Lady Be Good

By Lauren Hilger


October 2016

Reviewed by Caroline Crew


Lauren Hilger’s debut collection, Lady Be Good, slips on the sumptuous glamor of Hollywood’s Golden Age like a fur coat. Soaked in black and white tones and red lipstick, these poems constantly find themselves backdropped by classic cinema, but Hilger’s collection goes beyond its scenery, writing into and out of classic films and the cultural nostalgia they evoke.

Hilger’s dense and linguistically twisted poems drip with a certain kind of glamour, the glamour of "Mink lashes, foxfur, dropwaist, a curl to the cheek." Swathed in furs, draped in "Giotto blue gowns," asking "Who will buy you yachting clothes?" What’s fascinating about the continued engagement with this specific kind of luxury, the things we put against our skin to feel lavish, is that their sensuality is always shadowed by the threat of imposition. The body suffocated by external objects, or the costume, or the performance forced upon the body, the poems’ speakers fracturing underneath their gowns. As the speaker of "The Seven Year Itch (1955)" notes, "really / the whole costume was lipstick, believe me I bled nowhere / anyone could see not even me."

The language play at work here serves to emphasize the sensuality conjured with this luxury. As with the collection’s captivation with costumes, this playfulness walks the fine line between play and threat, as in "It Sails Off": "When lightning / goes inside you / it doesn’t come out, // a decentering / decanter." Formally, Hilger’s dexterous use of white space allows such tensions to resonate fully. While the ranging lines are occasionally disrupted by the formal play of double columns or the block of a prose poem (which sadly the printing makes fuzzy) it is Hilger’s long lines that really let the expanse of her mind shine. In "As Vera-Ellen," for example, the long, caesuraed lines that stand out from the poem’s shorter, sparser lines draw attention to the weight of silence in performance, bringing the reader to question the own pressure they bring to the text:

I stand astonished       as if someone
Suggested my line.

We’d done all this training
In January’s Chinatown,
Frost scraping my limbs. 

The specificity of reference here—the many, many movies from The Seven Year Itch to On the Town to A Fool There Was—may alienate a reader if these poems were interested in a purely representative ekphrasis. Instead, Lady Be Good takes Hollywood’s Golden Age as a framing device, a jumping off point. The collection’s opening poem, "The Announcement," cracks open this framing: "I found myself coming into the hall with a role you’ve been asking me to accept." Setting up the lyric speaker as the actress unlocks Lady Be Good’s use of persona, and animates the cinematic framework. Instead of mere portraits of these silver screen sirens, these cinematic speakers continually reform this overarching figure. Each actress’ performance cracks open further the space between role and player that these poems inhabit. And perhaps the persona poem is out of fashion, but Hilger makes them look damn good.

These personas play with their performative aspect to strain and shatter their glamourous façade, pushing the reader to question what’s underneath, as in "As Tolstoy’s Natasha on the Hunt." Here, the speaker asserts her presence—"I, Natasha, am one who / removes her fur blind periphery"—only to then remove the poem’s artifice entirely: "Remember, / I am not there." The personas at work in Lady Be Good allow the poems to rewrite classic cinema, allowing their actresses to speak. In "As Vera-Ellen" the speaker, drawn from the 1940s musical On the Town, aches to inhabit a voice of her own: "Stage lights, then nothing. // My tongue in the bare cup of my mouth // like a dancer with a marble hall to fill." The recurring figure of the actress, and her many incarnations throughout the movies referenced, perform to exceed the sum of their parts. The chorus of voices that build throughout Lady Be Good create harmonies, rather than obscure each other.

There is an acute awareness of the problems of cultural nostalgia as fetish, here. Occasionally, Hilger breaks the glamorous spell, as in "Telephone Wire Ring," which opens, "Reversibly sad. / Fold my laptop, send it down the river." Moves like this pierce this veil to bring us back to the contemporary moment, furthering Lady Be Good’s insistence on looking through the glamourous façade in order to question exactly how that smokescreen is made. Similarly, it’s noticeable that the figures of allusion here—Tolstoy, Duchamp, Nietzsche, Wilde, Cezanne, Descartes, Kant—belong to a traditional, and exclusively male, category. In juxtaposing these elevated figures with the hidden voices of the actresses behind their big screen roles, Hilger reforms the question of who is speaking to the question of who is permitted to speak for themselves.

As Lady Be Good closes, the personas of the silver screen give way: "I take credit for your beauty, / as if I grew it myself." Lady Be Good is certainly a beauty in its smearing of Hollywood’s red lipstick, and unquestionably the result of Hilger’s singular voice.