Publisher: Arachne Press (27 Feb. 2020)
Emma Lee creates poetry with the voice of an avenging angel, seeking out inequalities from all across the globe and down the centuries to fuel her work. The personal is political, the feminists used to insist, and in this her latest collection, The Significance of a Dress, she takes that argument and makes it sing. Here the stories of refugees, British suffragettes, rape victims, are explored in minute, domestic detail; given context which makes their woes relevant and eloquent. She stops to hear, then tell, the tales of those perhaps unaccustomed to having their distress documented, often making use of the voices of disenfranchised children. In Dismantling the Jungle a Calais resident goes to visit the infamous refugee camp, and is appalled by what she finds. A thirteen year old is asked about his bandaged head, caused by a rubber bullet; he describes tear gas as “like onions but worse.” The simple, childish language contrasts beautifully with the horror and inhumanity described: as we are told, “The children taste new sounds on their tongues.” Sounds no child should taste.
The ‘significant dress’ of the title is a wedding dress, seen in a refugee camp in Northern Iraq, where the details of a bride getting ready for her special day, with “gown hire, make up/ and hairstyling that will withstand humid evenings” are threatened to be wrecked, tellingly, by the stains the mud of the camp will leave on her hem. Wedding dresses are contemplated in Beirut too, painted in the language of violence, hanging from nooses, for a shotgun wedding, or for the sake of Article 522, which insisted that a rapist might be pardoned if he married his victim. The beautiful delicate bridal gowns are revealed to be a mask for unparalleled evils and inequalities.
The breeze breathes through them,
Bullies the dress into ghosts,
brides with no substance
angels bereft of their voices.
In Diary from Holloway Jail February 1907 she gives us her poem in the form of a timetable. A woman tells out her hours in prison by the various inequalities women are forced to endure, and cannot yet vote their way free from, while posing questions we cannot answer: “Why is an equally-experienced and educated widow/paid less than a childless man?”
She makes use of other written forms too. In one particularly fine piece, A Boy’s Text Message in Headlines, she uses assorted newspaper copy to tell the story of a boy whose text from the back of a lorry saved him and fourteen others from certain death. It’s a finely wrought masterpiece in understatement, subtly highlighting the racist tinge to much of British journalism, exposing the difference a single word can make – from “Fifteen migrants found close to death” to “Fifteen immigrants, assumed illegal, detained”, to the final, scathing line, “Frumpy: Duchess of Cambridge in Indian-designer dress.” Perfect.
The power of a single word to incense or alienate is explored further in When Your Name’s not Smith, in which a bank-teller struggles to spell a foreign name, and its owner struggles not to commit violence against him. Terse, staccato syllables make you feel her fury in this carefully controlled, perfectly crafted piece. And The Quilt with 598 Squares makes poetry of the names of women who have lost their lives to domestic violence, an inventory of those whose voices, names and stories have been put to a brutal end. She presents their names in caressing, lingering rhythms, before closing with a stark question – “Who speaks for those whose voices were murdered?”
Not all the poems have a political slant. I loved Standing on Ice, a moment between mother and daughter in which, on top a glacier, differences in size and age are shrunken to nothingness, to create a moment of harmonious unity. The spare, stark language makes the final realisation all the more moving, “…while the glacier melts/and my daughter grows/and I stand in the calm of ice-borne air.”
The personal is political, and both are presented with immense craft and tenderness within this work. Emma Lee has the gift of making you care for every subject and being to which she turns her pen.