“Shalom,” called the pink-shirted man in the Oceanic
Terminal of Heathrow, and I snapped,
“I do not want to talk to you.” Manic
with fear, I extended one pointy-tipped shoe, tapped
the message home. My cases bulged with the wrong
clothes, every outfit trimmed with clipped
English, fit for telephone jobs on Long
Island. Rwanda, Algeria, and me
declaring every kind of independence.
My skirt and I were green, not the pretty
pistachio that Jacqueline Kennedy wore,
but the color copper develops in the sea,
cold and unfortunate, the green of storms
that have never squalled before. My hat,
gloves, and I were pale, not plush like the warm
blonde women settling in their seats
and bubbling dipthongs to their husbands;
not even poignant, like the champagne satin
that Marilyn Monroe was buried in.
Just neutral, stale as a biscuit, off
as an old cup of milk. I was stubborn,
I would do what I said and leave
England. I would ride that El Al jet, mystery
novel in hand and never grieve.
Johnny Carson, The Jetsons, and me.
A new wardrobe in cartoon hues. Meanwhile,
my row-mate slipped off her court shoes, free
toes wiggling in hose. “We all went to Israel,
almost all of us on the flight, and are returning
to South Carolina,” she explained in a drawl
that frightened me more that the turbofan
wailing beneath us. In her sundress, her stomach
looked soft. Ungirdled? Does everyone chat with a twang,
even the Jews? I do not want to talk,
but here I am, midair. “Coffee,” I replied
to the hostess, slowly. I will never wear slacks,
but I can unfasten each word, open it wide.
The theme of independence drives “Dressing Down, 1962.” Amid the world events in 1962, such as “Rwanda” and “Algeria” declarations of independence, the speaker announces her own independence from her home in England. The speaker describes her inadequate appearance as “just neutral, stale as a biscuit,” an invitation to a new life promising new color.
Lesley Wheeler, Henry S. Fox Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, wrote this poem from the point of view of her mother, an outsider coming to America for the first time in 1962. Growing up, Wheeler felt like a bit of an outsider herself because of her mother’s British accent. Wheeler harnesses this feeling in “Dressing Down, 1962”, which comes from her collection of poems titled Heterotopia, which means “other place,” a place that is important to you in some way. At age twenty-two, Wheeler’s mother left Liverpool, England for America, a feat that still dazzles Wheeler today. Wheeler wrote “Dressing Down, 1962” in first person as a way of experiencing her mother’s adventure. Her ability to take on the role of her mother’s voice gives life to the poem, and her fascination with exploring her mother’s life resides in her appreciation for a world that she “didn’t have access to” except through her poetry.
The poem is written in terza rima, an Italian rhyming structure. The rhymes move in a forward motion, which Wheeler felt would be fitting for poems about a woman whose life moved with daring spirit in pursuit of another place.