These poems present a wry look at life through a series of keenly observed vignettes, such as library where “all of us are here in this library/ because we have fallen down somewhere/ be it by pure bad luck, bad decisions or despair” and later in “Hail to the Library and the Thief” where a homeless man is searching for the newspaper he’d left on the reading table but is now missing,
“and I want to shake his head through the dirt and grime
but instead, I shake my head. He scrutinises my paper
glares at me, then walks away, shaking his head in disbelief
that in this library, the last vestibule of human decency,
lies a thief of a poor man’s broadsheet.”
Readers are left to ponder why a poor man would be so eager to read a Murdoch-owned newspaper, but there’s a principle at stake here. A venue that provides a connection for a disparate group of people and now someone has violated it.
Interspersed with observations of others are personal poems, such as a “Message to my 16-year-old Self” watching a film,
“the one where Richard Gere
carries Debra Winger
out through the factory gates.
I was that small town girl
waiting for the white knight
to come and sweep me off my feet.
Don’t wait, don’t you dare wait.”
The poem is also a reflection on the double standards dished out to girls. Boys are encouraged to lift themselves up while girls get taught that if they’re pretty enough or dream hard enough, their prince will come. There’s a mix of personal and external inspiration in the poem that might have inspired the title. The cover image is ‘Untitled (know as Blue Girl or Tess Dominski) by William Sommer (1867-1949 and the poem “Blue Dress” features a mother’s friend who makes dresses for neighbours’ children, this one “with upside down umbrellas// the pattern facing the wrong way.”
“She likes to finish the dress with you wearing it,
you stand head bowed while she stitches the hem.
Stone still, watching the needle and thread going in and out,
in and out, till she is done. You go outside and show off
your new dress to the others, playing hop scotch
and skipping games in the lane. Only you don’t join in,
you walk to the woods, towards the river, in your new blue dress,
with upside down umbrellas, the pattern facing the wrong way.
A pheasant spooks you out of your skin, hurling itself into the air,
the harsh rasping ricochets through the trees
the noise scraping at your insides, hurting your ears.”
The humiliation of standing in underwear with the treat of being pin-pricked if you dare more, the pattern being upside down – a suggestion the neighbour was a well-intentioned amateur – matched with the inability to join in games which are left to search for a peace that isn’t forthcoming ratchet up the shame of being poor and the sense of not fitting in. Home life didn’t seem to be much happier, in “Attempts on Dad’s Life”, Dad dares complain about the (boring) choice of dinner,
“She stabs him with the fork.
It isn’t an accident, another time
a small vegetable knife
a trip to Casualty for stitches,
there are countless attempts on his life
but still unheeded he enters the small
square kitchen, and we are helpless
to warn him as we sit at the table
like good little doll children.”
The children are silenced by intimidation and feel as if they are manipulated into playing a role of being seen and not heard. It’s not a family that allows its laundry to be washed in public. It’s also one where children don’t ask questions, which might have helped with the themes in “Catholic Girl Ghazal”, where Madonna is the singer and her song is about a teenage girl summoning up the courage to tell her father she’s pregnant by the boyfriend he doesn’t like,
“One by one, we all succumb to temptation, yet another teenage pregnancy
and the Catholic Church spits us out, slams the altar door, even Madonna’s
smile turns into scowl, we have brought shame on our families,
we are thrown like dogs into the street, a broken, fallen Madonna
and my friends say, Rachel, giving it up, you’re too young. I listen to Madonna
sing her silly pop song, Papa don’t Preach, and I laugh, but I keep my baby.”
More secrets are explored in “Ann (after L S Lowry)”
“Failing to please Mother he painted crowds of people,
the football match, the Miners’ Gala,
people gathered outside shops and churches.
He painted the mill towns, landscape and buildings
and people, always people. He hid Ann underneath his oil paintings.
He always returned to Ann. Her face haunting him night after night.
People often asked him, Who is this woman? Who is Ann?
His reply is evasive. As if he eluded the truth, even from himself.”
This poet, however, is not elusive. Rachel Burns’ characters are recognisable, their portaits built in a judicious choice of a telling phrase. She speaks clearly often in a confessional tone which interlaces innocence and experience, allowing key details to build an outline for readers to fill in. “girl in a blue dress” reaches beyond the personal, also telling the stories of others with compassion and understanding. No one’s the butt of a joke or a punchline here and characters are given space to not only speak but do so in their own voices. “a girl in a blue dress” is a strong debut.
The Significance of a Dress book launch Leicester Central Library, Bishop St, Leicester LE1 6AA from 7pm. Free Entry.
Book Trailer at Arachne Press: https://arachnepress.com/books/poetry/the-significance-of-a-dress/.