Eve’s Red Dress

Sherry Chandler

Eve’s Red Dress
by Diane Lockward
Wind Publications

The poems in Eve’s Red Dress are about “Losing the Blues.” Like any honky-tonk girl on a Saturday night, Eve slips into her red satin dress, “pull[s] up to a neon / martini glass, order[s] a shot of tequila…I’ll never be royal for you again,” she declares, and:

I’m cerise, vermilion, scarlet,
ruby, crimson, fuchsia, magenta,
and flame. I could burn
the hands off a man. (“Losing the Blues,” 44-45)

The book is organized around five “Eve” poems that celebrate “…a world without the burden of perfection.” “I didn’t fall to temptation,” says Eve, “I rose to it.” (“Eve Argues Against Perfection,” 3). Eve is all red satin and fire, companioned by the snake that is both her totem and her doom. She is defiant of feckless lovers and significantly cruel fathers. All around her, though, are women broken by loss. Fathers disappear, mothers withdraw into mourning, children are lost. Husbands and lovers are remote, barren women driven mad.

And throughout the book, women seek a return to an unconscious, perhaps prelapsarian, state: “The Barren Woman’s Gift” is a stuffed tabby – given by her husband who says real ones are “sneaky.” The cat, at first a baby replacement, comes to personify her defiance, “…dumps the bodies / on his side of the bed, chases him away / with her fishy breath.” By poem’s end, woman and cat are one, “…dainty mouth / stuffed with feathers and wings” (34-35). “The Missing Wife” runs away with her husband’s dog and becomes the wilder of the two:

…moved deep into the heart
of the forest. She walks
on all fours, fetches for no man, performs
no tricks. (87)

Eve herself, in her final poem, becomes one with her garden, her red grows sweetbrier roses that “…bleed / over the fence,” the blues wrap “…inside me / like vines” (“Eve’s Own Garden,” 91).

A few poems seem to be off theme: “Jesus Performs Another Miracle” that turns rain to wine and “Superman Flies” into a difficult love affair. Some, like “Emelda’s Shoes,” are clever but lightweight turns on a theme, filler perhaps for the strictly symmetrical form of the book – five sections of exactly eleven poems.

Lockward writes a free-verse line that is swift and compelling, and she has a penchant for lists that are a pleasure to read aloud:

She wants
to go dancing in me – tango, bossa nova,
meringue – my skirt fanning out like brushfire,
her mother’s words smouldering in ashes, wants
to burst like a fireball onto the floor, spinning
and whirling, my skirt singing, Touch me and burn. (“Eve’s Red Dress,” p. 49)

Eve’s Red Dress wants to raise the fist of Woman reclaiming her own redemption, but Eve’s fire burns both ways. The final poem, “My Husband Discovers Poetry,” is an act not of redemption but of revenge:

Do you see the wounded creature
at the bottom of the stairs,
his shoulders hunched over and shaking,
fist in his mouth and choking back sobs?
It was my husband paying tribute to my art. (p. 111)

A satisfying skirmish in the battle of the sexes, perhaps, but an escalation, not a negotiation. These poems are powerful, amusing, energizing, but they are a call to guerilla insurgency, not a declaration of independence. Lockward has given us cries of defiance from the walking wounded, women who are retreating from the rational as much as they are reclaiming the natural, woman as cornered cat.

Smartish Pace
Smartish Pace