REVIEW  from Prism Quarterly by R. David Skinner  

Eve’s Red Dress: Poems by Diane Lockward

Diane Lockward’s collection, and its title poem, are aptly named to set the slightly irreverent tone for a wonderful collection of poems. I was first drawn to Lockward’s book by the website linked in the signature of an email I received from her. There was something hauntingly familiar about the lines sampled on that webpage. I thought perhaps I’d read her work before. As it turns out, though, the voice in those poems is very much like that of Siobhan, whose collection Through the Longing Daze I assisted in editing. Very seldom, in fact never, have I read two collections as siblingesque as these two wonderful books. Lockward, as poet, has neither modesty nor shame -- which lends the greater power to her verse for its honesty; in tone confessional, her lines add to that style the meaning-making so important for poignant poetry. One might expect such confessional-seeming poetry to contain vapid shock-for-shock-sake verses sprinkled throughout, but Eve’s Red Dress shuns such poetaster stunts and cuts to both the heart and mind to find a lesson. Yet such lessons come through subtle narration and are wrought so skillfully as to avoid didactic tone.

Like Billy Collins and Ted Kooser, Diane Lockward writes to a broad cross-over audience; her verse appeals to Joe and Jane Public, but also to Mr., Ms., and Mrs. Academe. Her verse is accessible enough to enjoy without having to complicate it with all the abstractions or abstruse verbosity of the kind that drive people to “I hate Poetry” group sessions. And yet there is such a rich content of allusion within each poem, with just a few exceptions, that the mid- to higher-brow reader can ponder them and find layers of meaning below the surface.

Lockward’s greatest strength is likely her judicious, seemingly intuitive sense of line. Few poets I have read are as adept with line-breaks; Lockward’s crafting on the line level demonstrates an intimate feel for the line and squarely testifies to her mastery as a poet. Take for instance these lines from “The Mystery of the Missing Girl,” “I became a girl detective and searched / my grandmother’s attic. . . .” taking the first line as a sentence makes sense and leaves a great deal to the reader’s imagination, it paints a complete picture. But then the line zooms that picture to one locale. Readers identify with both pictures, and having both pictures enriches the poem more than had the line end-stopped at attic. Once you’ve read the poem, return to the title and consider the meaning there (it would spoil it to explain further).

Billy Collins has a few poems for which he has been accused of puerility, but his poking fun in poems like “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothing” is rather tacit next to Lockward’s “The Intimacy of Laundry.” It takes a great deal of imagination to make something as banal as laundry folding anything but boring, and yet Lockward’s treatment in this poem is more sensuous and sensual than half the love scenes depicted in last year’s box office smashes (granted, Hollywood is in a conservative era, but there is still a fair amount of heat and passion here and there). And it comes without the violence and agonizing tension given to adolescent/young adult romance; it is truly romantic in its comfortable maturity, its pragmatic truth, and its insistence on finding wonder in the stifling details of a mundane life -- this is where poetry becomes a high art, an essential humanity, in making sense and meaning in the darkest or blandest corners in a world of routine. After all, it is routine that kills creativity, and creativity is the birthright of humanity. What more routine than laundry care? What more sensual than 

       my panties. It’s one of those dry days,
                               fall air full of static electricity. 
                  Everything he touches
       crackles and jolts. My panties are loose
                              and wild, flying and flinging themselves
                  at him, clinging….

Taken out of context, these lines are quite racy, but the surrounding poem cushions them, makes them safer – yet ironically creates a contrast that builds the tension perfectly.

From a critical standpoint, one faces the challenge of what approach is most appropriate to a given text. In this case, as I generally prefer a phenomenological approach to a given work or author, it seems relevant to address the feminist aspects of Eve’s Red Dress. First, I have to confess that Feminism is one of my least favorite literary theories. Like so much of what is considered orthodox, I find Feminism generally misused or misdirected (notice both words contain the miss); however, I truly appreciate and enjoy any treatment of theory or content that empowers people singly or severally. Eve’s Red Dress is a prime example of Feminism at its best – the kind of feminism that celebrates feminine power and beauty for the sake of celebration! This is the kind of feminism that reaches out to all humanity and says I am your mother, your sister, your lover; I worship myself that you may adore me, and thereby your self. Perhaps that’s a bit overstated, but I think Grandpa Whitman, our icon of self-worship as analogous to a universalist theology, would approve both of the sentiment and the collection of poems.

Works of art can be measured in many ways. One very strong indication of any work’s worth is its ability to inspire further art. Many of the greatest poems in the English language have either inspired or been inspired by works in other media. Take for instant the Waterhouse paintings based on Keats and the many poems inspired by paintings and musical pieces. It may be a long way to the canon for Lockward, but she at least shares this with the masters, that her work has inspired artistry from others -- as demonstrated by this poem:

Adam Answers

It was the woman
And GOD what a woman!
How gladly I chose!
            Sorry God
She’s just more fun than you.

Oh! And what pleasure playing
in the stream of Time.
This thrill of motion
urgency to propagate
Can’t find that
in Eternity’s stagnant Ocean!

Yep! I’m grateful God
Really I am
            Thank you.
What a grand gift, this punishment
barred of Eden
with its plastic flowers
            endless hours
on ever-unpained knees in worship
never to see her grow to worn wonder
crow’s feet and life-maps etched
all along her fallen Self

We shall endure as You made us
like You -- Ever Curious -- Ever Creative