Poetry Sunday: “The Dress Code” and “Wish,” by Caitlin Doyle


The Dress Code

I should have acted up when I was young.
Who’ll call the guidance counselor (she’s not there)
if I shave off my hair or pierce my tongue?

Who’ll keep me after class to ask what’s wrong
(my father pinned my mother to the floor)
if I go goth or grunge? I’ve read my Jung;

the dream recurs, although the bell has rung
(the more she screamed, the less he seemed to hear)
and everyone’s gone home. What good’s a tongue

ring when it’s not against the rules? Freud hung
(she screamed until she couldn’t anymore)
his hat on cases like mine. The patient’s young

beyond her years. School’s been out for so long
there’s nothing where the building was but air –
(Freud knew I’d see it all but hold my tongue)

Who’ll put me in detention, where I belong,
or send a note home with me (no one’s there)
if I shave off my hair or pierce my tongue?
I should have acted up when I was young.


First published in The Yale Review, Vol. 105, No. 3, October 2017. Listen to the author reading “The Dress Code” here.


Poet’s Note

“The Dress Code” is a villanelle, a poetic form that has held a consuming fascination for me ever since a childhood encounter with Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “The House on the Hill” in an anthology of poetry for kids. At the time, I had no idea that the poem was a villanelle and I lacked any understanding of poetry’s formal elements, but I sensed enormous power in the haunting repetitions and variations of Robinson’s language. I’ve since fallen in love with many more villanelles, and when I sat down to wrestle with the difficult subject matter that comprises “The Dress Code,” I felt compelled to cast the piece as a villanelle because of the way the form combines stasis and movement. In my effort to capture the consciousness of a mind suspended between the past and the present, I wanted readers to feel the poem straining for forward motion while circling endlessly back. My ultimate aim was for “The Dress Code” to register, sonically and imagistically, what it’s like to exist in an obsessive relationship with unresolved aspects of one’s personal history.




I told him I needed time –
he gave me a cuckoo clock

(I couldn’t work the winding key)

I told him I needed space –
he gave me a telescope

(or make the moon look back at me)

I told him I needed change –
he gave me a penny jar

(or stop from spending every cent)

I told him I needed more –
he led me to the well

(or count up every wish I’d spent)

Now I have so much time,
the cuckoo’s flown away

(the moon’s a clock that’s come unwound)

Now I have so much space,
it’s night for days on end

(the moon’s a shadow on the ground)

Now I have so much change,
the well’s just one more wish

(the moon’s a coin the well has drowned)


First published in The Yale Review, Vol. 105, No. 3, October 2017. Listen to the author reading “Wish” here.


Poet’s Note

My ambition in crafting “Wish” was to express the complexities of a particular relationship in a way that felt simultaneously personal and universal. I wanted to find images and sonic patterns that located the poem at once within time and outside of time, both inside the specific present of the poem’s “I” and beyond the full measure of earthly chronology. It struck me that evoking the world of fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and fables, while also gesturing toward the celestial realm, would help me cultivate an atmosphere conducive to the effects I sought. The poem’s metrical and stanzaic structure took shape as I imagined the speaker’s internal self-talk unfolding via a multilayered back-and-forth about desire, fulfillment (or lack thereof), and regret. I found myself drawn toward following two interwoven yet ultimately separate threads in the speaker’s mind. As I worked the poem through draft after draft, I strove to pull both threads as taut as possible so that they would vibrate against each other and conjure something like song.


“Wish” won the 2017 Frost Farm Poetry Prize, judged by Deborah Warren, and here is her commentary on the poem.

“This poem is a masterpiece masquerading (with its incantatory beat and simple language) as a Mother Goose rhyme. It’s also that rare poem where the form is integral to the story. Each of the first four trimeter couplets expresses one of the speaker’s wishes. Each line begins with ‘I told him I needed’ and the final three couplets look back on the wishes with wrenching regret. Following each little couplet is a parenthesis: one tetrameter line explaining why the wish, although granted, ironically failed. The parentheses play on the idiom ‘wishing for the moon.’ They rhyme, and—taken by themselves—collectively make a poem in their own right.  On the other hand, if you do remove these parentheses, the seven trimeter couplets themselves make up an unrhymed sonnet—with a conventional volta between the octave and the sestet. It’s the poem’s tone that is so sad. The deceptively nursery-rhymish repetitions (I told him in the octave; Now I have in the sestet) only emphasize the speaker’s desolation.”


You might also read “Caitlin Doyle: Following in Robert Frost’s Footsteps” in Boston University Today, a piece by John O’Rourke discussing “Wish,” here.


Caitlin Doyle’s poems and reviews have appeared in numerous magazines, journals, and anthologies, including The Yale Review, The Atlantic, Boston Review, The New Criterion, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Threepenny Review, Best New Poets 2009 (University of Virginia Press), and The Southern Poetry Anthology (Texas Review Press).  Her work has also been featured through the PBS NewsHour Poetry Series, Poetry Daily, and the Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day Series. She has held Writer-In-Residence teaching positions at Penn State University, St. Albans School, and Interlochen Arts Academy. Her awards and fellowships include residencies at the Yaddo Colony, the James Merrill House, and the MacDowell Colony, as well as the Frost Farm Prize, the Amy Award in Poetry through Poets & Writers, and the Margaret Bridgman Scholarship through the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Caitlin received her MFA from Boston University as the George Starbuck Poetry Fellow, and she is currently an Elliston Fellow in Poetry at the University of Cincinnati, where she serves as Assistant Editor of The Cincinnati Review. To learn more about Caitlin’s background and work, you can visit her website here. For interviews and articles discussing Doyle’s work, see the “Interviews & Features” section of her website.


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  • Jessica McGowen March 26, 2018 at 8:04 am