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The Significance of a dress by Emma Lee (Arachne Press)

The Significance of a dress by Emma Lee (Arachne Press)

The picture of a gown depicted on the front cover and the title that is written in stitches in a red thread represent the poems featured in this collection very well. They give a voice to the silenced humanity that, similarly to the image, is only partly visible; the people who form this part of humanity suffer and struggle to survive in war zones, fleeing from deprivation and persecution and arriving in a western world where they are often isolated and rejected. The bleak reality of refugee camps is described in stark, vivid language with ironic undertones and striking imagery The poems expose the injustices, inequalities and ongoing abuses that deeply affect the lives of the most vulnerable, such as women and children, dispossessed families and migrants in general. Their stories are told in the news, reiterated in newspaper articles and echoed on social media. Lee cleverly explores the sources available, reworking prisoners’ timetables, headlines, text messages and media reports. Sexual inequality, racism and the damage caused by imposed gender roles are the common threads of the collection and reflect the feminist motto ‘the personal is political’. Lee’s commitment is relentless; it evolves in a subtle way and at different levels and is emphasised by the leitmotif of clothes and dresses.

The breeze breathes through them,

bullies the dresses into ghosts,

brides with no substance,

angels bereft of their voices.

(‘Bridal Dresses in Beirut’)

Tulin, named after a daughter, offers gown hire, make-up

and hairstyling that will withstand humid evenings.

‘I don’t ask how old they are,’ says the beautician. A


outside shows a girl in a white gown holding a teddy


(‘The Significance of a Dress’)

Among them is a long-sleeved, ankle length pink dress

to a five-year-old, covered in a layer of gold gauze.

A special occasion dress that sparkles as the light changes.

(‘How a Dress Lost its Sparkle’)

Life jackets litter the beaches and uniforms cover wounds; bridal dresses are for hire, which is ‘a sign of hope’ but the dresses also convey the uncomfortable reality of child brides and rapist bridegrooms who marry their victims to be absolved from punishment. Clothes are therefore a metaphor for mundanity that are reduced to a disturbing reality; they are a second skin that is used and abused, donned or abandoned according to the circumstances. ‘This is not a fairytale’, the lyrical voice warns.

How line breaks are used and having lines that only have one word in them in ‘The Significance of a Dress’ impose a pause and ask the reader a series of questions. Can you bear all these injustices? Is this the world we are building and want to live in? What can we do to change it for the better? ‘Injuries need fixing’, Lee claims in the final poem, ‘no matter whom they belong to.’ 

The poems embrace historical and global issues, from the suffragettes to conflicts in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, the US–Mexico border, problems in Turkey and domestic abuse. The vision is broad and profound; it breaks boundaries and borders, leaving a sense of globalism regarding both injustices and hope. The wish ‘to try again’, to reach safety and survive, goes with the dream ‘of making a home again’, and who can deny anyone this? The poems of the collection give a voice to people who cannot articulate the hardships they endure. Lee develops her arguments in a consistent and sustained way, exposing the often neglected cruelties that are happening now in different parts of our so-called civilised world.

Carla Scarano 23rd June 2021

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