Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Dresses from the Old Country

By Laura Read

Reviewed By Mary Ellen Talley

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How do young women come of age? The narrative thread in Laura Read’s third volume of poetry, Dresses from the Old Country, revolves around her youth, around people and events in her hometown, Spokane, Washington. The book title flows from the poem, “Bureau,” where we glimpse the poet standing under the moon on a porch in Queens, New York, feeling the breeze of memory as she wears her grandmother’s nightgown. Read’s book is comprised of two intimately related sections, the first reflecting on her family of origin, the second considering her current family as she contemplates the strangeness of watching sons forge their identities in the same town where she grew up. Wind, shadows, reflection, and perspective reveal connections.

The first poem stands alone. “In Praise of Shadows,” refers to an essay by the Japanese novelist, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, who reminds us, “Were it not for shadows there would be no beauty.” Read reimagines shadows of deaths; transgressions; and her own maturing into womanhood in her hometown where she now teaches at Spokane Falls Community College and is the poetry editor for the Northwest journal, Crab Creek Review.

Read’s poetry tells a story via shadows of time that contribute perspective. We learn about the early death of her father in the visual poem “Flashdance.” We picture a lonely teen and her friends as they explore pop culture, flirt with sexuality, and develop feminine identities in an era post-Women’s Liberation and pre-Me Too: 

We cut the necks out of our sweatshirts so they slid
off our shoulders even though our mothers

made us wear shirts underneath. I didn’t tell
the other Jennifers how I went down to my room

in the basement where I moved after my mother
remarried and started to have new children

and played “Maniac” and tried to run in place
as fast as the real Jennifer, so fast you couldn’t see

the magic. Like those cartoon flip books,
each drawing only different by one small move.

Read alludes to pain without dwelling on it. Anyone who has experienced the loss of a parent or who has been displaced by family reorganization can’t help but feel a gut-clutch for the girl who failed an audition “after my new father dragged his suitcase / of silence through every room” in the poem “Bali Ha’i.”

Lines in the poem, “Ghost Stories,” about her high school graduation, connect us to both the poet and her community of origin, as Read alludes to angst and unrest within her teen cohort:

. . . My brother and I
stayed out too long, so I threw on
my cap and gown and ran into line
and some kids were high
and one girl was pregnant
and I had this storm inside.

The poems highlights a teen feeling linked yet disconnected from much younger siblings, thus exposing distance between the poet and family members. As a young adult, she returns home to visit, dining with her mother’s growing family in the poem “Metaline Falls.” Only she remembers her mother picking out this china pattern with the single gray flower during her first marriage. Read provides a window to observe the commonalities and idiosyncrasies of blended families, creating layers of interwoven shadows which for Read, live in a metaphorical box in her heart, and also cast shadows.

Shadows of high school years become clearer. One poem addresses Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, the saint after whom her high school is named and who died of the plague as a young man in 1591. The poet recounts learning of AIDS, the plague of the 1980s. She deftly connects AIDS and Saint Aloysius with her mother’s silence and strength. In the poem, “St. Aloysius Gonzaga, Pray for Us,” separate strands of a young girl’s emerging story are woven into a tapestry that showcases shadows and vestiges the poet grew up with:

Don’t you get tired of being the patron saint
of teenagers, all of us followed by fear
like the moon. And the saint of AIDS victims,
the disease I learned about from a pamphlet
my mother left for me on my pillow?
Men were growing impossibly thin like the man
who died of the plague in Rome in the 1500s
whom you are forever carrying.
My mother didn’t want to talk about it.
The way she stopped talking about my dad
who also died young and who was always
too good to be true . . .

How perplexing for a teen to contemplate transgressions of adults in “What the Body Does,” such contradictory facets of a friend’s father— “I know that man was wrong. / But I also know that he loved his daughter.” The scenarios depicted suggest absence of and need for the Me Too movement with teenage boys strategizing how to get sex out of girls or a male teacher employing blatant sexual innuendo.

Shadows create layers of perspective. Read stands upon a literary porch, from a vantage point where she and we can see her past, and we can reflect upon our own early years. The final poem, “Ruins,” collapses essential language while weaving themes together.  Sitting down in a bar we both see and feel with her:

I run my hand over the surface of the table
where someone has glued a page

from the dictionary, and suddenly I want
to read all the words, but the past is sitting

across from me . . . 

In this compact yet expansive collection of poems, Laura Read places herself on a chair across from inhabitants of her past and present. She has risen to the occasion to reflect lyrically and with kindness upon the shadows that have hovered over her, shadows thrown by little boxes of stories and place that continue to impact her adulthood as a woman, wife, mother, poet and teacher. She wears and removes the gown of her grandmother as memories billow in the breeze. She folds it inside lyrical verses to garner metaphorical distance and perspective.

Mary Ellen Talley’s poems have been widely published, as in the Raven Chronicles, U City Review and the Ekphrastic Review as well as in the anthologies All We Can Hold from Sage Hill Press (2016) and Ice Cream Poems from World Enough Writers (2017). Her poetry has received two Pushcart Prize Nominations.