Collection of Flaws in a Black Dress
By Jenny Williamson
Finishing Line Press, 2016
Reviewed by Rachel Wooley
This 26-poem collection, Collection of Flaws in a Black Dress by Jenny Williamson, is slim, but don’t be fooled: it crosses continents, traverses oceans, and explores galaxies in its examination of love, specifically love lost and mourned for.
Williamson folds multitudes into this chapbook through a richness of language that brings into vivid clarity the sting of loss, of yearning, of not-so-perfect love. These narrative, free-verse poems follow an arc: in the beginning, with “Possibility,” the electric intensity of lust, desire, a “thunderstorm built in my body” and continuing through the next two poems to transcend the Earth’s surface via “Binary Stars.” These poems and others in the book beautifully capture the intensity of new emotions, the sense of being controlled by them, giving way to them. But built inside is a layer of melancholy, a certainty of the impending finale which lends immediacy to the present, the moments of “speaking I love you in so many languages / but never stay.”
Also present is the inevitable separation of two lovers that begins, slowly, gradually, before fully realizing itself: “I am leaving you by inches / already I am insubstantial as a jellyfish. / The slightest of currents undoes me.” With gathering intensity, Williamson moves the loss into sharp focus: “this bomb / in my chest, this detonator / in your fist” – the loss of lover, of sense of self, the loss of the moment to memory.
In the second half of the collection, absence itself becomes a presence: in “Ocean in My Bed,” with an unnamed lover, “we go to work on this joint / venture of our pleasure,” and once the moment is over, the shared experience gives way to “the vast distance of unshared history,” a catch-22, maybe, since history has to start in the present, but this narrator is still stuck in another past.
But as the collection goes on, the hole of loss becomes a space for new existence, new potential. An absence can feel as vast as an ocean on its own, but you don’t always need another person to fill that space: our narrator stumbles, grieves, and finds her way through it, with rich language and vivid imagery observing both the world around her and the worlds within her. The collection ends on a note of redemption, a sense of working through the grief and pain and coming out the other side with “joy unfolding in my heart / like a child’s inflatable bouncy castle.”
Williamson’s Collections of Flaws in a Black Dress explores the capacity of our human bodies for the expanse of emotions that run through them. The intersections between the physical and the emotional almost seem like paradoxes: these “bags of skin / full of blood and fireworks” contain oceans and galaxies; it’s easy to get lost in them, to become unmoored, to feel the absence of something as small as a body like a vast black hole. The poems recall the vividness of young love and loss, but they don’t feel naïve; the sensations are new, but perhaps not unexpected. The lover in these poems is still earnest and the vividness of the imagery demonstrates both a rawness and an elegance that sidesteps sentiment in favor of something that feels much more true.
This is Jenny Williamson’s first chapbook, but she promises it’s not her last. In addition to acting and modeling in New York City, she’s also working on a romance novel.