» Book Review
Conjuring Gossamer Ghosts
House of McQueen, by Valerie Wallace
Four Way Books, 2018
66 pages, paper, $15.95
Winner, Four Way Books Intro Prize
When I was seventeen, big-haired and blonde in 1980s Texas, I was invited to walk in a fashion show with other members of my high school drill team. We were cheap labor, and the local bridal and prom store needed pretty girls to parade the latest Gunne Sax gowns for a hospital fundraiser. Looking back, I’m embarrassed. The fashion was about as forward as our mall’s food court. Still, there was drama in it. A girl could imagine a bolder version of herself under all that lace, pouf, and pantyhose. I have since discarded the excesses of that era but hold on to a few prom dresses and the feeling of being transformed by fashion. I inhabit other personas on the page now and indulge in only the occasional Vogue, but I’m aware that the industry remains a tough club to break into. Occasionally, someone unexpected breaks in and ruffles fashion’s feathers. In the 1990s, that someone was a young, English, working-class dropout named Alexander McQueen. This is all one needs to know to gain entry to poet Valerie Wallace’s House of McQueen, a debut collection of equally startling poems about the famed designer.
Wallace—who teaches with the City Colleges of Chicago and works for the project Virtue, Happiness & The Meaning of Life at the University of Chicago—presents her book as this spring’s couture collection. There are so many different lines of entry into these poems: via fabric, gender, fairytale, class, and especially the life of the singular man. In “Autobiography of Alexander McQueen,” the poet gives voice to this man directly:
I’m trying to weave a new fabric, but the loom doesn’t exist.
Born in 1969, McQueen was the youngest child in a large family who quit school to apprentice at tailoring on Saville Row. Lee, as he was known to friends, had talent, and it gained him entrance to fashion school, where he caught the eye of influential doyennes and a voyeuristic, image-saturated society. At times Wallace lets the designer himself write the poems, taking phrases from his interviews and playing with form and function. “Joyce & Lee” is a touching erasure poem from a conversation between the designer and his mother.
Rumored to have been abused by a brother-in-law, whom he later witnessed brutally beat his sister, McQueen said he wanted people to “be afraid” of women wearing his designs. One can feel the fear in “Charmed for Protection”:
Hood be cowled for private thoughts
Sleeves be lined for smell of Night
Let none harm you Let none betray you
Wrap yourself in no Spektral affliction
Your Wound your strength Wild wanted
This air of fantasy is augmented by the fact that these poems take place across the pond in England, which itself lends an air of fantasy for American readers—it is the birthplace of so many of our fairy tales. Skillfully woven throughout the collection is thematic, mythical imagery also seen in McQueen’s collections, especially birds and mirrors. From “McQueen’s Bop with the Interviewer”:
Waif who needs rescuing
I’ve seen naivete
I know what can happen.
Someone’s life is burning
from this world’s brutal kiss.
I am │ you are
The voyeur the mirror.
The poems, however, never lose touch with the real world. Within Wallace’s skillfully crafted poems we are in school, under the presser foot, discarded on the shop floor, almost literally threaded through the poems. “Bumsters,” for instance, virtually unzips down the page. “McQueen Linen” cleverly plays with white space and columns to mimic linen’s loose weave. The poet’s shrewd use of form means we arrive at the man through his medium. Wallace gives this poem space to breathe, and it can be approached either horizontally or vertically to elicit different meanings:
I design the shows as stills If you look they tell the whole story
When I find I’ve no place for fear I show myself
The body’s tried to tell you it’s intricate altered
Perimeter what I see our bodies’ silver / dream
In “[When staggering down the runway wearing tartan over torn lace],” the reader is even thrust into one of his radical shows:
When stocks edged with a Stuart ruff enclose the neck
When obsolete colors, fulwe, sad, vernal, watchet
When sleeveless torn satin & cutaway shorts
When strewn with cigarette butts
When a buried history of England & Scotland
When a man yelling, Have I offended you then?
When the body becomes everything it is given
Throughout, the poems evoke experience, putting the reader into experiences otherwise inaccessible.
The language that Wallace sometimes uses likewise may be unfamiliar (pronk, skirr, chthonic)—made up or resurrected in a way that puts the reader in a strange and different realm. In addition, the poet revels in trying on a variety of forms, including contemporary free verse, slant sonnets and rhymes, shape poems, lists, acrostics and more. The poems also draw on an array of sources, from interviews, articles, biographies, and McQueen’s own words. As a collection of new fashions, where every stitch and fabric can be examined, this collection of poems reveals many details that merit scrutiny, study, contemplation. Alexander McQueen himself was mysterious in life and even more so since his death—and, like her subject, Wallace’s work is not easily accessible. Beauty does not so much blossom here as blur. These are studied poems by an accomplished poet for a reader wanting more.
At times the book feels like an intense research project into the man, except the traditional roles of male artist (albeit gay in this instance) and female muse are reversed. It is terribly exciting to read a series of poems about a man observed and interpreted by a woman, about sexualities that openly defy bifurcated norms. The reversal (maybe even obfuscation) elicits new avenues of exploring and questioning gender roles in fashion as well as poetry, and I can only hope that both worlds will make room for more of that.
The collection comes at an important time for both English and American audiences following Brexit and the election of President Trump. Wallace’s poems hold up a mirror to the reader, daring us to feel disgust or delight, to challenge the status quo. This is not unlike one of McQueen’s most talked about show stunts for his collection Voss, where the audience was forced to stare at their own reflections from a giant, mirrored runway box whose walls dropped—after an uncomfortable hour—to reveal his models inside a makeshift psychiatric hospital. The poems are likewise in turns beautiful and confrontational and sometimes both at once.
I finished this collection feeling like a fortunate grown-up guest at Fashion Week, sitting stunned beside Anna Wintour in a front-row seat, thinking about how far I traveled to get there. Alexander McQueen’s tragic death in 2010 means the designer is not alive to see his portrait painted on Wallace’s page, but House of McQueen is an artistic, imagined collaboration worthy of our attention. Readers will leave swaggered.