Sublime Deformations of Nature
Is poetry the hot new soundtrack for fashion? Earlier this year, during New York Fashion Week, designer Tracy Reese asked four poets–Aja Monet, Dorothea Lasky, Jenny Zhang and Leslie Reese–to read from their work as she presented her latest line. Last fall in Milan, Alessandro Michele unveiled Gucci’s Spring/Summer 2017 Ready-to-Wear collection accompanied by William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. I came across this marriage of couture and lyric when Lisa Robertson posted about it on Facebook–and if I weren’t an obstinate Modernist that already invested in statement eyeglasses and black trousers from Scandinavian designers, I might toss aside Gertrude for a pack of Romantic Williams and write a dissertation chapter on the full video.
Florence Welch’s voice here is both delicate and dangerous, that of a young girl offering the second bite of a perfect fruit, as it echoes against music by Steven Mackey: “The sun descending in the west, / The evening star does shine; / The birds are silent in their nest, / And I must seek for mine.” And what we seek, she whispers through Blake, is here amidst these models in gowns–genderless, multi-gendered, covered with silks, velvets, lacquer and braiding–walking their rounds, binding with briars, our joys and desires.
It might be surprising to hear–after going to yet another AWP-offsite reading featuring Iowa MFAs in their Mr. Poet uniform of flannel shirts, unkempt beards and silhouette-resistant jeans–but poetry isn’t, in fact, fashionable. Rather, poetry and fashion have had a longstanding and enduring relationship, and poetry, being the much older friend, often has acted as the mentor, inspiration and advocate for haute couture. I think the most convincing reasoning for their affinity comes to us from Christian Dior. In his 1956 book Christian Dior & moi, Dior writes about le couturier that “his creation would be more akin to poetic expression. A certain nostalgia is necessary. Summer is dreamt in the heart of winter, and conversely.”
Central to Dior’s account of “poetic expression” is the presence of an improbable yearning: the desire to regain what long has been lost, the conjuring of sunshine in the midst of a storm. When he refers to “a certain nostalgia,” however, I don’t think the proponent of the New Look simply casts his eyes toward the past; instead, he extracts what was a potentiality in the past, left unrealized or become obstructed, and transforms it into an objective for the future. In the case of the New Look, emerging out of the devastation of the Second World War, Dior wanted “to give women back their taste for light-heartedness, the art of seduction”; instead of negating the female body, his dresses, he claimed, were “‘constructed,’ moulded on the curves of the female body whose contours they would stylize.”
This nostalgia reminds me of Ezra Pound’s conclusion to A Lume Spento (1908), recycled as the epigraph to Personae (1909): “Make strong old dreams lest this our world lose heart.” From the early years of Modernism, Pound’s emphasis on dreams, over dogmas, is a powerful articulation of how poetry simultaneously can offer consolation and liberation, or at least the semblance of them. This is the Pound I want to hold onto, whose poem “In the Station of the Metro” comes first to mind as I read Stéphane Mallarmé’s description of a well-dressed woman from his short-lived fashion magazine La Dernière Mode (“Mode pendant l’Hiver,” 1874): “What a miraculous vision, a picture to contemplate even more than to paint: as her beauty suggests certain impressions analogous to those of a poet, profound or fugitive.”
Here is a hard lesson: poetry and fashion are both profound and fugitive. They lie just beyond our grasp. When it comes to the material conditions determining how poetry can be experienced and engaged, we don’t do nearly enough to consider accessibility–which bodies feel comfortable in that room, and who is able to acquire that book, that ticket, that journal, that place in the classroom? And yet, when it comes to the poem itself, the concentration of language we encounter and are catalyzed to read and interpret, I would argue that a degree of inaccessibility is in its essence. At least this is the case for poetry that sustains interest, that reflects extraordinary care in its handiwork, that fascinates more than merely affirms. In the 1991 collection Trimmings, Harryette Mullen writes, “When a dress is red, is there a happy ending. Is there murmur and satisfaction. Silence or a warning.” A great poem, like an astonishing red dress, should be a warning. Something terrific lies outside your periphery, and now you know that it’s there.
In The Painter of Modern Life, Charles Baudelaire writes:
Fashion should thus be considered as a symptom of the taste for the ideal which floats on the surface of all the crude, terrestrial and loathsome bric-a-brac that the natural life accumulates in the human brain: as a sublime deformation of Nature, or rather a permanent and repeated attempt at her reformation. And so it has been sensibly pointed out (though the reason has not been discovered) that every fashion is… some kind of approximation to an ideal for which the restless human mind feels a constant, titillating hunger.
Both fashion and poetry are the materialized playground for “the restless human mind.” They are driven by “a constant, titillating hunger.” And I must seek for mine. The promise I see offered by both, to allow for and mediate “a sublime deformation of Nature,” is the closest I can come, from the reading and living that I have done, to defining freedom. This is not to say that freedom is an absolute value. It doesn’t make me proud to be an American. But isn’t it heartening, even essential, to tell ourselves it might be possible?
In the 2012 VQR essay “My Life as a Girl,” Stephen Burt writes:
My body feels unfinished, undeveloped, more often than it feels like a real woman or a real man. It feels, sometimes, as if it wanted to become a woman, whether or not it will get the chance. That feeling itself hasn’t changed since my teens… The truth is that I’m going to feel slightly wrong, slightly out of alignment with my own body, no matter what I wear or what I do. So why not feel pretty? Why not try to like how I look?
While I may know how it feels to be “slightly out of alignment with my own body,” I don’t and will never know exactly how Steph feels. I don’t want to universalize. But still in this essay, one that refuses to be a “straightforward memoir about my gender and my wardrobe,” I find one of the most convincing defenses of poetry I’ve read in recent years. Poetry can offer us–those of us who feel unfinished or misaligned by Nature, or by what we’re told must be Nature–the dream, even if not the achievement, of a finish we fashion ourselves.
Here again I turn to Mullen: “Thinking thought to be a body wearing language as clothing or language a body of thought which is a soul or body the clothing of a soul, she is veiled in silence. A veiled unavailable body makes an available space.” Poetry, like fashion, deals in unavailability. It positions itself as an exquisite, calculating, sometimes heartbreaking confrontation with frustration. But this frustration can activate and edify. It can create an available space.
The more widely and deeply I read, the less I need to recognize myself wholesale in others’ poems, in the same way I really don’t need to see a pictorial of myself, with clothes from my closet, in Vogue. I want to read a poem that is greater than me. I don’t write this essay sitting on my sofa in a hand-embroidered Valentino gown, I could never, but I love (yes, love!) that such a dress exists. I can appreciate the spectacle of it, the care and craftsmanship that must have gone into it, the exquisite texture of its materials. I could never write a poem like Morgan Parker, like Anne Boyer, like Raúl Zurita, like William Blake. I don’t hear my voice, or see my life, in theirs. Sometimes I’m grateful for that. But I love (yes, love!) that such work exists. I love that the medium of poetry periodically brings such brilliance within imagined reach, just as it expands the reach of my imagination.
Mullen’s Trimmings is a critical re-imagining of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. In a 1914 letter to Carl Van Vechten, Stein explains her enigmatic title: “You see, I love buttons. I often go to the Bon Marché and buy strings of them, so symbolically they seemed to connect themselves with the three headings of these poems.” Stein’s and Alice Toklas’s appreciation for buttons, trimmings and fashion, and its expression in their writings, eventually aligned with their fondness for a young artist and admirer–a soldier in the Second World War who was stationed in the Savoy–named Pierre Balmain. In 1945, following France’s liberation and Balmain’s first show in Paris, Stein wrote about their friendship for Vogue. In the short piece titled “From Dark to Day,” Stein describes meeting Balmain through his mother, who asks Stein to sign a book for him. Subsequently, Balmain travels to see Stein and Toklas in Bilignin with his bicycle, makes them “some nice warms suits and a nice warm coat” in the heart of winter, and even participates in staging Stein’s plays with the local children, demonstrating “the chic of making a tall girl even taller by putting her on a footstool.”
“These were nice days in those dark days,” Stein observes, revealing the weight of the title “From Dark to Day,” a play on the marketing of dresses, glibly promised to suit “from day to night.”
Upon first reading, much of Stein’s piece might seem rather glib as well. The language is simple, repetitive and rambling; Stein fills the text with banalities about her own life during the war, with remarkably little attention directed toward the details of Balmain’s designs or opening show. Is this the best way to market a new tastemaker? No, not at all, as Stein doesn’t care about selling Balmain’s collection, let alone individual pieces from it. What Stein establishes and expands upon through her writing, instead, is her experience of “Pierre” (the person, not the brand) “just full of what he was going to do, and we were sure he would do it.” Stein even adds: “Alice Toklas insists that one of her suits was as wonderful as any he was showing at his opening, and there was no reason why not, after all, didn’t he design it, and didn’t he come over on his bicycle to oversee, and was it not just as it all just is in dark days?” Here, mediated by Stein’s description, Toklas’s suit isn’t just “as wonderful as any he was showing at his opening”; of course, it is far greater, custom-made, including the labor of Balmain’s bicycling, providing “bright spots” in “dark days,” written about by Gertrude Stein. Toklas’s suit, in its full, can now only be imagined. Stein creates for Balmain a “certain nostalgia” that Dior articulates a decade later.
Stein concludes “From Dark to Day”:
I suppose there at the opening we were the only ones who had been clothed in all those long years in Pierre Balmain’s clothes, we were proud of it. It is nice to know the young man when he is just a young man and nobody knows, and now, well, I guess very soon now anybody will know. And we were so pleased and proud. Yes, we were
Note the play between “clothed” and “clothes,” the leap between parts of speech, that signals us to look carefully at Stein’s subsequent tenses. Here, Stein shifts from past to future and back to past: from when “It is nice to know the young man when he is just a young man and nobody knows” to “very soon now anybody will know” to the emphatically past-tense ending “And we were so pleased and proud. Yes, we were.” Are they no longer proud now? This is unlikely, but Stein seems eager to glide over the present with a single interjection: “now, well.” “Well” is an indication of ambivalence and movement (from one thought to another). I think Stein focuses on the past and the future in this passage, evading a definitive articulation of “now,” in order to keep this present open, in flux, relevant. After all, Stein is, alongside Mallarmé, Baudelaire, and Walter Benjamin, one of the great observers of Modernist fashion; Stein writes a now for Balmain that is veiled unavailable, which in turn carries the unfettered potential of an available space.
The restless human mind feels a constant, titillating hunger. Fashion, I want to argue here, is less about “being in the now” as it is about what was and what could be. It is the formation, between these vectors of nostalgia and possibility (dare we call it a dialectic?), of a restless now, a present defined by yearning, by transition. This is why a great dress simultaneously can be timeless, as a great poem can be, and fall out of time, remain waiting in the archive, as a great poem can do. Why in 2017 we might still swoon over a Vionnet gown from 1922, as we do over "The Waste Land." The present, they offer us, could go beyond the banalities of immediacy and the bureaucratic control exercised over us by our particular place, time, station. The present could be the convergence of a diverse, expansive past and an infinite, imagined future, in a radiant moment articulated by desire. This is the moment I see in Stein’s now.
But because I can’t quite Spanx the killjoy within me, I have to end with a bit of moralizing, even if mostly to myself. As Joshua Clover announces in 2015’s Red Epic: “We race off to the revolutions of the Marc Jacobins!” Do I write from a position of privilege, where hunger and restlessness can be abstracted into values, rather than being life-or-death issues? Of course. I know this. But is the fantasy of high fashion as observed in Vogue, a storefront window, a YouTube video of a runway show, a Little Golden Book illustration for a fairytale, something only the privileged can appreciate? No, I don’t know this.
I think, in fact, it is most often those of us who have plenty who demand complete satiation from everything we encounter–who look only for reiterations of ourselves in the poetry of others and push this as progress, and who would substitute shopping sprees on Gilt.com for a singular opportunity to trace where the fingers of Rosa Elena Egipciaco once tread. Is something only of value if we’re told what it costs to own it? No, we don’t need more possession or a universalized identification. What we need to learn is appreciation. And both fashion and poetry can conjure for us a “glass corset for the heart/ to see out its chest,” as long as we’re willing to let our hearts see, to borrow lines from Brenda Shaughnessy’s “McQueen is Dead. Long Live McQueen.”
Or, conversely, as inscribed by Alexander McQueen onto boxes of his Kingdom perfume, a nod to Jorie Graham: “Pierce my heart again.”
- William Blake
- Harryette Mullen
- Lisa Robertson
- Stephen Burt
- Dorothea Lasky
- Ezra Pound
- Gertrude Stein
- Stéphane Mallarmé
- Joshua Clover
- Jorie Graham
- Charles Baudelaire
- Jenny Zhang
- Aja Monet
- Leslie Reese
- National Poetry Month 2017
- Florence Welch
- Steven Mackey
- Pierre Balmain
- Tracy Reese
- Alessandro Michele
- during New York Fashion Week
Mia You was born in Seoul, South Korea, grew up in Northern California, and now lives in Utrecht, The Netherlands. Her first full-length collection is I, Too, Dislike It (1913 Press, 2016), which Rachel Levitsky calls, “a companion, an aria to bodily discomfort and impossibility.” Lisa Robertson writes in The Brooklyn Rail,...