Espresso Shots: Beauty Mark: A Verse Novel of Marilyn Monroe, by Carole Boston Weatherford

Small-sized reviews, raves, and recommendations.

Like Elvis, Sinatra, and Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe is an icon. Her status as a pop culture icon obscures the reality of her personal struggles, raw ambition, and preternatural talent. She’s been the subject of countless biographies and several movie biopics. Her image appears in the Edward Hopper Nighthawks parody seen in malls across the country. The visual shorthand simultaneously reduces her and deifies her. She is America’s Venus, inscribed on the pages of the first Playboy and in the masculine imagination as a kind of ur-sex object. But behind the readymade images and mythmaking, who was Marilyn? What’s the story behind the name?

As previous states, Marilyn has been the subject of biographies and movies about her life. Beauty Mark by Carole Boston Weatherford is “A Verse Novel of Marilyn Monroe.” For the record, I had never read any biographies about Marilyn Monroe, so I can’t be an adequate judge in that department. On the other hand, I’m a fan of long-form poetry, including The Iliad, The Odyssey, Paterson, The Cantos, and Drafts. As opposed to a poetry chapbook or poems selected/collected/complete, the long-form poem has its own set of challenges. Beauty Mark is a slim volume, accompanied by two-color photographs. Weatherford has written several other biographies for children on personalities like Billie Holiday, Harriet Tubman, and Fannie Lou Hamer. With Marilyn, Weatherford is in her element and distilling one’s life into the concision demanded by great poetry has proven a success. Beauty Mark operates as an antidote against unwieldy doorstopper biographies and the alleged profundity implied by large page counts.

The verse novel chronicles Marilyn Monroe (neé Norma Jeane Mortenson) through a trouble childhood, multiple marriages, modeling and acting gigs, and her eventual death. Her battles with booze and pills is here, along with marital clashes where feminine domesticity and personal career aspirations fight for supremacy. Midcentury Modern had great interior design, but feminism had yet to emerge from its Neo-Victorian sarcophagus. What was more scary to those manly men: the atomic bomb or an ambitious woman? Behind every man is a woman. Or, a modern modified version: In front of every woman is a goddamn coward. Funny how history can turn presumed gender norms into objects of laughable ridicule. Then again, history has given us a second-rate actor and a ninth-rate reality game show host as president, so who am I to judge?

The poetry itself ranges from long narrative poems to shorter impressionist works. The majority are poems spoken by Marilyn herself. As she struggles to fulfill her childhood dream for greatness, she also struggles for personal agency against parents, spouses, and the larger society.

“Daydreams disregard reality.

Imaginings were my salvation.”

She confronts the frightening consequences of miscarriage:

“Miscarriage Blues: Ectopic Pregnancy, 1957”

The woman I need

most disappoints me over

and over. Mother.

The role I want most

dies inside of me again

and again. Mother.

About those Playboy photos:

Like cats, nude photos have nine lives.

The shots that I was paid fifty dollars for

as a starving starlet twice appeared

in calendars and threatened my budding career.

But I turned what could have been a ruin

into a reward. And I prayed that was the last act.

Then, two years later, the photos, like a phoenix,

rose again — this time in the very very first issue

of a new men’s magazine called Playboy.

The expressions may come across as cliched (cats with nine lives, a rising phoenix, etc.), yet they describe what’s occurring with efficiency and clarity. The photos wouldn’t go away, but this time around they were a benefit not a hindrance.

Overall, Beauty Mark chronicles Marilyn Monroe’s life with a reassuring simplicity and accessibility. This is a poetic biography with no age barriers or the necessity of footnotes. It distills the life of its subject, with all its complexities and contradictions, into an entertaining story. It is emotionally engaging without resorting to the cheaply manipulative stunts so endemic in cinematic biopics. The book is short, but not slight. It is accessible without kowtowing to the lowest common denominator. All in all, it is an enjoyable read.

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