The Short Version: A collection of poems musing on the lives and, in most cases, deaths of actresses – both famous and unknown. It’s also one individual actress musing on fame, life, and art.
The Review: I’ve never been to Los Angeles, but I’ve seen it. Read about it in books – Less Than Zero set any desire I might’ve had back by several years – but those images, too, are forever influenced by the washed out darkness of Collateral or Mulholland Drive. These poems sound like Marilyn Manson’s “Odds of Even” sounds: sodium light, long avenues, the hills just over there.
I know plenty of people who’ve gone to (or come from) LA, though. They’re all fine, or at least as fine as any of us can be in this day and age. Which I suppose goes for Ms. Tamblyn, too. I didn’t expect this collection to be so personal, but it makes sense: after all, she’s an actress who got her start young, who came up through Hollywood without much sense of what the rest of the world looked like. The story goes that she began this collection after Brittany Murphy died, writing a poem about her (it’s one of the strongest poems in the collection, by the way) – and then it took her years to finish because the stories got to her. And in the epilogue, which takes up approximately a third of the collection, you get to see just how much they got to her. There are emails, search-histories, and private recollections that would see strange if you read them out of context but if you read them after reading the preceding poems, they turn the whole collection on its head.
And that’s really the remarkable thing about this collection: its sense of having some unity, some cohering thought that makes it more than just the latest collection of poems from poet X. There’s nothing wrong with that style, of course – it’s what most poets do and frankly it’s probably safer that they don’t all start getting thematic and consider overarching narratives and eventually (GASP) turn into authors. But when it’s done well, like with Saeed Jones’ Prelude to Bruise or this book, the potency of any individual poem is amplified by its surroundings. And it’s not just the poems in the case of this collection but the actual object itself. Some pages are black, others bright yellow, still others a purplish red. There is art spattered throughout, including (rather fittingly) pieces from the aforementioned/referenced Mssrs. Lynch & Manson. (Manson’s, unsurprisingly, accompanies the Sharon Tate poem.) There is a sense of time and care that went into the entire collection that, again, feeds back into the poems and makes all of them crackle louder.
And then there’s the poems themselves. Early on, there’s a poem called “Unnamed Actress” that… I work in theater, I used to (and still occasionally do) act, and I am friends with plenty of actresses… and my heart breaks knowing that that poem could very well be posted on Backstage and nobody would blink.
The poems about the famous deaths – Monroe, Tate, Murphy, Mansfield, Harlow – are handled exactly right: none of them aim for a gaudy recreation, none of them try to capture the character that those women have become in death, but instead they simply consider a moment of life. They humanize. And the reverse is, to some extent, true of the poems about the less-well-known figures: they raise up, put on a level with these near-mythic figures women who you otherwise might never have heard of. Those poems often land with more force than the ‘famous’ ones.
This collection does not feel like any other poetry collection I’ve ever read. I never once felt my English major brain kick in, never found myself marveling at the break of a stanza or the repetition of a sound – but instead found the poems transcending their form in some way. Those moments are there, I have no doubt (even flipping back through just now, I found several), but in the first read they didn’t matter so much because I was engrossed in the feeling, the sense, the heart of it all. And I know I will revisit this collection and perhaps find the heart a little less but the art a little more. I don’t think either way is a bad way to read it and Tamblyn’s talent is all the more impressive for having it both ways at once.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. In the introduction, Diane di Prima suggests that as you read you might get curious about the women referenced here. I can attest that, indeed, you will. You will read this collection and you will wonder about Peg Entwhistle or Laurel Gene. And you will google them. Just like you’ll google Amber Tamblyn, because you will want to see that she is, in fact, okay. And you will take comfort in that – comfort in the knowledge that not all stories have an unhappy ending. It’s the same reason we’re okay with and not laughing at the fact that “Lindsay Lohan” is a blank poem.
Hope. And maybe a little love, too. We idolize and we lionize and we devour these women – but maybe, just maybe, this is a collection that’ll make you pause before we do the same to the next young girl fresh off the bus with dreams of being a star…