Monday, September 20, 2021

& Company By Moira Linehan Dos Madres Press


& Company

By Moira Linehan

Dos Madres Press

Loveland, Ohio

ISBN: 978-1-953252-14-2

76 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Elegant beyond elegance. Moira Linehan stitches together a palimpsest biography of her mother’s mother, Marie Louise Raimbault Wacha, a nonpareil seamstress and dress designer. Based on very little hard information, Linehan conjures up backdrops, insights, and probable artistic techniques used by her grandmother. She does this by incorporating period art in an ekphrastic approach that uncovers the extraordinary will and likely contours of a magnificent lady. Wacha’s life spanned the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. The urban textile centers of Paris and Boston nurtured her.

In her well-wrought and telling sonnet, Ars Poetica, Linehan wonderfully describes the raw labor and hidden subtleties necessary in constructing a dress and, metaphorically, any serious artwork. Here she lists some of the basics,

The planning

beforehand. Washing washable textiles

to shrink them before they’re sewn. Laying out

the pattern so the design flows, the plaid lines

match, the dress drapes. Shears sharp so the seams

won’t pucker, twist, ravel. The seamstress’s stress

Then the fitting, the pinning and re-pinning

those seams. Right shade of thread? The sewing,

seemingly magic, not one stitch visible.

Each seam, steam-pressed flat till at last the sewn

carries material and a dressmaker’s vision

out into the world…

In the first of three stage-setting poems entitled Addressing the History Linehan interweaves economic history and art history. For instance, she details the domino effect of new fashion trends and how they took her grandmother’s world by storm,

under it all, the corset. At first, just working

to narrow the waist, set off by jackets with wide

shoulders, with bodice seams, darts, braiding, rows

of buttons, maybe striped textiles, all verging in a V

at the waist. Not how tiny. Then corsets lengthened

to an hourglass. As that century’s second half starts,

ten thousand workers in Paris produce those corsets.

The year the American Civil War begins, over

one million are sold there. Dressmakers are talking

to salesmen, salesmen to weavers. Soon bolts of cloth

come with borders woven in for hemlines, for cuffs.

Soon the new fashion journals, then department stores

carry patterns, instructions for assembling skirts

and dresses…

Mary Cassatt captures the subtle art of dressmaking in her brilliant drypoint and aquatint painting The Fitting (circa 1891). Linehan mines this piece for its historic value in relation to her grandmother. The image portrayed contrasts a graceful and stylish standing woman with her attentive, sitting (almost kneeling) seamstress, who is wearing a simple brown garb. The standing woman is doubled by a full-length mirror. In her poem of the same name Linehan draws out, not only some of her grandmother’s essence, but also a temperament and social position. Here’s part of her description,

She’s sitting on a low stool,

her back to the viewer, seams of her back

bodice on display. The center seam: pattern placed

so two strips of those four black lines get stitched

together at the neckband, leaving three lines

each side. But not just stitched. Fitted, so narrowing

to only three lines total at her waist. Likewise,

from left shoulder and right, strips of black lines,

taken in by darts. Each side of that center seam,

mirror of the other.

Another painting Linehan uses to great effect is Edmund Tarbell’s Girl, Crocheting (1904). The girl pictured seems content in her work, work that exists only in shadow. The artist even vanishes the girl’s face into shadow. A large portrait on the wall, however, leaves no doubt as to Pope Innocent’s identification and imposing figure. Linehan employs the grand pope as a figure of contrast with the contentedness of the crocheter, and both of them as a contrast to a new century and the impending revolution centering on the modern woman. The poet’s consideration of Tarbell’s portrait (copied from Velazquez) of Pope Innocent leads directly to a consideration of the breakout,

His waist-length cape, signature vermillion satin,

drapes in a V over a long surplice, its wide hem

of fine lace. Some claim it’s the greatest portrait

painter’s greatest portrait, this pope by Velazquez,

more or less a contemporary of Vermeer. Tarbell,

suggesting he has a foot in both those schools.

Tarbell, of the Boston school. Yet within the world

Of this art: all the unnamed. Nuns working bobbins

By window light, making lace for bishops’ vestments.

Women of Vermeer’s Delft about their daily lives.

This Girl in a long dark skirt, seemingly content

to crochet in shadow. She, a weir for Tarbell,

holding back the new century, those women marching.

Clues here and there suggest that Linehan’s grandmother, Maria, did quite well financially. Her poem, Getting My Grandmother to Boston notes that Maria’s tailor-husband was offered and accepted a managerial job with Boston’s largest manufacturing plant of woman’s fashions. Three years later he opened Jules Wacha & Company on Boylston Street. With these bare facts the poet’s (now well-schooled) imagination fills in the blanks,

So I decide to give her, as the “& Company,” part

of Jules Wacha & Company, the task

of overseeing its books as she oversaw

the finances of their home at 4 Zamora Street

in Jamaica Plain, my mother having told me

she grew up with servants—maids, housekeepers, cooks,

and gardeners—my grandmother keeping

from her husband (as my mother would) such

bothersome details…

This lovely book of artistic investigation concludes, not only with the reversal of her grandmother’s erasure, but also, revelations of the poet’s own craft and the intense, unforgotten influence of a mother’s love.

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