“Writing the Dress” by Barbara Rockman
“I have written up and down my sleeves,” she cried.
“It begins at my wrist, saddens at the elbow, but the upper arm is where rain lifts and,”
she sang out from the far end of the hall,
“At the shoulder, birds flock from the island, the lighthouse lit to make wings whiten and
silver. Across the collar, she and the birds and the drove of bleating outrace wolves. But
she bellowed, “the hero is me.” She braked at the kitchen door.
Her mother, whipping something thick with a wooden spoon, had sifted and cracked when
the girl’s voice stopped her spattered arm mid-stroke.
Excitable, she thought, this girl so full of letters, and then sentences, and now a whole
story: what the girl had been after, caught at last. On her dress no less.
The girl came to stand beside her.
“The finishing part goes down the other sleeve.”
She had used both hands to write it, wore the frock loosely, could tug either cuff over her
hands, both bloodied with ink.
“When the bridge is crossed, the sheep follow her, which is me.”
She shook with excitement.
“My sheep! There’s a steep hill. We must go carefully (oh so!) down a path to the sea.”
It was the sea she wanted, the bodice, shell-flecked and the dirndl and sash smelling of
salt and fish.
Down her words clattered and laddered up and over, through sea grass and rickety wood walkways and tide whorls.
“It ends there,” she said, offering her inked wrist.
Her breathless chest, her outstretched story, crashed toward her mother’s spoon.
She licked batter into which the mother had added berries. Rose cheeked, licked,
swallowed, and threw her arms out,
twirled round the table so her mother could read her from wrist to elbow, elbow to neck,
and down the other side where the story grew sad
and then wasn’t. When the sheep stumbled, the story girl sang out comfort
“the rain will wait will wait rain will wait.”
When the tip of the sleeve met her wrist, she’d become
flock, drove, trampled fence rail, mud paths sucked down. She was
pounded grass and the wild-eyed animals, hard sand they’d reached, panting.
A fine dress, a wide skirted dress, its hem coming unstitched.
“Twirl and tell a tale,” the girl sang, “twirl and tell the sheep story.”
It had been the mother’s summer dress as a girl. She added sleeves so the child in this
northern place might be warm. She had not imagined what would come of them.
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Barbara Rockman Artist Statement:
Barbara Rockman teaches poetry at Santa Fe Community College and in private workshops in Santa
Fe, New Mexico. She is workshop director for Wingspan Poetry Project offering classes for women who
are victims of domestic violence.
Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies and have received two Pushcart Prize nominations,
the New Mexico Discovery Award, The MacGuffin Poets Hunt Prize, Southwest Poetry Prize, and the
Baskerville Publisher’s Prize. She is editor of the anthology, “Women Becoming Poems,” and author of
“Sting and Nest,” which received the National Press Women Book Prize and the New Mexico-Arizona
Book Award. She has collaborated with artists on numerous image and word installations and has been
awarded residencies at Atlantic Center for the Arts and Playa Summerlake.
Barbara received her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and her M.Ed. from Antioch