THE FRINGES OF HOLLYWOOD: Reviewed by Phyllis Williams
What readers may expect from the title and cover of Mary Lou Taylor’s first collection of poems are inside looks at Hollywood’s glamour industry and over-idealized stars. They won’t be disappointed. In lines about Marilyn Monroe in Born at the Age of Nineteen that deal with her transformation from ‘Norma Jean’ to a starlet with a film contract, a ripe peach with a stone core, we see an actress, often considered vulnerable victim, revealed. Not only is she shown as all business and ambition, but as opportunist, happy to use, then forget, those who help her on her way.
In Lady in a Paper Bag Taylor takes us to a contest on a Long Beach pier, the surprise beginning of another superstar:
…Even her legs were movie star legs…
…Even if her agent hadn’t seeded the line-up, she would have won hands down.
The audience chose, clapping politely for each contestant, going wild
when a hand was held over her paper bag. She plucked it off,
dazzled them with her smile, thanked them all in that soft Southern
Ava Gardner drawl.
The Fringes of Hollywood is peppered with fascinating glimpses into lives of the famous, each glimpse written, as the poet Ed Smallfield tells us, in “the language of poetry—authentic, original, insightful, enlightened, and passionate.”
Lines in Fake Blue Sky contrast myth with reality.
Buildings [in Hollywood] like gowns at the Oscars, all show in front
Taylor writes about the tallest set on the lot… a true sky blue…
Coming at it from behind
collapsed the fabrication.
The poem’s conclusion suggests that myth, as opposed to reality, is greatest after all.
The central myth inherent in Fringes seems to be that the book is about Hollywood, its glitz and secrets. In reality, Hollywood is only a backdrop. Behind many attention-getting looks at sets and stars runs the continuous thread of Taylor’s compelling life story. In the book’s first poem, Taking Hollywood by Storm, we see her at the age of eleven, a child of the Depression, driving with her parents from the Midwest to California at a time when Uncle Sam Needs You posters prevailed, gas and tires so scarce the travelers almost didn’t make it. Their car limped into downtown Los Angeles.
In Pleasures of the Exotic, Taylor lets us experience, in masterfully sensual descriptions, what a dramatic change the move represented. There were new Spanish names to pronounce, different styles of dressing, strange foods like artichokes, avocado, and papaya…
…we stumbled over La Jolla
Port Hueneme, Sepulveda.
my mother’s name for Hollywood.
Voluptous bottoms, long bare thighs,
short shorts were not for me.
shaped like a Rubens woman
its color the warmth of the setting sun;
inside, firm flesh, smooth, slippery
its womb black pearls
full of promise
Soon, by means of Taylor’s well-honed, well-crafted narratives, we travel from grade school and trading cards to her first job in a Beverly Hills store that sold Catholic missals and holy cards, then to Ocean Park for a first date with the Jack we meet on Fringes’ dedication page. Next the UCLA Junior Prom where Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty (in La Liz) eclipsed the writer’s and all the other girls. Soon Jack’s proposal, beach scenes with their small children, Taylor feeling old at thirty, the move up north to Santa Clara Valley, more travel—Cabo, Mexico, Antelope Valley, a parrot colony, deep sea fishing, but always, mixed in with movement and change, the writer’s love of art and poetry. In Narrowing Centuries she writes:
In the painting’s background light mist clung
to hills dotted with sheep and the same umbrella pines
that still today line the Appian Way. We narrowed
centuries, detectives eyeing the painting’s perspective…
all the years I studied poetry.
How after awhile I could identify the century
by subject or meter or stanza or rhyme scheme.
Seventeenth century by metaphysical conceit.
Eighteenth by couplet.
On the pages of Fringes are many references to Jack, the husband Taylor is still passionate about decades after that first date poem. In one she catches him dozing at Midnight Mass. In others, Rome and Dorado, she lets readers know that at times her anger at Jack temporarily destroys the fairytale quaility of their love. Aubade, also about Jack, is a poem audiences love to hear Taylor read:
…If my man wants to leave my bed,
I will use every wile I can conceive: fling my arms across
his chest, tell him it’s six o’clock at seven…
…tempt him with tongue—
his ear, his neck, his chest—do whatever comes to mind,
mine or his, to keep him in my bed a little longer.
There are fond memories from her teaching years in To My Students from Mrs. T, visits to a loved aunt in Convalescent Home, then the lonely deaths of her mother and two aunts in Burial Terms:
In the car going home I pull to the curb,
lay my head on the wheel, hold
my own private service.
Perhaps our most vivid reminder of Taylor’s longevity is Fish Out of Water, poignant lines in which she compares herself to a trout that’s been caught by an artificial fly, tossed back in the water, then hooked again.
That’s what I am inside: part titanium
part plastic. Artificial. Fake pieces
in place of joints. I know what being
less than whole can mean, the bafflement
of getting well and having the wellness go,
a fish flopping on a boat’s deck…
Hooks hanging from my mouth.
A hook freshly buried in my side
invites another struggle. Amen.
I’ll break the line again.
But we are not left to despair over the inevitable losses of old age. After she treats us to a long poem in praise of Shirley Temple, Ode to America’s Darling, Taylor ends this collection with happy, rhythmic memories of dancing to Stan Kenton’s band at the Rendezvous Ballroom: I Peel Carrots While Listening to ‘Artistry in Rhythm’:
Watching the blender whirl, I imagine those old
78’s spinning and think how we never know
what can turn out to be important in our lives.
I know now how good that band was, how
great it was to discover the Rendezvous
at that special place and time.
By now I am measuring curry for the soup,
a difficult balancing act what with the moves
my body makes to the rap of the drums.
Mary Lou Taylor is a past master at difficult balancing acts. For years she taught high school, her speech and debate students winning prize after prize. Today she is an advocate for and constant supporter of poets.