Poetry Shelf classic poem: Tate Fountain picks Emma Barnes’s ‘White Tuxedo’


White Tuxedo


I dream of you in a white tuxedo. It is a wedding. It is not our wedding.

But the face that you affix to yourself when you look into me is the face

of the man viewing the woman. Hello this is love. Your square jaw. Your

soft, capable, all knowing mouth. Hello even your bluest and greenest

eyes. Everyone is wearing white. I look down at myself and I am lace over

pearlescent white water wings and I am shaking with adrenaline. We walk

holding hands and you’re a helium balloon I tug to earth with my

unexpected weight. Your hands slip over me. You in a white fitted shirt

with your head thrown back. We lie in bed together wrapped tightly in disbelief.

Some of our best moments were sleeping. Some of our best

moments were only in our eyes. You tilt your head to turn to me and the

whole world follows behind you.


Emma Barnes


The poem was originally published in the journal, Sweet Mammalian 3



Note from Tate Fountain:

I rarely pass specific poems on to friends, despite the amount I read and my general penchant for sharing. ‘White Tuxedo’, however, was immediately dispatched to the other side of the globe: this is a very good poem, I told my best friend, the link attached in a Twitter DM. And it is, of course, precisely that. A very good poem. A bittersweet one, which accomplishes so much in something so seemingly simple.

‘White Tuxedo’ balances the delightful with the devastating, and both elements are augmented for the presence of the other. There is an ease to Barnes’ language, unadorned yet undoubtedly calculated, which lends both to fine poignancy—‘Your/ soft, capable, all knowing mouth’—and to forward propulsion—‘lace over/ pearlescent white water wings […]’. The fourth ‘sentence’, if you will—‘But the face that you affix to yourself when you look at me is the face/ of the man viewing the woman’—pierces. It verbalises a distinct discomfort, and the inescapable air of objectification, that I’ve so often found in ‘heterosexual’ experiences. (This is perhaps furthered by the wedding in the poem, and how pointedly it is not that of the narrator and the subject.) Of course, this line might just as well signal romance to someone else (‘Hello this is love’): perhaps an ode to the archetypes of affection by which they have seen themselves represented. This may be the loving look of literature, of cinema, of song—which is a valid interpretation, and a testament to the multitudes Barnes’ phrasing can contain (though it may also be the kind of feminine subjecthood that Barnes, in penning this particular poem, has explicitly reversed).

What I love most about ‘White Tuxedo’, though, is entrenched in each and every phrase: say it with me, gang—the intimacy of it all. This intimacy is a condition that I’m always looking for in poetry; in art, in life. The knowing of somebody, and an existence shared with them, that cannot be erased by the conclusion of it. The enormity of that understanding; making macro of the minute. Really, I have always had to share this poem just for its final statement, in which Barnes handles the depth of these ideas with sparing, rapturous clarity: ‘You tilt your head to turn to me and the/ whole world follows behind you.’ It’s delicious. It’s immediate, and it’s immense. It says everything it needs to. It’s very, very good.


Tate Fountain is an Auckland-based writer, actor, and academic, whose recent work can be found in Starling, Perception, Gold Hand and MIM. In 2018, she self-published the chapbook Letters, which found readers around the world, and she has just begun a literary newsletter, which she hopes might be read by five people.


Emma Barnes lives and writes Te Whanganui-ā-Tara. She’s working on an anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ writing with co-conspirator Chris Tse. It’s to be published by AUP in 2021. In her spare time she lifts heavy things up and puts them back down again.





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