Dressing My Daughters

By Mark Jarman b. 1952 Mark Jarman
One girl a full head taller
Than the other—into their Sunday dresses.   
First, the slip, hardly a piece of fabric,   
Softly stitched and printed with a bud.
I’m not their mother, and tangle, then untangle   
The whole cloth—on backwards, have to grab it   
Round their necks. But they know how to pull   
Arms in, a reflex of being dressed,
And also, a child’s faith. The mass of stuff   
That makes the Sunday frocks collapses
In my hands and finds its shape, only because   
They understand the drape of it—
These skinny keys to intricate locks.   
The buttons are a problem
For a surgeon. How would she connect   
These bony valves and stubborn eyelets?
The filmy dress revolves in my blind fingers.   
The slots work one by one.
And when they’re put together,
Not like puppets or those doll-saints   
That bring tears to true believers,
But living children, somebody’s real daughters,   
They do become more real.
They say, “Stop it!” and “Give it back!”   
And “I don’t want to!” They’ll kiss
A doll’s hard features, whispering,
“I’m sorry.” I know just why my mother   
Used to worry. Your clothes don’t keep   
You close—it’s nakedness.
Clad in my boots and holster,
I would roam with my six-gun buddies.
We dealt fake death to one another,
Fell and rolled in filth and rose,
Grimy with wounds, then headed home.
But Sunday ... what was that tired explanation   
Given for wearing clothes that
Scratched and shone and weighed like a slow hour?   
That we should shine—in gratitude.
So, I give that explanation, undressing them,   
And wait for the result.
After a day like Sunday, such a long one,
When they lie down, half-dead,
To be undone, they won’t help me.
They cry, “It’s not my fault.”

Mark Jarman, “Dressing My Daughters” from Questions for Ecclesiastes. Copyright © 1997 by Mark Jarman. Reprinted with the permission of the author and Story Line Press, www.storylinepress.com.

Source: Questions for Ecclesiastes (Story Line Press, 1997)

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Poet Mark Jarman b. 1952

Subjects Youth, Parenthood, Living

Holidays Father's Day

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Mark  Jarman


Considered a key figure in both New Narrative and New Formalism, Mark Jarman has exerted a significant influence on contemporary American poetry. In the 1980s, with Robert McDowell, Jarman founded and edited the Reaper, a magazine devoted to reclaiming and promoting poetry that emphasized story and image. Controversially warning "Navel gazers and mannerists” that “their time is running out,” the magazine sought to reestablish . . .

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SUBJECT Youth, Parenthood, Living

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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