Inwhich I Put On My Mother’s Old Thé Dansant Dress
By Colleen Thibaudeau
“Yes,” said Janos, “you can put on a costume!”
So I go for a favourite, my mother’s old thé dansant dress,
(black georgette and hand-made lace). When I was a child
I looked through snowy windows, seeing her leave
for “Tea For Two.” Leaves whirled, the hem dragged
in the mud when granddaughters sortied out for Hallowe’en;
and then I rescued, laundered, aired and pressed
(black georgette and hand-made lace). Now it’s a humid Sunday
in the scorching summer of ’88. Jamie retreats to the doorway.
Janos, taking the photos, says, “Nearly done now.”
I think, my whole life-span is in this dress.
And, as I strew these words,
rose petals are falling from the matching hat she made.
— From The Artemesia Book: Poems Selected and New (Brick Books, 1991)
If ever there were sensuous evidence of the difference between fiction and poetry, it is Colleen Thibaudeau’s poem, In Which I Put On My Mother’s Old Thé Dansant Dress, where characters are named with no need of development, where generations pass in the space of a punctuation mark (the poet thinks nothing of leaping from the 1920s tea dance to her granddaughters’ playtime, using her own childhood as a link), and where time flies from “snowy windows” to a “scorching summer.”
Her style appears so casual that it makes the pressure for a poem to be a timeless monument seem downright silly. Yet by embodying dated domestic details in felt experience and draping them in 13 conversational lines, Thibaudeau creates that very monument by implication. Her poem about time without temporal development flourishes an image at three lyric moments: a dress is donned first for long-lost gala-afternoon occasions; then, for a children’s masquerade; and last, for a costume that preserves a record of a female line it its female outline.
The poem’s breezy prosody is loose as a chemise. It works off two types of line, a longer 13-to-17 syllable line such as “So I go for a favourite, my mother’s old thé dansant dress,” and a shorter nine-to-12 syllable line such as “for “Tea For Two.” Leaves whirled, the hem dragged.” But punchline reverts to iambic pentameter: “I think, my whole life-span is in this dress.” Echoes the cadences of past centuries even as it summons up the rhythms of contemporary conversation.
The repetition of the silky parenthetical “(black georgette and hand-made lace)” rustles like a slip between the dress and skin of generations. The imagery never mentions the ballroom, but the images seem to waltz, from whirling leaves to falling petals, to strewn words.
When I called Thibaudeau, now in her 70s and residing in London, Ont., to check a variation on the punctuation in this poem, she crowed, “That is an actual dress I’ve still got!” adding that “Janos” is a Vancouver Island photographer, and that for the shoot she “could just manage to get into” her mother’s dress.
Even with her poem’s title, phrased like a chapter title from a 19th-century novel, she manages to squeeze in further time references, Thibaudeau sews and re-sews the sweet sensory nature of fleeting experience, which, because it is elusive, paradoxically seems to last, even as the “rescued, laundered, aired, and pressed” dress miraculously lasts. But not forever. It will be art that finally saves the dress, by its act of memorialization.
In fact the dress will be doubly rescued, both by the photograph and by this poem, which sets out to embody the fabric of time by making a precious link between text and textile.
Poet and teacher Molly Peacock helped found the Poetry in Motion program on the New York City transit system, and is a former Poetry Society of America president. She now lives in Toronto. Her most recent book is How to Read a Poem, and Start a Poetry Circle.