Books

Attire of feeling

Out of FashionOut of Fashion by Carol Ann Duffy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars

Duffy’s introduction makes a formal link between fashion and poetry, saying that poems are ‘the attire of feeling’, the place where messy, emotion-racked life events ‘scrub up well’. Mirroring this hint at meta-awareness, she has invited contemporary poets to choose a work by a poet from another time concerning dress or fashion to place alongside one of their own.

the poems examine… how we dress or undress, how we cover up or reveal, and how clothes, fashion and jewellery are both a necessary and luxurious, a practical and sensual, a liberating and repressing part of our lives

And the biggest themes are… sexual love and death! Surprise, surprise… I wrote down a few thoughts.

My favourite is John Agard’s brilliant poem that does more than it promises! Its ‘thirteen ways’ of signing & binding & setting free multiply in the eyes of the different characters and archetypes he brings into the poem alongside reader and author. His chosen poem from Gond oral tradition further opens and angles the dialogue with a song of seduction and danger in an unfamiliar form.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Old Tie
by John Agard

A striped reminder
of the embers of empire.

A nostalgic neck-binder
for a post-colonial evening.

An emblem that divides
insiders from outsiders.

A prop for suicide
by way of strangulation.

An icon of Eton
worn even with the heat on.

A signifying signpost
to the nearest pubic station.

A crested spearhead
into male bonding.

A formal demarcator
of respect for the dead.

A diagonal entry
into the Royal Artillery.

A cross-sexual accessory
of gender-bending politics.

A Freudian substitute
for the umbilical cord.

A subliminal throwback
to the Neanderthal club.

In Nansi’s motley wardrobe

the tie, on the other hand,
could be quite simply

a polka dot silk paddle
to row the sea of circumstance.


Moniza Alvi
playfully uses a piece of recognizable national dress, to reflect on embodying migration and foreign-ness. The sari is loaded with layers of meaning and its final double-wrapping of the body is ambiguous…

Several poets take extracts from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which has an overwhelming quantity of dress-detail: butterflies, birds, green beads and gold. I’ve always been strongly attracted to very old hand-made artefacts and these descriptions are amazingly evocative.

Sujata Bhatt’s poem ‘In Her Green Dress, She Is’ is another successful seduction for me – a richly textured expression of thrilled senses.

Fred d’Aguiar’s poem ‘The World’s Biggest Suit’ explores how the feeling of clothes comes out of the feeling of being in the body, and vice versa. This has much to do with race and the spaces in which certain bodies are allowed to be at home. The superlative suit takes on meaning from the body it clothes and the bodies it moves among… Then he goes and chooses Chaucer too. Respect.

Maura Dooley chooses Christopher Marlowe’s irresistible poem ‘The Passionate Shepherd to his Love’

U A Fanthorpe’s choice is Ben Jonson’s ‘Still to be Neat’ which I found heartening, but then David Harsent, after a disturbingly anatomical extract from his poem ‘Marriage’ gives us a similar work by Robert Herrick ‘Delight in Disorder’ which now feels more like a patronising leer into the dressing-room.

Vicki Feaver writes about Medea’s murderous gift to Creon’s daughter, contrasting this ‘cool girl’ Jason preferred to ‘his fiery wife’. I wonder if this is the most (literally!) inflammatory topic that came to mind in response to the ‘frivolous’ invitation. Scorning the princess’ self-betraying vanity, Feaver seems to gift scorned women with that particular image of hell-hath-no-fury vengeance as a kind of fantasy therapy… Her choice is Anne Sexton’s monumental poem ‘Woman with Girdle’, honouring an aged woman’s body.

Jo Haslam chooses a poem by Sappho, and I thank her for bringing her into the room.


Jackie Kay
’s poem ‘A White African Dress’ about what her father wore when she first met him makes me think about how precious parts of memory are lost or cling only perilously to enduring images like the White Dress. Memories of clothes are like photographs in that they contain loss – in the case of grief when we have the clothes themselves this can become unbearable – what in Camera Lucida Barthes mentions – ‘the return of the dead’. But Kay’s poem only hints at this loss; perhaps she didn’t mean to bring death into the conversation here, but only play on the way that past events are mirrored to us, thrown back to us by today and take on new qualities and meanings. She chooses a poem ‘The Blue Jacket’ by Scottish poet Marion Angus, reflecting another side of her heritage, and a portrait of an independently-minded woman.

I really like Alice Oswald’s poem ‘Wedding’ and her choice of a traditional song by David Shaw ‘The Wark o’ the Weavers’, which, surprisingly, is the only poem that brings the issue of dress-making labour seriously into the collection.

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