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THE DRESS

by C. K. Williams




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In those days, those days which exist for me only as the
    most elusive memory now,
when often the first sound you'd hear in the morning
    would be a storm of birdsong,
then the soft clop of the hooves of the horse hauling a
    milk wagon down your block,

and the last sound at night as likely as not would be
    your father pulling up in his car,
having worked late again, always late, and going
    heavily down to the cellar, to the furnace,
to shake out the ashes and damp the draft before he
    came upstairs to fall into bed --

in those long-ago days, women, my mother, my
    friends' mothers, our neighbors,
all the women I knew, wore, often much of the day,
    what were called housedresses,
cheap, printed, pulpy, seemingly purposefully shapeless
    light cotton shifts,

that you wore over your nightgown and, when you had
    to go to look for a child,
hang wash on the line, or run down to the grocery store
    on the corner, under a coat,
the twisted hem of the nightgown, always lank and
    yellowed, dangling beneath.

More than the curlers some of the women seemed
    constantly to have in their hair,
in preparation for a great event -- a ball, one would
    think -- that never came to pass;
more than the way most women's faces not only were
    never made up during the day,

but seemed scraped, bleached, and, with their plucked
    eyebrows, scarily masklike;
more than all that it was those dresses that made
    women so unknowable and forbidding,
adepts of enigmas to which men could have no access,
    and boys no conception.

Only later would I see the dresses also as a
    proclamation: that in your dim kitchen,
your cellar, your bleak concrete yard, what you
    revealed of yourself was a fabulation;
your real sensual nature, veiled in those sexless
    vestments, was utterly your dominion.

In those days, one hid much else as well: grown men
    didn't embrace one another,
unless someone had died, and not always then; you
    shook hands or, at a ball game,
thumped your friendıs back and exchanged blows meant
    to be codes for affection;

once out of childhood you'd never again know the shock
    of your father's whiskers
on your cheek, not until mores at last had evolved, and
    you could hug another man,
then hold on for a moment, then even kiss (your father's
    bristles white and stiff now).

What release finally, the embrace: though we were wary
    -- it seemed so audacious --
how much unspoken joy there was in that affirmation
    of equality and communion,
no matter how much misunderstanding and pain had
    passed between you by then.

We knew so little in those days, as little as now, I
    suppose, about healing those hurts:
even the women, in their best dresses, with beads
    and sequins sewn on the bodice,
even in lipstick and mascara, their hair aflow, could
    only stand wringing their hands,

begging for peace, while father and son, like thugs,
    like thieves, like Romans,
simmered and hissed and hated, inflicting sorrows
    that endured, the worst anyway,
through the kiss and embrace, bleeding from brother
    to brother into the generations.

In those days there was still countryside close to the
    city, farms, cornfields, cows;
even not far from our building with its blurred brick and
    long shadowy hallway
you could find tracts with hills and trees you could
    pretend were mountains and forests.

Or you could go out by yourself even to a half-block-
    long empty lot, into the bushes:
like a creature of leaves you'd lurk, crouched, crawling,
    simplified, savage, alone;
already there was wanting to be simpler, wanting, when
    they called you, never to go back.



C. K. Williams teaches in the writing program at Princeton University. A new book of his poems, Repair, will be published this month.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1999; The Dress; Volume 283, No. 6; pages 96 - 97.

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