The Great Poem Series: James Galvin’s “On the Sadness of Wedding Dresses”

James Galvin’s “On the Sadness of Wedding Dresses,” first published by The Iowa Review in the Fall of 2014, and featured in BAP 2015,  centers around the idea of forgotten wedding dresses. After winning  fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, Galvin joined the faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “On the Sadness of Wedding Dresses” describes the eerie reality of the effects of distrust and lack of faith.

One of the attributes that makes this poem great is the fact that it blurs the line between darkness and light. On a base level, this poem is about wedding dresses, bright white gowns that symbolize marriage and happiness. As you read the poem you find that the speaker is painting the dresses in a darker light, such as telling the reader the dresses “turn yellow over time”. The speaker says that the white dresses are normally put in “the darkness of closets”, but sometimes they “imagine a dump with a wedding dress on it”. Not only are the dresses in a dark garbage dump, they would also be turning black from the trash. Finally the speaker tells us that the only escape from becoming a trapped wedding dress is by “being doused in gasoline” by a betrayed wife and set ablaze. These dresses turn into “just smoke”, the darkest symbol in this poem. The poem creates an uncomfortable yet interesting parallel between the bright white of wedding dresses and the dark black of the closets that they lay in forgotten.

The wedding dresses are extremely personified in the poem and it evokes feelings of longing, sadness, and nostalgia upon them in a very strong way. The dresses themselves are shown as “weeping in their closets” and “praying for the moths to come” to destroy them. The reader begins to feel bad for the wedding dresses, you know that they had their “heroic day in the limelight” and that now they are simply forgotten. The speaker continues to drill the sadness into the reader by saying “they all disappear” eventually to “who knows where”. This makes the reader believe that the dresses are not only in despair because they have been forgotten, they are sad because no one even cares about them anymore. At the end of the poem the speaker creates a feeling of dread by saying that “somewhere a closet is waiting for” every dress. The fate of the dresses is decided and dark and each one has a “sad story [that] brought it there”. These feeling permeates through the words of the poem into the heart of the reader in a very powerful way.

“On the Sadness of Wedding Dresses” paints a picture of a wedding gown stuck in the dark forever, a somewhat taboo idea that may have an interesting religious undertone. Personally, I think poems about religion are boring and always have a parabolic mission but this poem is focusing on the contrast of angels to devils and the effect of praying. The speaker says that the wedding dresses stuck in the closets turn “yellow from praying for the moths to come”. This is a very creepy line, it tells us that the wedding dresses are unfortunately praying for death and relief from their trap. Bear with me here, but many people pray for relief from the issues in their lives, and those that don’t receive help from their God can lose hope or faith, like the wedding dresses hung in their tombs. Many people believe that God is their last resort, and when that fails some of them turn to darkness and depression. This poem makes you think about something deeper than wedding dresses, it makes you think of the impact of faith on people.

One of the ways the wedding dresses can escape their fate is by belonging to a divorcee, a prospect that pushes the reader to believe that lack of faith or love will lead you to relief, although this turns out to not be the case at all. The speaker says that “the luckiest of wedding dresses” are “doused with gasoline” and are burned by “wives betrayed by their husbands”. After the dress is burned it turns into smoke and flies into a “sky full of congratulations”. Many would assume that this dress has reached its final destination, unlike the dresses sitting in closets longing for death. However, the lonely dresses that are tucked away forever at least have a story. The dress that is burned will not be remembered or at least not in a positive way, it’s “just smoke now”. The hidden dresses are engulfed in darkness, but the burned dress is the darkness. The old wedding dresses may “never be worn again” but at least they had “their one heroic day in the limelight”. The dresses in the closets had their light, and their happy time just their owners did while the burned dresses are dark forever and the memory of them is also dark forever.

James Galvin got the idea for this poem after seeing a wedding dress displayed at a Goodwill. Galvin says that he identified with the dress and all the left behind dresses and I agree with him. Many people believe they are underappreciated, or that their countless good deeds go unnoticed. I feel this way a lot too, and sometimes I think it would be easier to not help other people honestly.This poem teaches us that good people and good memories such as weddings will be remembered. They will be noticed and appreciated by the people who truly care about them like the brides who will always think of their wedding dresses fondly on they day they shone bright white in “a sky full of congratulations”.

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