Years ago, when President Barack Obama asked composer/director Lin-Manuel Miranda what he was currently working on, he replied, “I’m writing a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton.” Obama, with either a wry smile or a blank look, I forget which, said, “Good luck with that.” This was pretty much my reaction when editors Margo Taft Stever and Susana H. Case told me of their new project, an anthology of poems about American icon, Marilyn Monroe. I knew then that these two poet/editors would pull off this feat, but I didn’t know then how well they would do it. The book, I Want to Be Loved by You: Poems on Marilyn Monroe, is now seeing the light of day and will, I believe, live a long literary life. The anthology adds yet another facet to the vibrant, all too short life of this beloved celebrity and is a superb dipping-into or read-through work depending upon your obsession with the subject.
The MM book (I won’t keep repeating the long title) also has eye appeal, not unlike its subject. The cover image is a Willem de Kooning 1954 oil and charcoal simply named, “Marilyn Monroe.” The cover design and interior layout is by Daniel Beck, all of which add to the visual and literary value of the work. The book, with 156 pages, is published by Milk and Cake Press, out of Hamilton, Ohio.
The MM book begins with a three-page introductory bio-essay by Lois Banner, professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California. This intro creates a solid foundation on which the book stands, although perhaps leaning toward the overly detailed. Still, it’s important for those who have forgotten many of the details of Ms. Monroe’s life, and it becomes a good touchstone/reference point for the poems to follow. Next comes the main event: over 90 poems by nearly as many poets, layering through her life and times like poetic archeologists. What I found fascinating was the wide range of voices and subject matter. The reader bounces back and forth from poems that are critically objective to personal responses to overt Valentine’s to their folk hero. All the poems have a strong point of view and reveal the connections between cosmic concepts and the detailed minutia of a solitary life.
The poets included in the book are indeed wide ranging. We hear from perhaps more recognized literary artists: Gwendolyn Brooks, Frank O’Hara, Sharon Olds, Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath. Interweaving with these are an ensemble of national and international poets, many of whom I know and have published either in Codhill Press anthologies or have been included here in Lightwood magazine. I always like to revisit poet-friends whose work I’ve come to admire such as Ann Lauringer, Sally Bliumus-Dunn, Meredith Trede, Ann Cefola, Karen Neuberg, Jennifer Franklin and Suzanne Sigafoos among others. And now, I’ve read a whole new raft of poets unknown to me until now and whose work holds power on the page. At the end of the book are two pages of notes which the reader may find helpful to further enhance the understanding of the pieces.
The MM book explores nearly every facet of her life—from Norma Jean to the creation of MM, through her filmography, her marriages, her celebrity status and more than a few poems on her last days. Many of the poets create “conversations” with and about her, many create meditations where they gaze into MM to try to find that hidden essence, the thing that kept and still keeps her a mystery and why we can continue to write about her.
I found each poem an interlocking puzzle piece that creates a portrait, one that adds to the extensive gallery that over the decades we’ve come to visit. And to add to the metaphors, and Ms. Monroe certainly can take on more than one, many of the poems reflect her status as the goddess seated at the summit of the American mythological mountain. Maybe the male counterpart on this mountaintop would be Elvis Presley, referred to in one of the poems, although I know I’m opening a debate here. But I never think of these two celebrities as Zeus and Hera: more like Hermes, the trickster and Aphrodite, who first breathlessly sang, “I Want to Be Loved by You.”
Another thought that one of the poems brought up: I remembered a photo of MM sitting outside reading the last few pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It was a wonderful photo and I hope that she got to the end. And then it would have been wonderful to hear her read the Molly Bloom section that finishes Ulysses. Another MM dream to conjure. And this is what the MM anthology does so well, bringing the reader into the MM world, then taking us through that world with poems as guide, signpost, oasis, thrill ride, and nightmare. The book is exhilarating, sad, honest, and strives for the truths that sometimes only poets can tell.
Great thanks must be given to the editors, Margo Taft Stever and Susana H. Case for seeing this book into our hands. Each poem is a diamond in a necklace offered to the memory of Marilyn Monroe. And if “diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” this anthology, I Want to Be Loved by You: Poems on Marilyn Monroe, will become a treasured friend to Ms. Monroe, and for the rest of us, too.