Let me introduce myself as the guest blogger for this week. I grew up in Culver City, an enclave of Los Angeles frequently called the true homeland of the movies because it hosted M-G-M, Selznick, Hal Roach, and other studios. I attended UCLA and Brown, and have taught since 1970 at the University of Michigan, where I have edited Michigan Quarterly Review since 1977. My first two blogs will be movie-and-poetry themed and then I’ll move out to other areas. Reader feedback is welcome!
I keep a folder of poems-since-1994 about the movies. What a huge majority are mournful remembrances of the dear departed! Mark Rudman on Mary Ure. Alexander Theroux on Thelma Ritter. Anne Carson on Monica Vitti (pictured, right). John Yau on Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. Mary Jo Salter on Myrna Loy. Paisley Rekdal on Bruce Lee. Barbara Hamby on Roy Rogers. Reynolds Price on James Dean. (Aren’t Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott ever going to weigh in on Marilyn?) It’s no surprise that poets haunt the Forest Lawn of famous ghosts for their subject matter, since elegy is their business. Still, one wonders about the obsession with celebrity portraiture in so-called contemporary poetry. I mean, haven’t we advanced at all from Vachel Lindsay’s lament for John Bunny in 1915?
I guess not. In a recent essay in Boulevard David R. Slavitt remarks, “What movie stars are for,after all, is to provide an iconography for our private lives. From their enlargements, distortions, and simplifications, we find a kind of clarity.” I find in this statement the kind
of nostalgia that nourishes the century-long tradition of movie-star poems. The movies, even at their most complex, exert a retarding force on the consciousness even of poets. We become juvenile again when watching roles fashioned to aid our regression back to our first love for those large charismatic creatures striding through their transparent plots. So often our manners and tones of speech fall into well-worn patterns, as in most love poems. Shouldn’t we emboss on every DVD the classic formulation for our consumer fantasies of Clarity Regained: “Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”
Poems help us to overcome our vulnerability to star-presence. Poems are the psychological filters that save readers from the nearly overwhelming power of big screens to remake the public imagination. “Panoramic sleights,” Hart Crane called the cinema, as in sleights of mind that leave us craving the deceptive images “hastened to again” because of our manic need for the comfort of the iconic. I endorse David Thomson’s wise entry for Lon Chaney in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, where he remarks that “Hope breeds on the exercised fantasy. Cinema has always depended upon the moment when screen creation and spectator begin to partake of one another.” His claim that the spectator is in fact “the man of a thousand faces,” undergoing endless transformations in a lifetime of moviegoing, applies even more to the poetry reader, who benefits from the checks and balances built into the recurrent experience of reading abstract words on the page. When Frank O’Hara in “To the Film Industry in Crisis” pays homage to, among thirty actors, “Clark Gable rescuing Gene Tierney / from Russia and Allan Jones rescuing Kitty Carlisle from Harpo Marx” the carnivalesque linkage helps to rescue the reader from taking either film, any film, at more than face value. O’Hara demeans his antic poem to break the Medusa gaze exerted by the movie star, all the way from heroic Richard Barthelmess to that dangerous siren, “Elizabeth Taylor blossoming.”
What would a satisfying, mature poem about movie stars look like? Let me try this one on you: Carol Muske-Dukes’s “The Image”:
I turn on the television and he is
there, on-screen, in profile—
turning to stare full-faced at me.
A scripted wind lifts his hair,
he gazes outward and through me.
It seems he is a traveler, bored,
at a cocktail party on a terrace high
above a strange city. A beautiful
woman enters the frame, smiling,
throws her arms around him from
behind. It’s clear now that he is
playing a happy husband or a lover.
He laughs again, gently extricates
himself from her embrace. That
woman holding him holds his life
in her hands, but his life is nothing
more than what he chooses to give her.
An exit line thrown over his shoulder.
A practiced emphatic smile. What he
chooses has in turn been chosen for him.
So later in the script, after they argue
in bed, she stares at the stripes of morning
light falling through the blinds across
his back and knows that he is only there
conditionally—and that the conditions are
not hers. It has been written long ago that he
longs to leave. Still, anyone with eyes could argue
the opposite. He longs to stay. Look at the
unspoken desire—the bands of light tightening
across the body even in its attitude of flight. The
tousled dark hair, the curve of the back, the
powerful muscles unresisting finally, the body
begging to be detained. Even though he sleeps
turned to the wall, she can imagine his
expression: the eyes wide open, perhaps
lit with expectation in that face he shows no one—
hidden from the lens, yet still an object of regard.
“Image” requires us to know that Carol Muske was the wife of the actor David Dukes (not to be confused with white-supremacist David Duke!) and wrote about him memorably before his early death, as in a poem in which she visits him on a movie set and, with a surprising amount of sang-froid, watches him get killed over and over. So when this poem opens “I turn on the television and he is / there” we know immediately who “he” is; not knowing about David Dukes would make this into a different poem. What I admire about “Image” is how the hoary convention of the female poet identifying with the lover of the desirable male actor is refreshed when the actor is, or was, an actual and much-beloved husband; the screen-actress’s erotic regard has a poignant felt reality for the widowed poet. The script may be banal but in its negotiation of the actor’s longing to leave and the longing to stay we eavesdrop on the nuances of the real tensions enacted on the poet’s memory-screen at the same time they are dramatized on the TV screen. Something profound about how the designs of time and fate take harrowing turns in a media culture is being represented. And some reverse form of the Orpheus-Eurydice legend is being adapted for a visual culture. I’m especially moved by “the body / begging to be detained” and the eyes, turned away, “still an object of regard.”
It matters whether you write about a living movie star or a dead one. About an aged one or a vibrant young one. Few poets have the moxie of Diane Wakoski penning infatuated love poems to Tom Cruise. I wrote a poem about Bette Davis after seeing her perform on one of those tours in which she showed clips of her classic films and then answered questions from the audience—an overflow crowd at the Detroit Music Hall. (The poem is in Jason Shinder’s anthology Lights, Camera, Poetry!) Like the inflamed mob who pelted her with flowers and questions, one hurling himself on stage to kiss her hand, I felt a genuine surge of love for this venerable thespian. Seeing her on stage was more intoxicating than watching any of her films. After the poem was published in a journal I sent her a copy with hope against hope that we would begin a long epistolary friendship; but she never replied, cagey cynic that she was. I couldn’t write a poem about her now, nor any deceased actor no matter how beloved in memory.
(Once I wrote an elegy for Bella Darvi, who stirred me powerfully in The Egyptian when I was an early teen. I used the rhyme words of Romeo and Juliet’s first dialogue, but that ingenious scheme would have been lost on Bella, I’m afraid.)
Our rapport with movie stars is one topic, but the more significant one is movies themselves, surely. And that’s the subject of my blog tomorrow.