/land    or    sleep    or    snow/(things that drift, that deepen)//And the nets of the heart cast wide across the ever-widening sea//(Ts’ai Ken T’an)   Water which is too pure has no fish.//…//For my mother, one indisputable truth—/how men & women are meant to cleave:/the sheaves of their bodies bundled//weltered re-enactment of Adam & Eve…”


While, the reference in transliterated Mandarin Ts’ai Ken T’an can mean in English “water which is too pure has no fish,” the essence points to a reality check that the purity of childhood has been superseded in the adult by the grime of living. Wade wastes no time or paper with end notes. She packs in philosophical ideas of consequence throughout this poetic treatise that relates a story of sexual awakening.


She tried to comply with her mother’s wish that she make a traditional marriage. “…I wanted to be just like all the others. I knew I could love a man. I was well-practiced in the art of obligation & I had a curtsy or two left in me from the formative ballet class.” However, she had a dream that she “turned suddenly male” and decided, “I wouldn’t let the world crack open: Twilight Zone or worse Twilight of the Golds.” The Dresser, of course, thought Twilight of the Gods, the Wagner opera where the superhero that our pop culture calls the Fat Lady was being referenced and our poet in Skirted was dealing with a trial by fire just as Brunhilde had been subjected to by her father. No. The Dresser pulled up short and regrouped because Julie Marie Wade is a careful writer. Sure enough, an Internet search quickly revealed Twilight of the Golds is an American film (screened at Sundance in 1997) where parents consider aborting their baby because its genes test positive for gayness. By the end of the prose poem “You can’t marry someone when you’re in love with someone else.”, the poet’s movie of Truth has evolved to The Sound of Music but some of the gender roles have reversed. “…I was no Captain Von Trapp, & my husband-to-be no Baroness Schraeder.” What’s funny is the woman the poet loves not only doesn’t resemble Von Trapp’s Maria but also has never seen this exuberant musical. So, one person’s truth is not another’s—if that person even gets what that truth is.


For the Dresser, the pièce de résistance is “Love Poem for Sisyphus.” Written in couplets with an epigraph by Albert Camus—“To the celestial thunderbolt he preferred the benediction of water.”—building a love relationship is hard work with a lot of backsliding. The poem has that T.S. Eliot weariness and contradiction.


As do I, so often: soothing flux of these currents,

soft baptism of this rain; never the sense to come in


out of, now the certainty that life remains

uncertain: the pleasure this brings us, the pain.


O Sisyphus, how you surprise me, man after my own heart:

absurdist hero, friends sought for strength in futile struggle.


Sometimes we cherish in others what we cannot embrace

in ourselves; all this standing water in the well


of consciousness, raising my pail only to pour out

its contents again: how to distinguish—


repetition from redundancy?

anaphora from tautology?



In Western literature, fire metaphors (like thunderbolts) typically point to males and water imagery to females. In lesbian literature (such as Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein), water often takes on male resonance. Here that  “well of consciousness” makes the Dresser think of Hemingway complaining that if you go to your well (source of your creativity) too often, the unconscious mind will be depleted. Wade’s well seems to be feminine awareness that has overtaken (flooded, ergo standing water) her consciousness. Then Wade’s question is how to navigate between repetition (anaphora) which can be good in its comforting musicality versus redundancy (tautology) which repeats stupidly (like the vulgar word irregardless).


An outstanding example of anaphora is “’I’m drowning here, & you’re describing the water.’” First, note that Wade is quoting the character Melvin Udall (played by Jack Nicholson) in the film As Good as It Gets when he reaches out to a friend for advice on the occasion of his lover rejecting him. In Wade’s anaphora, every sentence of this prose poem begins “The water.” It seems the water is Wade’s mother, the one that “remembers when you were a child…keeps your pink jelly-shoes for posterity.”


Skirted is a masterful literary work with vital psychological portraits. Wade is deft at mixing high and low elements of Western life in the tradition of postmodernism. She exercises word agility that signals meta poetics but is clearly essential in communicating the distress experienced in breaking with her past and forging a new life.


“You once understood unanimity. Now you know best anonymity. Amity & enmity have been reversed in places. The ones you loved best know the least about you. …” from “Reading Robinson Crusoe Again, for the Last Time.”


One final thought about the title of the book—in “Skirt the issue.”, a prose poem where the word skirt is used many times but the poem does not take shape as anaphora but rather as a cautionary tale, well, maybe also as the dread tautology:


"…& most important of all bed skirts which disguise not only the sin of the skin but the place where flesh is most likely to mingle no shortage of skirts & nothing that can’t be covered by a simple drape & a few stitches of pliable silk you think you won’t be skirted just you wait"


In other words, the poet is saying to be skirted is to be put in your place. Here the tour ends, but the Dresser recommends this is only the beginning of sights and insights.