In Arielle Greenberg’s invigorating and humorously honest collection Locally Made Panties (Ricochet Editions, 2016), a playful mix of feminism, fashion obsession, and self-flagellation delivers quips and gravitas in every poem. These poems are bold and lovingly self-conscious at the same time. Greenberg writes about being a socially-aware feminist who also wants to capture a “Look” though wardrobe and style—in her particular case, the desired “Look” is a Woman of Letters, circa 1920. There is, after all, she writes, an inherent joy in wearing vintage-looking green T-strap heels and getting two compliments on said shoes within the hour.
Greenberg plays with the frivolity and fickleness of her fashion obsession (and some of the obsessive body-image issues that come with it) while acknowledging the pure joy that many women feel in stitching together an “image” for themselves through specific sought-after clothing items and accessories. But the sense of carefree enjoyment is never pure: even as Greenberg pays homage to her lust for satin underwear from Anthropologie or her tenacious hunt for a good button-up-the-back white blouse, she also mocks herself and her desires. Maybe, she writes ironically, if she can capture a “Look,” she will forever be happy and have time to build homes for Habitat for Humanity.
This collection is marketed as nonfiction, and yet these snapshots almost read like prose poetry. These vignettes about style, despite their layers of frivolity, are also very serious. But in playing with this frivolity, Greenberg finds a way to admit and interrogate her privilege—this is a woman with the means to be frivolous, which many people don’t have. One of my favorite pieces from this collection, titled “Semi Ashamed,” sums up the dichotomy of feminism and materialism (though is it materialism or just loving yourself? And is loving what you love okay?):
“I like to think that style and street fashion and local
merchandise and retail establishments are quality-
of-life issues. For instance I might not agree to
be disconnected from a life support system if the
window of my hospital room faced onto some good
Fashion seems to mean beauty and ease to Greenberg’s speaker. If her whole life were staring out a hospital window at innovative, creative, beautiful uses of color and shapes and objects, then she might be okay with being confided to bed. It’s almost like these visual pairings comfort our brains like a warm blanket.
Greenberg reaches into the depths of women’s souls and pulls out a display case of thought patterns around what we covet daily. It’s not just the speaker’s lust for a shirred wool sweater or a “billion things from J. Crew,” that keep us flipping through pages like we’re reading a crime novel. Greenberg does the math. She remembers her “pre-baby” weight. She remembers her college weight. She itemizes what size she was pre- and post-breastfeeding. She calculates in which month she will get down to her “glamorous” size.
In “Let’s Get Right Down to it,” Greenberg writes:
“I am a Feminist.
I want to be thinner.”
This obsession with weight illustrates the societal pressure for women to be thin: how if we can just find the most beautifully tailored pencil skirt, we too, can look like we have our lives together: in the office, with the kids, volunteering, hanging out, buying local. Our own sidestep into, as Greenberg half-mockingly phrases it, “effortless glamour (!)” Of course, that idea of glamour is a superficial one, ignoring all the work we know it takes to make a single airbrushed fashion ad. And life is messier than that, too: Greenberg’s vignettes about motherhood and the sloppiness that comes with it remind us of this. Who can wear a silk camisole when spit-up is in the near future? Which is more practical in this moment—period panties or sexy lace mocha panties? Greenberg mourns the loss of her pretty, delicate clothes in “Postpartum Body,” stating, “I love my children, but I also love my clothes.” Through her clothing, Greenberg is finding a way to love herself.
In addition to the extreme wit and sharpness of Greenberg’s confrontational writing style, she bares a sense of vulnerability through much of this book as well. She shares details of mourning a stillborn child in “Salt in the Wound,” which takes place at a Weight Watchers meeting. Explaining to readers that her body and breasts are still heavy in preparation for the baby that died at thirty-one weeks, Greenberg describes how she explained her weight gain to fellow members at the meeting:
“I’m twenty pounds overweight because my baby died.
It’s not like I’ve been sitting around eating bon-bons or
And then, at the end of this piece:
“The truth is I’ve gone to Weight Watchers many times before
and I may have even cried at Weight Watchers before. Another
truth is that there are times that I’ve gone to Weight Watchers
on account of actually eating the equivalent of too many bon-bons,
though not actual bon-bons. I don’t even know where you would buy
This powerful poem says don’t you dare judge me, while acknowledging that women are collectively struggling in our culture to claim how our bodies are perceived and presented. Greenberg’s poems are often witty, their tone almost analytical. Then, with “Salt in the Wound,” we witness her heartbreaking response to the loss of her child, and we empathize with her—the bon-bon-eating self and the crying one. Greenberg is not immune to this cultural pressure to be thin, all the cultural mechanisms by which women are seen and watched.
The idea of watching and being watched is very prevalent in these prose poems. But being watched isn’t always a bad thing: Greenberg mentions more than once how pleasing it is to know that you are wearing a cute outfit—to see other women in cute outfits, and then exchange compliments with these women.
In the piece “Everyone is Dressed Their Best at the Conference”:
“I like it more if I am noticing what other people are
wearing at the writing conference while I am myself
wearing an outfit that I consider to be very cute
at the same time.”
Greenberg uses “street fashion” and the looks of others to inspire her own look(s), and she is not shy about her affection for the television shows Project Runway and What Not to Wear, vintage fabrics, and the ability to live and work in a location that has good street fashion. Greenberg’s creativity and humor combine in “Advanced What Not to Wear,” in which she images pitching a spin-off show to hosts Stacy and Clinton:
“In my advanced version of What Not to Wear,
people with pretty good fashion sense would get to
ask Stacy and Clinton for advice about very specific
fashion issues or problem spots. For instance, where
can a big-breasted girl go to find shirts that button
up the back, since shirts that button up the front
invariably gap in an appalling manner?”
As we unwrap Greenberg’s journey like gifts, we witness her effort to present herself as interesting, dynamic, and comfortable. We cannot help but feel inspired to rework our own “look.” Greenberg confides that she never stops thinking about her “muse,” a woman she saw at an airport only once. This woman was chic yet comfortable and confident with her family, walking a dog in chunky black shoes. Perhaps striving to be our best, most confident self is the purposeful magic of all clothes. We can thank Greenberg for this reminder.
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of eight chapbooks and two full-length poetry collections forthcoming from Yellow Chair Press and Stalking Horse Press. Her chapbook Clown Machine just came out from Grey Book Press this summer. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Lime Hawk, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, concis, and decomP.