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I have admired collaborative poetry projects since I first read, in a breathless glissandi, Exquisite Politics (Tia Chucha Press, 1997), co-authored by Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton. This collection resulted when two incisive feminist thinkers yoked the full power of their passion, intellect, and humor in order to appraise the late 20th century American zeitgeist. They did so with special attention to the politics surrounding race, class, gender, and sexual identity.
Now here we are, already deep in the second decade of the new millennium, and another pair of incisive feminist thinkers has paused to take the pulse of our contradictory culture, a culture at once sluggish with the status quo and fevered with the desire to change it. X Marks the Dress takes marriage as its most explicit subject, one that is both public and private, volatile and validating, a concept and its corollary institution that signify liberation for some and oppression for others. However, instead of offering us two separate voices on the subject, Darling and Guess provide a potpourri of perspectives concerning what marriage has meant and might mean in the early 21st century. What they avoid, adroitly, is any proselytizing as to what marriage should mean.
Take, for instance, the persona in “Flowers Pressed In A Book,” which I read as a compelling re-envisioning of Louisa Ellis from Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s 1891 short story, “A New England Nun.” The poetic narrative begins:
I lived alone. I had lovers and friends and pets and projects. I kept my coffee pot warm, real cream in the fridge. I had trees and a garden, pressed flowers and photos. My sofa was soft and my mattress was firm.
It was a good life, but my friends and family never believed me. There’s someone out there for you, they said.
In our Match.com culture, the mandate to be coupled, by which we most often mean married, and the assumption that a life, particularly a woman’s life, is incomplete without a spouse, circulates relentlessly. This speaker recounts:
In the morning I’d find him sitting at my pink formica table, eating buttered toast, reading a magazine fished from recycling.
Surprise! He’d say. I’m the one your friends and family were talking about. I’m here!
And I would live with this man for the rest of my life.
In this version of the story, a new incarnation of Joe Dagget arrives on Louisa’s doorstep, and the speaker accepts him at last. Is she “settling”? Was their union really “meant to be”? Like the postmodern parable it is, this poem presents what happens without proffering explanation or solution. This is one path to marriage, the poets suggest. There are others.
Consider “Green Earrings with Pearl Inlays,” a second alter ego for Louisa Ellis:
By the time I turned forty, I knew that I would never
never be married.
Not to a man.
Not to a woman. […]
I knew that I would never be married because I
didn’t want to be married. I avoided marriage with
the same passion with which others pursued it.
I did, however, want a pair of green earrings with pearl inlays.
This speaker does not marry, but instead hosts for herself a “non-wedding/party, a non-ceremony.”
Here is a woman whose voice is seldom heard in our culture. She does not appear on programs like Say Yes to the Dress or Whose Wedding Is It Anyway? We can all readily call to mind, even if cringing as we do, the type of woman referred to as “Bridezilla.” She is familiar, a trope, a 21st century invention. But what about the anti-bride, the one who chooses not to marry yet insists she too is worthy (or at least no less worthy) of the perks a wedding brings: “Also,” this speaker confides, “I wanted a four-speed juicer.”
These poems are indicative of what Darling and Guess do best: reaching beyond themselves into the imagined lives of others and rendering these others flawed, whole, and achingly human.
The most startling of this series of narratives is called “Pizza.” It begins sweetly, with deceptive simplicity:
One night, when the kids were in bed and the house was quiet, we flipped through our wedding album. We cried remembering our vows, and laughed at photos of our dog in the pool.
Then, a wrinkle in the surface of things:
As we flipped through the album, I noticed a handsome stranger standing half in, half out of several photos. He seemed to belong at another wedding, as if he’d wandered into the wrong hotel.
How odd, I said, that a stranger ended up in so many of our photos. He’s even in photos we took at home. Look, I said, he’s petting our dog. He’s cutting our cake. He’s hugging your mom.
One spouse demands that the other “Explain that man.” Until this moment, I had not questioned that one spouse was a woman and one was a man.
Darling, you know how my mother and father rejected me? How they said they couldn’t support our relationship, that our wedding was an insult to God? Well, I told my parents I was marrying a man. I hired an actor to play my husband. It was just so they’d come to our wedding. […]
I did the ceremony real quick, just a few people, my brother and your brother, too, and then everyone joined us for the party. I’ve been meaning to tell you. He has an apartment on the south side of town. I go there sometimes to have dinner with my parents. He has kids from his first marriage, Becky and Jeff.
The chill bumps are rising on my skin, the way they do as I read a thrilling novel. “Those are our kids’ names,” one wife protests.
“I know, you said. That’s why we had to name them Becky and Jeff,” replies the other.
This poem, to me, epitomizes what X Marks the Dress: A Registry is capable of: a deeply unsettling yet riveting exploration of the multi-valence of marriage in American society now. As of June 2013, twelve states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage, and yet when we first picture that couple on the couch in this poem, with kids asleep upstairs and a wedding album splayed open on their laps, I suspect our assumptions don’t reflect what we know is possible so much as what we have most frequently been shown: some version of marriage=man + woman with children. The idea that same-sex couples can marry, and in some cases, that our marriages can be recognized by the states in which we live, doesn’t seamlessly result in widespread visibility or acceptance of same-sex marriages by the culture at large.
I empathize at once with the spouse who feels betrayed by her wife’s secret family and falsified life, yet I empathize also with the spouse who longs for her family’s approval so much she tries to have her married life both ways—public and private, volatile and validating, one woman cleaved in two by marriage, in every fraught meaning of that term.
By turns narrative and lyric, imagistic and minimalistic, X Marks the Dress is a collaborative tour de force of great emotional and epistemological weight. Darling and Guess adopt and embody a range of forms, including a bridal registry, glossaries, appendices, ledgers, and cryptic footnotes that pay deft poetic homage to Jenny Boully’s The Body.
In the end, these poets toss the bouquet of meaning for their readers—not frivolously, but with great humility, in the spirit of a collaboration that extends beyond the page. There is no “happily ever after” here, no panning out toward a vague and distant sunset. The ending is open, uncertain, characteristically postmodern, primed for alteration and subversion. We must imagine for ourselves what comes next:
“The guests could hear her dress rustling as she walked away from the altar. Even then, the white lace trim had begun to unravel.”
X Marks the Dress: A Registry
By Kristina Marie Darling & Carol Guess
Gold Wake Press
Paperback, 9780985919153, 96 pp.