Earth and an Automobile


Redressing Lesley Wheeler’s “Dressing Down 1962”

From the September issue of Poetry Magazine:

Dressing Down, 1962
“Shalom,” called the pink-shirted man in the Oceanic
Terminal of Heathrow, and I snapped,
“I do not want to talk to you.” Manic

with fear, I extended one pointy-tipped shoe, tapped
the message home. My cases bulged with the wrong
clothes, every outfit trimmed with clipped

English, fit for telephone jobs on Long
Island. Rwanda, Algeria, and me
declaring every kind of independence.

My skirt and I were green, not the pretty
pistachio that Jacqueline Kennedy wore,
but the color copper develops in the sea,

cold and unfortunate, the green of storms
that have never squalled before. My hat,
gloves, and I were pale, not plush like the warm

blonde women settling in their seats
and bubbling dipthongs to their husbands;
not even poignant, like the champagne satin

that Marilyn Monroe was buried in.
Just neutral, stale as a biscuit, off
as an old cup of milk. I was stubborn,

I would do what I said and leave
England. I would ride that El Al jet, mystery
novel in hand and never grieve.

Johnny Carson, The Jetsons, and me.
A new wardrobe in cartoon hues. Meanwhile,
my row-mate slipped off her court shoes, free

toes wiggling in hose. “We all went to Israel,
almost all of us on the flight, and are returning
to South Carolina,” she explained in a drawl

that frightened me more that the turbofan
wailing beneath us. In her sundress, her stomach
looked soft. Ungirdled? Does everyone chat with a twang,

even the Jews? I do not want to talk,
but here I am, midair. “Coffee,” I replied
to the hostess, slowly. I will never wear slacks,

but I can unfasten each word, open it wide.

There are aspects of this poem that I enjoy, but it feels a little padded to me. Lot of telling going on here (“I snapped”, “manic with fear”), the sort of things that would be dreadful if appearing in a novel.  The mention of “telephone jobs” pull in an entirely different direction. The little joke about Rwanda and Algeria diminishes the tone of disconnection. The misspelling of “diphthongs” is [sic], I don’t know if that’s suppose to mean anything. The eighth stanza is unnecessary in terms of information (“I will leave England”) and too explanatory (“and never grieve”). The cartoon reference again causes tonal violence (particularly matched with genocide connotation above). The final three stanza suffer from biography.

Continue reading “Redressing Lesley Wheeler’s “Dressing Down 1962””

Psalm 151

1 I was small among my brothers,
and the youngest in my father’s house;
I tended my father’s sheep.

2 My hands made a harp;
my fingers fashioned a lyre.

3 And who will tell my Lord?
The Lord himself; it is he who hears.

4 It was he who sent his messenger
and took me from my father’s sheep,
and anointed me with his anointing oil.

5 My brothers were handsome and tall,
but the Lord was not pleased with them.

6 I went out to meet the Philistine,
and he cursed me by his idols.

7 But I drew his own sword;
I beheaded him, and took away disgrace from the people of Israel.

In the beginning,

…we stay with the preacher. We sit sweating on the mercy seat. We hear the preacher shout. We feel the fire in this man who built the church that burned down. This preacher read Nietzche. This preacher who was a carpenter with bent nails, who was the father of the cowgirl who ironed his handkerchiefs. The big man who cheered at wrestling matches, who drove a dark Chevy, who wore white shirts stiff from the laundry, who sang, “There was a crooked man, who had a crooked smile.”

The nuns…taught all the girls to say hell merry fuller grays, dolores wit chew, blast duh art dower mung wimmen, blast dis fruit uh duh loom, cheez whiz.”

If only she had a gospel voice, not a notebook full of Babylon.

-from “She Swam On from Sea to Shine”, Harryette Mullen : Sleeping with the Dictionary

3 Posts from My Friends

Robert Letham points out that it is rather ironic that it was a council (Vatican I, 1870) that declared the doctrine of papal infallibility. Given the historic tensions between councils and popes, it’s a little curious in itself. But as one commentator put it, “the Pope needed a council to pronounce infallibly that he never needed it!”

Given that the Trinity is incomprehensible, there are limits to our understanding, and I regularly have students ask how far they should go.  That has always struck me as an odd question.  Incomprehensibility is not a reason to stop exploring and meditating, but the opposite.

Because God is incomprehensible, He fascinates, and whatever fascinates draws us forward, draws us ever beyond the limits we thought were there.