It was in Carolyn Forché‘s poetry class that I heard the story of the Lebanese woman dressed to the nines in Chanel. I do not remember the woman’s name. She was a friend of the poet. The friend was leaving her home in Beirut during the war. Being killed by bullets or bombs was a high possibility that day – and every day. Forché grew luminous in her storytelling cadence, embodying her friend when she said, “She said, ‘If I must die today, I may as well look beautiful.’”
This was also the year that I cut C.K. Williams‘ poetry class, feeling blue. Anomie had overwhelmed me, and instead of doing what I was supposed to do, I simply wanted to wear sequins, and wander. Who knew if this would be my last day on earth? Morbid to a fault, I have always feared death, and sometimes worry that I should do what I always wanted to do, just in case this is my last chance to do it on earth.
C.K. Williams saw me in the hallway halfway to playing hooky before poetry workshop. He asked me why I was going the wrong way. I said: “I feel blue, and so I put on a red dress and will not make it to class.” He scolded me me with a barely concealed smirk: “If only I could cut class every time I felt blue.” I was determined to cut class anyway, so I wobbled defiantly the wrong away from the professor, in sequined heels and ankle length red dress to get on with the urgent desire to do nothing, and with fabulousness, in a red dress.
I must have been about 23 years old. At the time, I knew that looking fabulous never prevents death. But now that I am older, I realize that nothing prevents death. Prevention is not the purpose. Death must be approached not with questions of “if” but with questions of “how.”
9/11 showed me something else about the charge of death: not if but how.
A photographer caught images of people falling from the towers. Some flew downward in arabesques, some with arms folded in gestures of insouciance. The photographer, asked why she took the photos said that the images looked defiantly beautiful to her. She said that they were photos of courage. All falling human bodies seem to demand: “If I must die, I will die deciding my last gestures.”
The plan may indeed be a red dress. The best form of resistance. The best form of redress.
Many worlds end, at many times. One need only turn on the news to see another person bleeding from the head to remember that life is a fragile proposition.
It was in the small library at the YWCA’s “Survivors of Domestic Abuse” support group that I learned again the value of a red dress, bubble bath, and fabulousness.
The first step, the counselor said, to resisting erasure is sometimes simply lipstick and a hairdo. Do what you can. Be here. Tell the world that you are here. Be fabulous. Make sure you cannot be erased.
It was at this time that I understood what some call the urgency of superficiality, the persistence of beauty.
Cornelius Eady wrote in his poem, “The Supremes:”
“And it wouldn’t be a bad life, they promised,
In a tone of voice that would force some of us
To reach in self-defense for wigs,
The world may indeed be ending. Terrible things are happening. Reach for your lipstick. And a red dress. Sometimes it’s the only form of defense. The best form of redress.