“[When staggering down the runway wearing tartan over torn lace]”… A Review of Valerie Wallace’s House of McQueen

House of McQueen, by Valerie Wallace. Four Way Books, 2018. 66pp, poetry.

Valerie Wallace’s debut collection, House of McQueen is an intersection of fashion and poetry. Wallace pays homage to ingenious fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s legacy and creates her own lyrical runway. Wallace’s conceptual narrative and image rich collection, like McQueen’s work, emphasizes creative play on form.

Among the stitchery and needles, Wallace juxtaposes antiquity with the contemporary through the exploration of disparate images: a “tangle [of] Victorian with tulle…black and white, sometimes tangerine. …” or tips her hat to fine spun rhyme (i.e. “My velocity a kind of screed. / When from my highest perch I keen…). Wallace’s research and meticulous attention to form are further exhibited in the detailed, paraphrased statements from friends of the spectral McQueen. Wallace’s constructions include plays upon found poetry, para-translations, concrete poetry, among other craft. All the while, her poetic lexicon utilizes conceptual elements of fashion design, nudges to Scottish history, and an emphasis on McQueen’s beginnings. This establishes the collection as a means of both memorial and biography, highlighting her ability to listen as well as cull.

Wallace, through McQueen’s persona, states: “I take pleasure in discipline… I make a choice to see the damaged and bizarre.” The art of poetry is also a discipline which holds a certain politic. Both McQueen and Wallace, immersed in uninhibited invention, have created from the wells of “body’s grief and courage.” Wallace and McQueen’s voices intermingle, and through this use of persona: “Beauty is accusation. Nature / Herself has turned metaphysical.” …yet the metaphysical is held in the physical. In the poem “McQueen Self-Portrait as Bestiary” Wallace refers to McQueen’s association with “chthonic things.”

Wallace offer’s readers an insight to McQueen’s controversial catwalks which included the use of fur, support to scorned friends, and commentary on England’s historic pillage of Scotland. “Have I offended you then?” Wallace asks, but what offense can be raised where historical, personal, and creative corridors bid illimitable reflections in the looking glass. The reflection hall is “a promise to share the fireflies in your brain / with the crickets in my brain.” The brain of Alexander McQueen bid the boundaries of creativity, and now, in ghost, a visionary channel for Wallace’s luminous “walk together / In imaginary land over the earthly ground,” where each poem unravels new transgressions. In the new century as McQueen “weaves a new fabric which doesn’t exist,” so too, Wallace imbibes a new vernacular beyond personal lyric.

Wallace’s multi-dimensional lexicon deserves an oral reading often heard in McQueen’s diction. Passages such as:

“…When I stare & brood as I do often
On manliness of all brutal acts, we
Fetch each other in and out of shadows. Our
Wrestle with hair, what dress to wear. Needles
Of down, parachutes of arrested color
Tied with fangs. I may be tough & selfish but what
Do you expect? I think with my bare hands.”

Or:

… “No one ever paid for it//
Like I did. I sewed my sisters’ dresses
When I was 10 cos we could not afford//
To buy them. There’s work and there’s work. When they
Caught me they pulled me down. A good story now.//
I had rather fight and scream than hide
Under my mother’s bed. God, I’m hungry lately.”

Wallace and McQueen’s voices coalesce through persona, image, and celebration without appropriation. Rather than a form of collaborative invention or purely inspired, Wallace’s tribute to McQueen acts as a writer’s talisman, a source for sensorial unfolding…

… “Summon the carnal bell
Raucous rouge
Smudge of poppies
Murder of corpuscular roses
So juiced they vouge
Rubies strewn on scarlet carpet…”

Wallace states: “Yes, design is manipulation. Building a new angle, attempting the opposite of what was thought…” She acquiesces’ to poetry’s constraint, allowing her language and reflection to soar. The interweaving in a unique ravishing:

“Damascene like waters of a tarn, wide embroidered panels of leaves
sewn thickly and from each shoulder, soft suggestion of forest floor.
When I enter the room, claret is paused before parted lips, wrought
iron lamp surrenders its spill. I need no bell, no whip, no horse’s
tail. I am your black tulip in the garden. Dark soul, only one of us
sure, of this world.”

Wallace encapsulates each image as if in velvet, luxuriously fusing image, and idea, whilst each poem is loyal to the collection’s centerpiece. Wallace guides the reader with bold ascension beyond the literal into the literary.

Wallace states: “it’s only cloth,” yet texture illuminates each page “Damask Flannel,” “a gold thread weaving” … “Tinfoil in a crow’s beak,” “aluminum coiled corset,” “lavender silk faille,” “white rabbit coat voluptuous as snow fox underbelly,” “silk tweed,” where “damask bloom and fade / more auroral than the white sun.”

Light here is contained only by the skin’s border. Sensuality and salutation in the swathe of dream’s discordant mercies. … “tumble & decay / Out of the earth’s trench” … “O radiance.” … “A single brace of lilac carried / by the black casket.” … “The room of her voice might be a pattern, too.”

Wallace’s attention to tone and to the clarity of image concedes each poem as portent.