I came across the poem “On the Sadness of Wedding Dresses” by James Galvin first published in The Iowa Review. Upon first reading it, I was moved by the poem and appreciated the nostalgic tone Galvin instills in each word. The personification of the wedding dresses “weeping in their closets” was beautiful; the comparison of the dresses to women who were separated from and left by their husbands or just living through unhappy marriages was intriguing. The dresses were described as “luminescent with hopeless longing,/like hollow angels,” unwanted and under-appreciated since the days of their glory. This sad description prepares for the next line when Galvin says “they know they will never be worn again.” I think the wedding dresses are a symbol of youth and purity that has now expired, simple innocence found in a white dress. The fact that they are never going to be worn again is a hopeless and scary idea, and I think that the sadness the wedding dresses are characterized by represents how the finer and better moments of life will never be repeated. The moment of walking down the aisle is the “peak” of one’s life, a temporary spark in the darkness of life.
Galvin introduces the idea that life has consequences regardless of your actions. Galvin is saying that resentment of the good times is inevitable, advising that you might as well enjoy these times. The idea that life will always have consequences is terrifying to me. I am, to say the least, scared of regrets, and have been all my life. I am always thinking about the future, the next moment, what I will be grateful I did, and what I will wish I could change. I never 100% enjoy each moment because I am scared of repercussion. For my sake, I have to hope that the idea of inevitable disappointment is not true. The prospect of resentment of a younger and happier version of myself seems too hard to bear. It seems to me that (even though this is somewhat counterintuitive) it would be easier to just never laugh or smile in order to never feel the loss of living without happiness. But, I guess life would not be life then, as you need to experience pain to feel happiness because if you were always happy, it would not mean anything.
But back to the poem, Galvin questions who would want the dresses now, “after their one heroic day in the limelight?” He hints that the answer is no one. The dresses were temporary instances of beauty一irreplaceable moments now gone. The poem states that “a few lucky wedding dresses/get worn by daughters—just once more,/then back to the closet./Most turn yellow over time,/yellow from praying/for the moths to come/and carry them into the sky.” Most dresses decay; what they stood for decays. They turn yellow from being unused and forgotten. People do not want to remember them because getting rid of the happy moments numbs them to the pain of the sad ones. Their wedding decays in their minds.
Galvin asks the question “where is your mother’s wedding dress,/what closet?” and then says, “what, gone?/Eventually they all disappear,/who knows where.” At a certain point, the dresses are just gone. Though I found the fate of forgetting the good much more desirable before, it now seems worse because all that is left is pain. There is no good to hold you over. In the moments where all feels lost, I always remind myself of the happy moments. I try to disappear in thoughts of better times, creating false scenarios in my head of more pleasant moments.
As I continued reading the poem it said “I saw one wedding dress, hopeful at Goodwill./But what sad story brought it there,/and what sad story will take it away?” A wedding is being compared to this sad story, which is quite fitting. As women, we are raised since childhood to find love. I have been taught that the solution to every hardship and struggle is to find the right person, that this person will fill any void, solve any problem. I think that this is a big issue. Girls and children, in general, are raised with such high standards for love, with expectations that it will change them in great and existential ways. This results in unrealistic expectations and putting so much glory on a wedding dress that has to disappoint because these dreams create bigger shoes than reality could ever hope to fill. Galvin could be making a comment on these stereotypes about love or the reliance women have on it. The decay of the wedding dresses could be discovering that this is all a facade, the moment people realize they will never be complete or satisfied because the one thing they relied on, a fairytale love story, failed. Galvin seems to say that a wedding is an unrealistic mirage in the minds of many women that can only disappoint. It is “a sad story” that gave a young girl a dream that was not fulfilled.
The poem ends with “the luckiest wedding dresses/are those of wives/betrayed by their husbands/a week after the wedding.” The most fortunate wedding dresses (or women) are the ones who are betrayed and disappointed the quickest. This is interesting to think about at first as it seems counterintuitive. But the truth is, this immense pain of being “flung outside the double-wide” or “doused with gasoline” to “ride the candolescent flames” is quicker and therefore less painful than dreams fading slowly. The wedding dresses are burned and destroyed “Into a sky full of congratulations,” (it is ironic that the pain to come is being congratulated and celebrated) no longer there to haunt a woman with what could have been. It stops her from constantly wondering where she went wrong. The dresses are destroyed, the memory of the wedding gone, there are no better days to look back to. These short-term brides hit rock bottom and get the gift of only being able to go up, move forward, and improve. Those that experienced a longer love don’t get this “gift,” they just get the slow churn downwards. It is better if the dresses are burned and forgotten in a fit of frenzy and pain rather than bearing the slow decline of happiness, only left to reminisce on better days.