The busy girl buys beauty,
the pretty girl buys style.
nd the simple girl buys what she’s told to buy…
So says Billy Bragg, and that’s always been pretty much my attitude toward the femininity industry. It seems like a racket designed to make people feel they need to spend gobs of money in order to be adequate and wedded to the pernicious ideology of women as helpless ornaments.
I know this makes me sound like a jurassic feminist from the days of Women’s LIb, but what can I say? I married a woman who has never owned a blow-drier. Well, that’s not stricktly true, once in an unheated room in a drenched Italian November, she resorted to blow-drying her clothes…but that’s different.
So it will perhaps not come as a shock that the culture of drag is an acquired taste for me. The collection of traits traditionally associated with femininity includes some real winners, like concern for other people and a lack of killer instinct, so it seemed odd for someone crossing gender boundaries to focus instead on high heels, wigs, and coquettish posturing. I’ve grown to admire the daring and exuberance involved, and the delicate or not-so-delicate balance of emulation and parody that is camp, and of course the same clothing and makeup means one thing as a gesture of conformity and another thing as a gesture of transgression, but my appreciation is mostly intellectual.
That being the case, I’m grateful to Mark Doty for giving me a manifesto of drag in a medium I can relate to more easily. Here is his poem “Crepe de Chine”:
Do I need to remind you to read the poem aloud? I think not. There is a certain playful self-confidence in the sonic texture that pleases me greatly, and also in the images, especially the central metaphor or the bottles of perfume as a tiny Manhattan skyline.
In the poem’s vertiginous telescoping of scales, the bottles are both miniature (as above) and huge, “gallons of scent for women enormous as the movie screens of my childhood.” This is neatly turned: the official excuse for bringing in the movie screens is their size in proportion to these massive doses of perfume, but this permits him to introduce the glamor of classic Hollywood divas. That glamor, of course, will return in a few lines with the next wild re-scaling, as the skyline becomes a garment: “Look how I rhyme with the skyscraper’s padded sawtooth shoulders.” I don’t think I have ever thought “That’s what I want from this city: to wear it,” but as rendered here, I can see the appeal.
The equation of monstrously different scales is reminiscent of another of my favorite poets, Elizabeth Bishop–for whatever reason, it haunts her poems, from “Crusoe in England” to “12 O’Clock News” (in which a grim civil war seems to be taking place on her writing-desk). Here’s “The Armadillo,” where again the telescoping has a sinister military tone:
Returning to “Crepe de Chine,” I don’t know whether we should identify Doty with the speaker. Doty has certainly written other things about drag culture, though from the perspective of a spectator. Reading his memoirs (which I greatly enjoyed), one gets the impression that he is more into Roman centurion sandals than high heels. Well…whoever you are, if you can put into your drag persona the brassy flair and wit of this poem, I will gladly call you Crepe de Chine.
PS I realize the version of the poem I linked to is imperfect, and in particular, surely the original has “coiffure,” which makes more sense than “coiffeur.” But it’s what I could find on the net.