An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe by Heidi Seaborn (Pank Books 2021) is an eclectic homage to Marilyn Monroe, who Seaborn draws from as “the most enduring, consistently iconic celebrity to inhabit” in her examination of celebrity culture. Through persona poems, the “real” Marilyn Monroe who neither wants to be possessed nor saved “from other/ men” emerges, and we see beauty in her resilience and grit.
At night, Marilyn becomes Norma Jeane behind the veneer of glamor. The poetry collection begins with “Insomnia Diary,” where the speaker’s dependence on Ambien immediately blends the skylight and the moon’s neon fog. This prologue poem, or proem, is immediately followed by “Marilyn” and “I see her everywhere—” which presents the casts of Marilyn, at once easy to define (as an object of desire), but at once also undefinable (as the performer behind the act). Seaborn presents Marilyn as seen from the male lens: as a carefully packaged gardenia, a pinup model on a potato sack in a cowboy bar in Wyoming, as potatoes to be cooked, sliced open, and devoured, and as the delicious raspberry on Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, 1967.
What Seaborn is adept at achieving through the unfolding of her collection and the different Marilyns beyond the male gaze is icon that sees in addition to being seen, and who talks back with sass in addition to following the script. The result is a fully fleshed out character who we know performs for the male gaze. A Marilyn whose signature is sexually attractive, glamorously blond, and naïvely available. This performance is beset by the historical and current sexual violence faced by many American women: the real Marilyn Monroe was forced to choose between marriage at 16 or being sent to an orphanage. Seaborn notes one in sixteen women’s first sexual experience is rape. The solitude at night gives Marilyn the time and space to point the readers to moments of great elucidation and poignancy in her dreams of what she was and what she wants to be.
In the “11:24 p.m.” of “Hello it’s Me, Marilyn,” for instance, Marilyn speaks to her late mother:
from up in the fig tree?
You wore lemon yellow.
Hear them sing—
Marilyn presents her signature dyed blond hair marketed for recognition and male consumption in an entirely novel way. She remembers the lemon yellow of her mother’s dress, and Norma Jeane sits atop a fig tree, the biblical tree which resulted in humankind’s descent to earth. Thus, Norma Jeane listens to the singing in the flickering wings of the bees, the drive behind the performed act of flying and gathering honey. This “baptism,” in turn, to fame, is achieved with a sleight of hand, where Norma Jeane presses “her cheekbones into stones.”
This stillness of Marilyn at Seaborn´s most lyrical contrasts with the great agitation and jumpiness of the abecedarian form, which runs from A to Z. Seaborn explains the abecedarian poetic form as a parallel to how she would practice counting from A to Z with categories of things as a means to fall asleep in real life. Marilyn (the speaker) drifts back and forth between an assertion of the self and great vulnerability. The great vulnerability is uncovered through the derogative and explicit words that the internalization of male objectification to the domain of the subconscious of the speaker. Thus, in the poem “All I Ever Wanted,” the speaker’s mind darts from “An ermine-lined raincoat & a pocketbook/ of Barbiturates taken by handful, washed down/ with Champagne” with “I love Doctors too. A doctor a day makes the sad/ go away./ Everything.”
The image of a female speaker restrained by social norms is developed by Seaborn in “There Was No Honeymoon” and “Four Days at Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, 1961.”
In the first poem, the breakage of the form shovels deep down into the psyche of the female speaker who speaks:
he drew a blank
page from his
knew to bury
& go back to work.
The column, literally right-aligned shows how Marilyn cannot escape from the script of gender roles and norms even as she emerges as the larger-than-life actress. Thus, just as Marilyn performs from a script. Just as the historical Marilyn added the sentence “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it” in Gentlemen Prefer Dumbs (Banner 2012, p. 201), in the latter poem, the speaker points out to how “men are climbing to the moon but they don’t seem interested in the beating heart” of the woman on her third marriage. This paradox is further developed through the epistolary, phone calls, and conversations between Marilyn and her “love” (husbands and other men), Marilyn, the speaker, and Judy Garland, and the doctors who prescribed her the barbiturates. Seaborn powerfully brings out new resonances in the power dynamics between Marilyn performing on and off script, Marilyn and the men around her (doctors, directors, moviegoers). She does so by pointing to not only the ridiculousness of blonde (the most obvious reference to the stereotype of Marilyn Monroe as the “blonde dumb girl” that she performs) but also to the color of Andy Warhol’s pop (raspberry blush) and an imagination of what color can mean in the poem, “Loss.” In “Loss,” Seaborn leads the reader in a sequence where the color of the sea, my house, worry, quiet, mourning, smoke, envelope face after death, seagull flapping its wings into the color of winter transforms in the absence of color, coloring Marilyn. I am left thinking about Marilyn in terms of what she is (“Taking directions”) and what she is not (the interiority behind her presence). I will be thinking of Seaborn’s Marilyn at night for some time to come.
Tiffany Troy is a critic, translator, and poet.