Clothing, fashion, and perhaps particularly dresses, are often seen as insignificant. Arguably disregarded due to its feminine associations, any artistry is often deemed lesser than other forms of art and creation. With The Significance of a Dress (Arachne Press, 2020), Emma Lee explores the female voice through various characters’ stories, taking the reader from refugee camps in Iraq to suffragettes in Britain. Whilst it is often presumed that poetry is autobiographical, perhaps Lee’s experience as a short story writer informs her desire to take on others’ voices, including those who may be voiceless in order to present the personal as political.
The title poem shocks with the imagery of ‘a girl in a white gown holding a teddy bear’, drawing attention to the impact of political issues on women and girls who are forced to marry before they are of age. We are taken from the light-hearted idea of a bride wanting ‘to feel special’ to the stark reality where 24% of women are married by the time they turn 18.The poem explores the nuances of the issues, describing a wedding as ‘a sign of hope’, yet the strength of the poem is exposed through the final image:
‘The dresses sparkle with sun-reflected diamante
but the gravel paths of the camp leave the hems stained.’
The poems discuss the damage of patriarchal societies whereby gender roles create a clear distinction between victim and perpetrator. Men are often to be feared, again shown as predatory towards girls in I Saw Life Jackets Left on the Beach: ‘men drifted around / and she didn’t think her daughters were safe.’ Lee sets the poem in Kos, Greece, which made the news in 2015 for locking thousands of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan inside of a stadium. The protagonist is on holiday for her ‘two weeks in the sun’, and finds herself in this strange situation, where instead of just sunbathing, she gives food to refugees, and chaperones the children, teaching them ‘hopscotch on the beach’. Whilst the voice at times feels forced in its statements, occasionally it offers multitudes of meanings, ending with the mention of sanitary pads, thinking of ‘their bodies capable of creating life’. Life here could symbolise hope and growth, yet with the threat of the looming men, it can also be seen in a more sinister way, alluding to what could happen when left alone with them.
Whilst the poems contain sympathetic stories of men escaping war and persecution, the collection is at its strongest when exploring gender roles and the damage they cause across society.
Whilst the poems contain sympathetic stories of men escaping war and persecution, the collection is at its strongest when exploring gender roles and the damage they cause across society. Lee uses her poems to often shed light on current events around the globe, such as the repeal of Article 522 in Lebanon, which absolved a rapist who married their victim, explored in Bridal Dresses in Beirut. The dresses each hang from a ‘noose’, with detailed descriptions of them contrasting with the finality of ‘the sort of dress picked / in a hurry to satisfy a shotgun’, exploring the idea of choice and control.
Lee’s strength is in the moments of clear imagery and engagement of the senses
Lee’s strength is in the moments of clear imagery and engagement of the senses, imagining the future of a baby, when grown, only able to sleep ‘when she’s lulled by lapping water / and the feel of another’s heart.’ She also plays with language in interesting ways, such as in A Boy’s Text Message in Headlines, where we can see the manipulation of the media in the use of language: where ‘Fifteen people rescued by one boy’s text’ is contrasted with ‘one man arrested of illegally assisting entry to UK’, and ending on the superficiality of a headline about a ‘frumpy’ dress. In How Do you rehearse for This?, she uses the concept of theatre to write about the Grenfell Tower fire. Covering a variety of topics, this collection offers a reflection of the times, and in revisiting these moments we practise an act of remembrance, ‘another one minute vigil / …the noisy office falls silent like an audience / sensing a show’s about to begin’.
Featured image: Arachne Press
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