Beauty Broken and Decamped
The women in Ivy Alvarez’s chapbook Hollywood Starlet (Dancing Girl Press, 2015) have all lost something. Whether it’s their minds, a man, anonymity, peace, or a sense of self or place, it’s not coming back. We feel for their losses, but like any disaster hungry mob, we cannot look away. All of the titles have a name of a “starlet” followed by a word depicting an action of loss. Here are some of the titles: “What Vivien Leigh Dropped,” “What Greta Garbo Offered,” “What Betty Grable Gave.” These women are missing pieces; like the artist Lana del Rey, they embody that idea of “beautiful sadness.” Alvarez captures this theme to a tee in this collection.
In “What Katherine Hepburn Lost,” we are transported into her inner conscious. Alvarez writes:
“Yorkshire. Why’d he bring me here?”
“…How long since I’ve had dirt under my nails?
This pantsuit’s stained with chlorophyll.
Maybe I’ll change. He can’t marry me. I have my role to play—
good time girl and quick repartee doth not fine marriage material make…”
Alvarez’s last lines carry a plea: “Oh Spencer, It’s me Kathy.”
The poem goes from recognizing Hepburn as the quick witted “girl Friday,” the friend, not the lover, and ends in heartbreak; we feel her plain yearning at the end. Alvarez brings out the “Kathy” (vs Katherine) in us, in the wanting what we never seem to get, even though we already seemingly have it all.
Even the elegant and pristine Olivia de Havilland pines silently. She says, “Errol –
please call me Livvie once more.”
In “What Olivia de Havilland Wished For,” the last couplet is:
“I wish for something more than a celluloid kiss,
the mirage of eternity between our lips.”
Alvarez captures the persona of these famous heroines in a few lines of poetry. Olivia de Havilland was classy and perfect, never mussed up. What did this cost her? Alvarez offers us a personality for us to recognize and touch. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction. The poems are emotional truth.
We never know where Alvarez is going to direct us next. These short celebrity poem portrayals are surreal and bizarre. There is a welcome grittiness to some of the poems.
In “What Clara Bow Stole,” we are introduced to an obvious director’s statement when he says “Don’t speak…look pretty.” And Clara is a trouble maker, full of vim and vigor.
“…When I stole
my mother’s coat, after she held that butcher’s
knife to my throat, it scratched like that…
One more bite. Just like her, I’m committed
to my paper bag, my asylum of sweetness.”
This was one of my favorite poems. With Clara Bow, Alvarez draws attention to the fact that these women were forced to fit in a certain mold/persona. The movie production companies controlled them and used them to make a profit. These women fit into boxes of “best friend,” “siren” “ingénue,” “tomboy,” etc. Once the die was cast, no one could escape. These poems offer an escape. Alvarez offers an insight to a different reality for these women. They can escape, leave the set, love someone they are not supposed to. And they do it with tenacity.
In “What Ingrid Bergman Wanted,” we are made privy to Bergman’s thoughts. The actress was always so cool and collected in her films, but Alvarez throws in some grit and immediacy:
In Bergman’s thoughts:
“I spot a chapel in the shade
covered in lichen’s dull brocade.
No-one’s looking at me, kid.
Take a flake of rock, scratch the word
Ingrid into bark, letter by letter.
By the force of my hand.
I might earn permanency.
Let that plane leave without me.”
Alvarez gives Bergman a voice. She isn’t “made” to get on a plane by Humphrey Bogart, the symbol of a masculinity and control. Bergman stays because she wants to stay and maybe she lives in the woods, carves her names into the pines. Other starlets are given a voice as well: Frances Farmer chooses to swallow a chicken fetus whole while living in a foreign country. Rita Hayworth is nostalgic for her childhood, dancing with her father.
The closing poems are a direct line from A to B in terms of “innocent girl” transformed into Hollywood icon. They are “What Marilyn Monroe Ran From,” and “What Norma Jean Became.”
With Norma Jean, Alvarez pointedly describes an insecure girl, seeking validation:
“I’ve trimmed my flesh for muscle…
…becoming more anonymous with every step.”
With Marilyn, she is pursued by a swarm, “a halo of flies.”
“Jackrabbits, ears pricked,
follow me with their eyes.”
Like Ophelia wandering in madness, who takes center stage handing out herbs and flowers in one of her final scenes, she enraptures the audience for a time, steals their hearts.
But then we hear of her death offstage. Only her essence lives on, floats through our memories until the next breath of fresh air, the next live performance.
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of two full length poetry collections (forthcoming.) Her chapbook “Clown Machine” is forthcoming from Grey Book Press this summer. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Freezeray, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, and decomP. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.