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

James Galvin’s “On the Sadness of Wedding Dresses” is featured in the 2015 volume of The Best American Poetry, first published in The Iowa Review. The poem revolves around the tragic stories of wedding dresses after “their one heroic day in the limelight”. It creates a depressing mood around the concept of a wedding dress that is supposed to be an object of happiness when remembering it. The poem took something as simple as a wedding dress and turned it into something I could sympathize with.

What Galvin does extremely well is making the reader feel like the dress is real instead of a piece of cloth. I found the use of personification perfect for this poem since he is trying to convey the dresses’ sadness and how else to do it than give them the capability of emotion. The dresses are “weeping in their closets,/ luminescent with hopeless longing” as they are left behind by the brides that adored them so. The image of a weeping dress is both unsettling and downright dreary,  but that is what he wants us to feel. Not only does the dress weep but it also turns “yellow from praying” as it sits, still, in it’s dark closet losing hope. The use of this personification gives the dress a life of its own as if I was reading about a living being going through a particularly difficult time. Even in their final moments they “ride the candolescent flames” for their journey to a better place “full of congratulations”. This combination of the inanimate and animate create a story with the forgotten dress as our tragic main protagonist.    

The speaker has changed the positive connotations a wedding dress holds into one of prolonged suffering where the dress waits “in the darkness of closets” for the chance to be worn again. The dress, which ends up being a very important decision made by the bride, is left to suffer in the darkness of dusty closets where they are most likely never seen again. The tragic end to “their one heroic day in the limelight” as they “turn yellow over time” hoping for an escape. The whole poem twists the story of a bride, happiest can be in their wedding dress, to the dress itself becoming a one hit wonder as the bride continues on with her life after her big day. I personally appreciate this darker approach to a wedding dress because I myself have thought of what happens to this wedding dress after a bride wears it my own mother not knowing what became of hers after leaving it behind when she moved. The question of “Where is your mother’s wedding dress…?” hitting a bit close to home and how these dresses really do end up as a fleeting memory to the bride that handpicked it.

The general mood of this poem is depressing, simple as that, and while Galvin shows us this through the personified dress the parallel he sets up throughout the poem truly make for a tragic narrative. The parallel he creates is the difference between a dresses’ luck. The first mention of luck is that “A few lucky wedding dresses/ get worn by daughters—just once more,/ then back to the closet”. This luck is fleeting in the fact they will end up right back where they started, it reminds me of a prisoner who gets to escape for one day and by the end is stuck in their cell again. It seems more like a show of what the dress cannot always have while stuck in the closet. The second instance of a dresses’ “luck” is towards the end stating that “the luckiest wedding dresses/ are those of wives/ betrayed by their husbands/ a week after the wedding,” they are “doused in gasoline” burning up “into a sky full of congratulations”. Now the dress has risen to the sky where it is welcomed with cheers while before the dress was placed back into the closet after an extra day in the limelight. The first instance of luck was when it was happily worn again and the second is when it is burned, “just smoke now”. The speaker is almost saying to forget living another day in darkness but bask in the light one final time.

James Galvin wrote this poem after seeing a wedding dress in Goodwill saying that “as a poet, [he] could identify with that dress”. The hard work that goes into the dress and only to be worn once relates to how some people read books or poems once and let them collect dust on shelves or, nowadays, lost in their computers history. I cannot help but agree with this a lot seeing as I am guilty of this very action. Once they have served their purpose it is logical to think that we would throw out or giveaway the object, yet the object remains untouched. We take things for granted whether it be a wedding dress or a book it was made with a lot of care and is worth so much more than “one heroic day in the limelight”.

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