Drunk on truth to stupid baby power.

PJ Harvey #14: “Pocket Knife”

Uh Huh Her

This is a continuation of the PJ Harvey Tuesday series started at the Rumpus. You can see the Rumpus installments here and the rest of the Tusk installments here.

I’ve known since I was a teenager that I didn’t want to get married or have kids. Nearly everyone has told me I’ll change my mind, but as I get closer to thirty, that sort of life only sounds worse and worse. It was all so hypothetical when I was younger, but now my Facebook feed is congested with photos of bridesmaid dresses and squinting newborns. People actually expect me to do these things now, and they want to know why I haven’t yet.

But every time I see yet another friend blogging about how marriage is “hard but worth it” less than a year after her wedding date, I think what a lovely, golden slice of luck it is that after seven years with my boyfriend, five of those cohabitating, my relationship is the easiest thing about my life. No subconscious ideas about being a “good wife” have ever tricked me into doing more than half of the housework. No marriage license has ever locked me into decades of misery the way it did with my parents.

There’s still time for me to change my mind, and maybe I will. I did have a dream about marrying my boyfriend a few weeks ago. I was wearing a brown dress and weeping, “I don’t want to be a wife.”

***

Track four on PJ Harvey’s 2004 album Uh Huh Her starts with these lyrics:

Please don’t make my wedding dress
I’m too young to marry yet
Can you see my pocket knife?
You can’t make me be a wife

Significantly, it’s titled not “Wedding Dress” but “Pocket Knife.”

Like the rest of the album, it’s a minimalist, pared-down song—just guitar, tambourine, and reedy vocals begging the narrator’s mother to “put your needle down” and stop sewing the narrator’s wedding dress because “I don’t want to be tied down” (and if anyone tries to force the matter, “my pocket knife’s got a shiny blade”).

***

The day after my dream about getting married, I went over to my mom’s house for brunch. She’d told me she had a dress for me to try on; we wear the same size, so I often get hand-me-downs from her. But when she showed me the dress in question, I was confused. “When would I ever wear a formal white gown like this?” I asked.

“Maybe just when you get married,” she said. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I was looking at an actual, literal wedding dress, which she had tried on for her own upcoming wedding but decided against.

“But I’m not getting married,” I said.

“Never?”

Mummy, put your needle down.

I stepped into it with a superstitious sense of terror, as if without careful resistance, just wearing the dress would transform me into a married woman. Thankfully, it didn’t quite fit (too tight around the ribs), but my mom told me I looked just as beautiful in it as she thought I would. Which is sweet. But it didn’t look that good on me—not as good as, say, my favorite little black dress. And in the mirror, I didn’t look like a bride. I looked like I was playing dress-up in my mommy’s clothes. Which I was.

I imagined having to wear that dress for a whole day, and how everyone would feel obligated to tell me how pretty I looked, and how I was supposed to dream about this day my whole life, how everything was supposed to lead up to this perfect day where everyone would tell me I was pretty, and in fact that was what would make it perfect, because what higher honor could there be for a woman than for everyone she knows to gather around her and tell her how pretty she looks?

***

Harvey is rarely, if ever, the narrator of her own songs, but it’s worth noting, in the context of “Pocket Knife,” that she’s never been married or had kids. In an interview in 1995, when she was the age I am now, she said she loved children—“I want twenty, now. I really do…I’d want them to interfere with my work. They would be my work”—but that she wouldn’t consider having them unless she were married.

Ten years later, when Uh Huh Her came out, she’d changed her stance: “It’s not something I think about. If it happened to me, it would happen. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I don’t feel a maternal longing. Some people do. I don’t… My brother has four children so I think maybe he’s done my quota as well for the family.”

Today, ten years after that, she’s had plenty of boyfriends—most (in)famously, Nick Cave—but never a husband.

Not a wedding dress.

Not a wedding dress.

It can be difficult for women in our twenties to picture our futures when most movies and TV shows only show us middle-aged women as wives and mothers. When adults ask little girls what they want to grow up to be, we expect them to say things like “the president,” or, I don’t know, maybe “editor of the New York Times.” Then it turns out those lives aren’t really open to women yet, and what everyone really wants to know when little girls are older is: Has he proposed yet? Did he ask your father for permission? And oh my God, you’re keeping your last name? Is he okay with that?!

If you plan to abstain from marriage and children, role models in their forties and fifties are hard to come by. Can I still go to rock shows and dive bars twenty years from now? Can I still go to readings and perform work I’ve written? When I look at PJ Harvey, I think yes and yes and yes.

***

My mom got married this past weekend. She wore a silver dress instead of a white one, and she looked beautiful, but then, she always looks beautiful. I like her new husband, and I’m glad they’re happy together and taking the path they want to take.

But when I think about going through any of it myself—the vows, the cake, the guests—I feel my body rebelling against the idea on an almost cellular level, with a fight-or-flight adrenaline rush. That line was thrumming in the back of my head the whole night, as it does whenever this topic comes up: You can’t make me be a wife. I don’t have a shiny-bladed pocket knife to prove my point, but I have a PJ Harvey song, which I think is close enough.

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2 Responses to “PJ Harvey #14: “Pocket Knife””

  1. Hugh Man

    I knew a couple that cohabitated for 5 years and only married he had excellent insurance through his work and she might just get eaten alive by medical costs otherwise. They got married in a court room and couldn’t help but notice how absolutely nothing was actually changed by their marriage certificate. It really is a pointless ritual, marriage.

    Reply
  2. PJ Harvey Tuesday #15: “Dress” | The Tusk

    […] Last PJ Harvey Tuesday, I wrote about “Pocket Knife,” in which the narrator begs her mother, “Please don’t make my wedding dress” because “I’m too young to marry yet.” It’s a relatively late-era song, off Harvey’s 2004 album Uh Huh Her, but dresses have been troubling her lyrics since much earlier. […]

    Reply

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