The Endless Garment: a pocket epic in five collections by Marguerite Pigeon (Wolsak & Wynn, 2021)

In the past decade, TV series such as Selfridges and Bridgerton, documentaries on Coco Chanel or game shows like Next in Fashion have indubitably brought the challenges, cruelties and chi-chi of the fashion industry, whether in the 19 century or now, to greater public consciousness. The vast waste of materials, the early brutality of its use of child workers (which persists today in the Third World), the constant cycling of what’s in and out and, then too, the beauty of a realized catwalk haute couture vision, is all part of this brocaded, disposable universe. Poets don’t often acknowledge fashion or sports or finances it seems so Marguerite Pigeon’s The Endless Garment (slashed into five sections: Pre-Season, Fall/Winter, Resort, Spring/Summer and Diffusion) is a refreshingly strange foray into a realm too infrequently glimpsed within our genre. In the first untitled poem (well, they are all untitled), Pigeon writes that seamstresses are “poets/with pins” and it is the piece’s (we lyricists are masters of piecework too!) lingual textures that render it memorable, words such as decorticated, bast, Bactrian, tapa.

Feeling more than a bit like the Ouija chanelling effected by James Merrill in his three-book work The Changing Light at Sandover, this collection contains many spectres, Chanel, yes, along with Gypsy Rose Lee and more emotively, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who like the Ghost of Xmas Past shows us the tortuous invisibilized existences of nubile employees in garment factories, her perspectives fueled by her Aurora Leigh, a proto-feminist epic that features a “‘low-born’/ heroine, piecework seamstress whose/needle threaded survival.” All the poems are cut from one intense cloth, that eternal bolt of lightning inspiration, material segments whose strongest fragments are the ones listing & repeating as in, “Dolly Parton: whose dimple. Whose by dint of./Whose patina. Whose many-coloured throat,” those that fuse theory & reality as in when Barthes is quoted stating that the model, “is stemware/empty of all particular taste” and then, on the opposing page, the assertion, “We are all models,” those elaborating mannequins, revealing that “silk moths were domesticated/into flightlessness,” the poem that creates directives on the imperative of hair or “your renewal, your shelter,/your statement, your reveal,/your signature, your capital” and the panopticon longing of a culture determined to shop obsessively for everything, to “try on as much as possible.”

The glamour is present but more so the suffering. And most especially, at the end, for the Earth, forced to withstand “truckloads” of cast-offs, the thrift stores stuffed with “gunky sweaters.” “So have you seen?” asks Elizabeth, like the Virgil of the world to us all.

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