Myra Malkin’s Sunset Grand Couturier
Review by Hilary Sideris
Sunset Grand Couturier, published by Broadstone Books in 2022, is Myra Malkin’s second poetry collection. Her first, No Lifeguard on Duty (2010), won Main Street Rag’s Author’s Choice Chapbook Prize. Though not “formal” poetry, Malkin’s free verse lines do scan. Weighty, witty, dark, fact-filled, and referential (Sunset Grand Couturier comes from the last line of an Ezra Pound Canto), these poems reckon with illness, grief, and loss. But it might be more accurate to say that the poems in this collection enact— sometimes quite entertainingly—the poet’s relationship with death.
“Wallis-Wallace,” whose epigraph, “How many women have covered themselves in dew?” comes from Wallace Stevens’s “The Man on the Dump,” is addressed to the poet’s husband, whom she finds in bed “with a coffee-table book . . . about Wallis Simpson’s jewelry” during the couple’s stay at an inn. Her husband then reads her lists of the Duchess of Windsor’s adornments:
The diamond and onyx panther,
the crystal tableau.
Dump-glitter. Ruin’s armor. Stones,
Happening upon a large book of ugly jewelry evokes Stevens’s: “Ho-ho…The dump is full/ Of images” and the poet eagerly follows Wallace (and Wallis) to the top of the heap: “You weren’t very interested in jewelry,” she tells her beloved—who is no longer among the living—“but you were a minutiae-collector—/ you liked fact-baubles.” Wit, and a sense of the absurd, take the edge off grief as the poet recalls the star her departed was proud to have received as a child for “Current Events”: “Where you are now, though/ there aren’t any current events. No there there.” Alas, whether we cover ourselves with dew, royal jewels, or fact-baubles, Malkin reminds herself and us, in the end we all go ignominiously into The the, the no there there.
Malkin’s metrical virtuosity and wordplay are on display in the poem “I Hate to Give Up on Euphoria Altogether, So I’m Not a Good Buddhist.” The title is a quotation from Rudy Burckhardt, a Modernist photographer of urban life in New York. As the poet observes garden supplies and Buddhist-inspired statuary at a lawn store, she finds herself contemplating the meaning of maya in Buddhism— ignorance, illusion, a veil that covers reality. Employing the spondee, a metrical stress-stress foot used by the likes of Keats to express strong emotions, Malkin turns tradition on its head as she enumerates “feed bags, pitchforks, lawn-care products . . .” Agway itself is a spondee! Recalling the story of Mara, who tempted the Buddha under the Bo Tree (more spondees), the poet declares: “Maya: Illusion, world stuff—gotta love it!” The final image is a lacquered Buddha in Lotus position, leaning against a tree trunk: “Chipped pink paint. Sans head.” What better way to lament (or celebrate) the failure to give up on euphoria altogether?
In “Brother-Animal,” the poet (or protagonist, the poem being in the third person) rushes down Bleecker Street, and her eye is caught by “a sidewalk selling-table./ A dune of handbags, drawstring pouches, wallets—/ of zippered purses cut from carpet-fabric.” Contained in these lines is a series of compound nouns whose Anglo-Saxon heft pulls the protagonist —“an addict/ of containers”— toward them. A new handbag, perhaps, could contain the burden of time’s passing? But then she notices the misspelled sign—“As if it were an injury, unbandaged”— and the veil is lifted. She now sees the seller as a “shortish, not-young man/ behind his home-made sign.” He seems to become a mirror of her most feared self:
…what she might be
if solid ground gave way.
(Of what she will be
when solid ground gives way).
against hope, this seller—
The misspelling forms a crack in the illusion created by the impulse to acquire, and now the speaker is left with the knowledge of her impending disintegration. Indeed, there is something horrifying in the words: “I MAKE IT/ ALL MYSELVE.”
In “Too Many Waltzes Have Ended,” also a quote from Wallace Stevens, Malkin employs the dactyl—the three-syllable long-short-short foot used by Homer, Virgil, and Tennyson to recount grand, heroic events. But Malkin’s is a different kind of hero, or heroine, a woman she remembers from her youth. This was her father’s secretary, Miss Elo. “Elo, she liked to be called. / Plump-cheeked, theater-going, gallantly unmarried/ she lived on Perry Street in Greenwich Village.” Elo was the giver of a wedding present the poet kept for years, even after her husband died and she got rid of the clutter purchased by her “youthful, acquisitive self . . .” Elo (perhaps a shortened form of the dactylic name Eleanor) sent the poet’s dying mother “knobbly branches, floweret-stippled . . . And just a few years later she too died.” The items acquired by her youthful self at Macy’s basement or Zabar’s are described by the poet in dactyls: cutting boards, roasting pans,/ canisters, pepper mills, muffin tins.” The gift from Elo, a stainless steel roasting pan, is dishwasher-safe and practical—perfect for making a simple meal of melted cheese with Worcestershire on toast for one. The poem concludes with the line: “I kept it when I moved/ – a widow platter.” There is wisdom in knowing what to keep, and a quiet heroism in learning how to live alone.
In the sonnet-like “I Want I Want for Ever and Ever,” whose title is a quote from John Arden, the poet tells us how, as a small child, her daughter figured out a way to make time stop by having her mother read her a bedtime story again. The poem is fittingly in the present tense and the language is simple, with deft repetitions that evoke a lullaby or tale for a child. The little girl commands time like a princess in a palace. The mother indulges her “imperious” desire to hear the story “twice or even three times—/ each sameness like a promise that’s unbroken.” The limpid language and the rhyme of sameness and promise—a rhyme in both sense and sound—have the musical power to allay the fear that her daughter already knows, or somehow senses:
that time will repossess
the child’s carte blanche, her cornucopias.
But now, in her sleepy palace
she has it in her power
to make the present last—and last—and last.
The tension lies in the seeming simplicity and contentment of this moment, which is undercut by the poet’s preoccupation with time’s passing. For the duration of the poem, worry is kept at bay. This brief mother-daughter joy is celebrated as the poem ends on the daughter’s command: “Read it again!” Reading (and rereading) “I Want I Want for Ever and Ever” is a full-body experience, as Keats said a poem should be—not something to work out, but something to immerse ourselves in sonically and emotionally. As readers, we, too, luxuriate in this state of grace.
The poem “Is’t Not Fine to Dance and Sing While the Bells of Death Do Ring?” showcases Malkin’s musicality as well as her whimsically frenetic brand of joie de vivre. The poem revolves around the experience, or “body-hubbub,” of eating chorizo con chocolate. The poet’s use of consonance (chorizo con chocolate and the repeated s-words) induce salivation:
–thin thumb-shaped sausage slices;
. . .
And the dead
with their memory-switchblades
go wait by the door
–there’s too much now for them:
these short-lived scalding
of the senses.
The rhymes and half-rhymes (spread/dead; Hungerer/ terror/door) give the poem a song-like yet doomful feel. Indeed, the poem’s title, a rhetorical question, comes from an Elizabethan song. The sensory enjoyment is intense enough to keep the poet (and reader) completely in the moment: “There’s no one here but Self— / the Hungerer.” Malkin’s poems affirm that indeed, it is fine to dance and sing while the bells of death ring.
Copyright ©2023, by Hilary Sideris. All Rights Reserved.
Hilary Sideris is the author of Un Amore Veloce (Kelsay Books 2019), The Silent B (Dos Madres Press 2019), Animals in English (Dos Madres Press 2020), and Liberty Laundry (Dos Madres Press 2022.) She lives in Brooklyn. She spent most of May at La Casa Grande, a writers’ retreat in Evia, Greece.