Borrowed Dress by Cathy Colman, winner of the Felix Pollock Prize in poetry is, on the surface, poetry, distinguished by the requisite broken lines and uneven form, but the images splayed on the page hold so much feeling and stark imagery, that the poems themselves read like flash fiction, suspended moments and strident glimpses into the past as well as intrepid contemplation of the future.
Colman’s poetry is honest with and edge that is anything but dull, abiding in the small epigraph, seemingly well chosen, stating: “Speaking always implies treason”, sage words by existentialist Jean Paul Sartre. Setting the stage for these poems, Colman’s “voice” commits not so much treason, although it seems always on the verge of being possible, as it does the tremulous task of the active mind probing the distant and not so distant past while the heart attempts pain-saving detachment. Though what Colman delivers is anything but detached. In fact, the poems emanate warmth, which is, indeed, a good thing as well as not achieving the objectivity of distance. Who wants emotion and objectivity anyway?
In the books first section “This Had Something to Do With Radiant Linen”, the narrator gives herself over to memory, beginning with the infinitesimal “Zygote”, as she ponders literal and figurative beginnings and the changes inherent in growth, as well as how life can, well, slap you down once in a while:
What will happen is part drowse, part thunderhead/branches that peal their own skins like penitents / What will happen when I’m counted, thumbprint and tongue, upstaged by a tiny contortionist / who came into the world backward and upside down, tattooed with luck?
The poems which follow in this section have the hint of bitter or weary lament with the narrator imploring, for instance of the act of sleeping, sleep itself becoming the main “character”, “What kind of offering can I make to you, Sleep? Haven’t I already given you more than I have given anyone?” and the enigmatic “Deliverance”, enigmatic because, while the narrator beseeches, in a veritable grocery list of maybes, when’s and ifs, one wonders: ” Delivered from what?”—But it doesn’t really even matter—insert our own longing or regret and watch vivid imagery throb: “Maybe when the blunt featured face of Dread /fades from the window . . .Maybe when the minutes lose their tethers/ and the white ammonia of the mind finally burn itself out”—which is left to hang, exactly there, because, after all, we live in hope and maybe . . . just maybe when . . . But, and this is a big But, Colman never seems to let the reader off the hook and in this section the momentum simply builds and, paradoxically, the existential poem “Nothing” has a lot to say with images that are both unexpected as well as serve to exemplify the dread of being and in popular parlance “stuck in the moment”:
This had something / to do with radiant linen and the swift inoculations of rain; with siestas that let us practice oblivion / All the intimate beginnings / now forgotten. Though we are changed by everything, nothing appear / to move.
In the second section ” Like Frost on the Stubble”, art, memory and love form the predominant themes, and these poems can only be described as “word painting”. In “Life Drawing” Colman aptly places Pablo Picasso’s astute statement that “Art is a lie that makes us see the truth” above the prose poem in which the narrator journeys back in time to when, as a model for an artist, she was molded and manipulated to reflect an artificial picture of who or what she really was. She reflects:
This was all years before I stumbled through the Hopper show in New Your at the Whitney, betrayed by a man, and I wondered does the psyche produce the objects of alienation in these paintings or do the objects project their solitariness, the lost condition common to all objects, into the psyche?
In “How To” the narrator entreats the reader, amongst other things to “Sit down at your desk/ Whack the pinata of childhood until something ugly flies out. If you can’t find a subject stare out the window.” The narrator does not favor action over inaction, the trick is to get by any way you can. In this way survival, mostly of the psyche, lies at the root of nearly all of these poems in one way or the other. In the title poem “Borrowed Dress”, the narrator observes dispassionately and almost trance-like what her life might possibly have turned out to be had she not abdicated, in time, her destiny to,
stand reflected in the infinity inducing / mirrors with other women in restaurant bathrooms who pat their hair, make that little moue with their lips / who return to tables of men, their wet hairs galvanized like filaments of iron.
Realizations, of who we are, what we might have become, opportunities lost and emotional disasters just barely sidestepped, love, loss and memory inhabit the pages of this thin but both stark and radiant volume. Read these poems for their brutal honesty, gentle resignation and wry smirks, in all the right places, and feel the ripple effect of the images and how they’ll resonate long after you’ve put the poems down:
Strange how everything is orderly even in dissipation / when leaves blizzard the pavement / I don’t see them land but their fall / the event of it, is still present, almost invisible.
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