walleah press



Review: Yve Louis' 'The Yellow Dress'

Five Islands Press, 2005

The cover image, by Philip Castle, of Yve Louis’ new collection The Yellow Dress features a beautiful woman in a form-fitting dress who stretches her arms before an open French window. The overall colour is yellow as befits the title. The contents of the book are divided into five sections: "The Red Scarf", "The Blue Stole", "The Black Kimono", "The Green Hood" and "The Yellow Dress".

The poems in The Yellow Dress are largely made up of domestic imagery, are set in the interior of houses, and feature both male and female protagonists. Some of the women on whom attention is focussed are a housekeeper, a housewife, and a young girl. The men are a caretaker, a doctor, and a young man. Several of the women are the focus of attention of boyfriend, lover or husband. Physical intimacy is thus an everyday thing. Dressing and "skin-gleam", eating, and driving are some of the activities described in Louis’ poems. By not embellishing these activities or investing them with any significance beyond themselves, the speakers metaphorically and literally bare themselves, too. There is no intellectualising or questioning of erotic desire. It arises, quite simply, because these personae inspire it. Guile, contrivance and guilt also have their part to play in these seductive poems. Here in its entirety is an example of Louis’ skill:

Other lives

She sifts the flour-white days.
Outside, giddy flies
encrust the gauze,
mottle the rump
of an ancient Blue
who snaps, arthritic,
at its own history.
(other lives waft in and out
of cedar drawers
with camphor on their breath)
And where she passes
china discreetly
chimes behind glass
portrait children gild the walls.
Under peppercorn shade
afternoon breeze catches
in rusting chain
and splintered wood.

The woman going about her daily chores represents a border separating the lived life from that of the imagination. Although total gratification can never be hers, she can imagine the "other lives" and the "portrait children". Here, as elsewhere in the collection, thought and imagination are both mental and physical energies. And this poem is no exception in that its persona dwells in the past and what might have been.

Louis is skilled in conveying these aspects of the "lived life" and "what might be" within the structure of her poems. The shortness of the lines, often no more than three or four words, has an effect comparable with taking a short breath. The soft alliteration and assonance give a hushed tone of intimacy to the poems. The care that Louis shows for line breaks and sound sets her apart from many contemporary poets. This economy with words is matched by inventiveness, too, which is exciting. Look, for example, at the poem "Connections" from the second section, "The Blue Stole", a series of poems about two young people, Billie and Theo:

These midweek sorties:
the yellow Corolla against the world.
Today it’s the autumn-turning Hills,
last week the bitten-orange coast of Fleurieu.
Billie with thermos and scones,
Theo with walkman
and Stravinsky, Igor.
She with her eye on the traffic
the long miles home in peak hour;
he, delaying to read bluebottle messages
cast up by the tide

Despite the poem being about an ordinary event – a drive in the country – there is nothing ordinary about it as the personae connect with nature and the associations that are made between humanity and landscape:

Even now the Onkaparinga is both
hills’ deep flow and sandbar trickle . . .
river becoming sea, becoming sky.
Always the mind eager for connections,
the eye writing in the hyphens.

"The Black Kimono", section three of the collection, is itself divided into four parts. Basically it is the story of Lilla and the actor Sheldon Montgomery, their wedding night, the building of their house, the construction of a garden, the make-believe of her life, the deception, "The Cat", and the impossibility of leaving her husband when Lilla discovers she is pregnant. The poem "First light" illustrates the originality of Louis’ perspective:

A glimpse only
and Cat becomes one more shadow
in bushland, a movement of air . . .

no more substance
than Lilla’s old dead self, the peeling skin
of the black kimono
falling away.
she cradles
her wondrous, globing stomach,
to hold the growing child.

Section 4, "The Green Hood", is a haibun-like sequence of prose poems interspersed with verse; it’s the story that Alva, the Falconer’s Daughter, tells herself each year, as we see in this first excerpt from the section’s title poem "The green hood": "Every year, since her nineteenth / Alva the Falconer’s Daughter / takes down the leather-bound volume / of Persian miniatures." The poem introduces us to Alva and to the "hawk’s painted world" -

Scarlet and gold, silver and malachite: the hawk’s painted world,bordered
and inlaid in miniature . . . mosaics strung like gems to frame her on
the Mogul’s leather-gloved wrist.

      his ‘little chick’
his hatchling, his eyas
scooped from the nest

What are we to make of this story? Is it merely the story of the hawk that cannot be tamed, or is it Alva’s story of her own confinement that she can only escape in her imagination? As the final poem in the sequence tells us the "wild-tamed hawk" cannot be lured by any means:

. . . Tempting her with a lure of lark feathers, leveret fur. A man
bereft, bound to follow in the shadow of awild-tamed hawk; imploring
wild-tamed hawk; imploring, pleading for her return. A man blinded
by the white fire in his eyes, his soul bird . . .

while she,
trailing long jesses and
by entanglement
beats west with the sun

and so Alva’s "painted story" continues.

The final sequence of poems, "The Yellow Dress", begins with the collection’s title poem "The Yellow Dress": "found object, op shop glam (scent / of past wearings as wild afterthought)" where the dress "wafts a cabal of meanings". The poems in this section are beautiful, sensuous and rhythmical, as we see in this excerpt:

your every breathpause and reprise
a renewed shock of scrub-brushed vowels
. . . in my ear, minute bristlings whisper
the secret number of infinity . . .
and again in
Knowingly, we give all trust
taking each embrace,
caress of voice
as though it might not be the last
as though presence
were not heavy with absence
and, love – there is fear in this

These poems celebrate those rare moments when we catch a glimpse of a world from which all labels have been unpeeled. The poems enter and possess you quietly and are filled with splendid moments of spiritual lucidity. They transport us into a place that is majestic, boundless and unknown.

As the poet tells us in her Notes at the end of this sequence,

While secret details of the greater Eleusinian mysteries are today
unrecoverable, much of the lesser mysteries is known. Religious
ceremonies at Eleusis date from ancient pre-Christian times
and, for millennia, involved countless thousands of initiates.
Central to these sacred rites was the double divinity figure
of Persephone/Demeter, signifying both darkness and light,
both death and ongoing life.

The sequence seems to represent a coming to terms with life’s inevitable reticence, its cross-purposes, its untidiness. The poems may at first sight seem mere narrative, much less inclined to question form, technique, but this truly wonderful collection sweeps the reader from love to violence and power and back to love, with all its complexities. This is a poet concerned with the intricacies of relationships, with the difficulty in making true communication. The persona of this last poem sequence searches for the final truth -

Until we reached
ourselves and beyond;
a sweet swaddling kind of death
to racking rebirth
the yellow dress unwording us
back through ellipse, oblique syntax
to the poem at its source,
the point where all meanings meet
and from which all depart.

Louis need not doubt. The "poem at its source" is the point at which meaning becomes clear, the language sings. The poems in "The Yellow Dress" are shot silk, lined with hand-spun ever-shifting gauze. There is not a single weak line in the book - every page, every stanza, offers marvels of observation. The language resonates, even while it disconnects and interrogates its own chaos. This is a poet much concerned with the unease of life, with the difficulty in making true communication.