Lulu in Hollywood

Louise Brooks was an actor who could write, or perhaps a writer who could act. At any rate, she was an artist (also dancer!) and she left behind this collection of memories that is well worth a read. Stories of dancing in New York City in the 1920s, getting lavish presents from rich men (converting real jewels into cash and fake jewels so they were none the wiser, “ours was a heartless racket”), resisting the pull to Hollywood but finally caving and making some pictures under contracts she deemed slavery. Louise was a reader all her life, surrounded by books, reading Schopenhauer on the set, an anomaly in the world of acting.

Wondering to herself why she hadn’t written about her good friend Pepi Lederer, Maron Davies’s niece, she goes to her shelf and pulls out an old dictionary whose flyleaves were covered with pasted quotes from Goethe: “For a man remains of consequence not so far as he leaves something behind him but so far as he acts and enjoys, and rouses others to action and enjoyment.”

Hollywood and celebrity do find her. She spends weeks as a guest of Hearst in San Simeon, ends up divorcing her director husband Eddie Sutherland and fooling around with the Redskins owner George Marshall who likes her for her mind. “He understood my passion for books, which has made me perhaps the best-read idiot in the world.”

There’s a section on Humphrey Bogart, one on W.C. Fields, one with Lilian Gish and Greta Garbo. She dishes on what it was like to work with Wallace Beery (dreamy) and admits to sleeping with her stuntman. She muses on all the horribleness of the studio system, contracts locking you in and forcing you to do bad movies. She ultimately refuses her new contract which had a huge pay cut when talkies were coming into their own, got blacklisted from Hollywood. Later she’s invited to write about films and later still she’s visited by college boys in the 1960s who expect her to be thankful that they’re remembering her and wouldn’t she just write their paper for them for film school.

“As a loner, I count as my two most precious rights those that allow me to choose the periods of my aloneness and allow me to choose the people with whom I will spend the periods of my not-aloneness.”

I wish she’d left us more words.

Scarlet Tanager

After I read Bernadette Mayer’s poem, Politician (“It seems to us you convert your farts into speeches”), I immediately headed to the library to pick up the collection of her poetry that includes that one. Oh wonderful Dewey Decimal system, I parked in the 811.54s and went to town, greedily grabbing all of her work and snooping to see what else looked good.

I have a love/hate relationship with poetry and it’s mostly been hate for some reason (Muriel Rukeyser has some thoughts about that if I ever get around to finishing her book and posting it). But it’s the perfect form for today’s attention deficit. Have 60 seconds? Read a short poem instead of 10 tweets. Such as Grow Up, which has some great advice for poets:

i don’t know what to do next, this/is not how anyone should feel, most/bad poetry is badly thought through, it’s/terrible because it’s chaotic, whenever/you read it you feel full, actually/you should feel hungry when you read poetry, it’s like/an amuse-bouche at best, someday/you will have the main course, but/if the poem’s short & excellent, probably/you won’t need it, this/poem will drag on forever, rendering/you full as a whale’s brain, full/as the stupid future, however/you may take a shortcut, hit/on some beauty, maybe, probably/just homework, drudgery/making you feel the sink is full, you/have nothing to eat, why/don’t you just watch goldfinches?

Book of Mutter

I will read every book that Kate Zambreno publishes, but this will not be one of my favorites (that honor goes to Heroines and Green Girl). I’m just not a sucker for the drama of the mother-daughter relationship, with the daughter left scurrying about trying to make sense of it all in the aftermath of death.

But once again she’s introduced me to a whole cast of characters, weaving in Louise Bourgeois into the story, reminding me of Henry Darger, and creating a compelling tale through sparse, tight, poetry.

This roll call cuts straight to the chase. I’m never going to turn my back on anyone who name checks Valerie Solanas, Virginia Woolf, Chantal Ackerman, Shulamith Firestone, Sylvia Plath, and Zelda Fitzgerald:

All the women Louise Bourgeois collected like these fragile glasses, women I also collect, fictional and fictionalized, that I abandon myself to in acts of intense research and investigation—Anne Sexton, Antigone, Marilyn Monroe, Medea, Ophelia, Cassandra, Sylvia, Virginia, Zelda.

Addendum: Barbara Loden, Nella Larsen, Diane Arbus, Shulamith Firestone, Valerie Solanas, Susan Sontag, Kathy Acker, Chantal Ackerman, Louise Brooks.

Any woman remote and unknowable. Any woman furious and desperate. I collect them for my mantle.

In her acknowledgements, she mentions that while she was finishing up the book (it lingered over 10 years), she found out she was pregnant. I hope that this addition to her life does not take her or her intensity away.

The Helens of Troy, New York

I love this idea! Bernadette Mayer wraps her poetry skills around an investigation of all the women named Helen who live in Troy, NY. She interviews them, photographs them, then writes their poems. Some are hardcore sestinas or villanelles, others merely meander.

My favorite was that of Helen Crandall Whalen, a looping villanelle. What’s that, you ask? Officially it’s a French poem highly structured with five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas. Bernadette flexes it up a bit.

Helen Crandall Whalen Villanelle

everybody died
i’m learning to control my temper
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

there were cameras in the store
i don’t have to look
everybody died

one helen’s enough, trust me
i love reading books
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

people think i’m stupid
i went to proctor’s theater
everybody died

there’s nothing more to say
my hair’s braided like a family
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

if you did something wrong, they punished you
one helen is enough, trust me
i don’t have to look

she was mean
she didn’t like any of the crandalls
one helen is enough, trust me

i had to clean other people’s houses
for a dollar a day
my hair’s braided like a family

if you did something wrong, they punished you
one helen is enough, trust me
i don’t have to look

she was mean
she didn’t like any of the crandalls
one helen is enough, trust me

i had to clean other people’s houses
for a dollar a day
my hair’s braided like a family

i’m 66 & smart as a whip
they’d call me the orphan-brat
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

when you’re an orphan you do anything
i went to proctor’s theater
i’m learning to control my temper

it’s been rough
my favorite color’s maybe yellow
everybody died
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues

This is the type of book that gives me nightmares. It hovers in mediocrity with brief flashes of insight, and my greatest fear is that my own writing falls into this tepid category. I’d rather not be published than to be allowed to put something like this out.

The book has every indication that it’d be up my alley—it’s a book about her (Pamela Paul’s) lifelong journey through reading, centered on a notebook she’s kept from 1988 where she enters the book titles she’s read. Sounds familiar, but she abandoned the idea of recording her thoughts about the books and only lists titles. Is that really useful? Unfortunately, the flaccidity of the story proves that it takes more to being a solid writer than hoovering up books for decades. There goes my lifelong preparation, guess I’ll have to start pushing the pen across the page instead.

We have several things in common—a likelihood of mispronouncing words we’ve only seen in print, dubbed “mumblenyms” by Liesl Schillinger); the realization that the more you read the more you realize remains to be read and the more that you’re aware of not having scratched the surface; the fact that being told “you should read this book” is never as simple as it sounds (and most likely not advice to be taken).

Pamela’s life is sliced and diced into chapters, overlain on a particular book’s theme. Not all lives are worthy of this dissection, and I yawned reading the cliché of her Southeast Asian travel years to boring first marriage to dull rebound relationships to even duller second marriage with family life. She read Hunger Games. I should have thrown it down at that point. (And hasn’t read Ulysses.)

She’s the editor of the NYT book review, the only part of the Sunday Times that I immediately recycle, which should have been a red flag for me and made me avoid this book. Alas.