Poetry of Conscience and Witness – Part Two – Amber Tamblyn

American Actress and Poet, Amber Tamblyn in 2015. Photo Credit: REUTERS/Mario

American Actress and Poet, Amber Tamblyn in 2015. Photo Credit: REUTERS/Mario

Some say poetry does not have a role in documenting  and bearing witness to the injustice and suffering in our world. It is not a documentary art, I heard a celebrated poet say at a workshop.Bollocks to that I say. As American poet Carolyn Forche has documented in her anthology, Against Forgetting – Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, poetry of political and social witness is a priceless and needed resource.

Rattle’s weekly poetry contest – Poets Respond – poems based on news of the week is a recent manifestation of greater acceptance of this kind of poetry and resource!And two recent collections by Canadian Sue Goyette and American actress and poet Amber Tamblyn are further additions to this particular poetic library.

(To read my recent blog post on Goyette and her 2015 collection A Brief Reincarnation of a Girl, in Part One of this two part series click here.To read my May 2012 blog post on Tamblyn click here.)

In this part of my two part series, I focus on Amber Tamblyn’s third poetry collection – Dark Sparkler – about the tragic demise of too many of Hollywood’s female stars. Everything about this book makes it an important artifact: its illustrations, its layout, its documentary aspects, (its lists and inclusions of actual emails) but above all the poems that so often read like a knife to the throat, the throat of the author and the reader!

This is what stands out for me in Tamblyn’s latest poetry collection, Dark Sparkler: she writes, not just as an observer but, as an insider, when she documents the gory perils (sometimes literally) of stardom for girls and women. She knows about what she writes. She began her acting career, which so far has garnered her a Golden Globe and Emmy nomination, at age ten.

Here’s Tamblyn’s poem on Lil Tobler a Swiss actress who shot herself in 1975 in front of a painting  by her boyfriend H.R. Giger, a surrealist painter, credited as part of the team that designed the featured alien, in the movie Alien.  Supposedly, according to friends who saw it years later, he kept that painting, holes and blood splatters and all.

Li Tobler

When you find a skull in the woods,
do you leave it alone because it disturbs you
or do you leave it alone
because of what’s still living


Amber Tamblyn from Dark Sparkler, Harper Perennial, 2015

What a disturbing journey Tamblyn takes us on:  the shadow world of Hollywood which won’t be profiled in next Sunday’s Academy Awards – the awful and unglamorous endings of so many female film stars. Some of the profiled stars I knew like Marilyn Monroe, Jane Mansfield and Sharon Tate but far more disturbing is the list of stars who flamed out whose names I did not know, like Li Tobler.

While both Goyette’s and Tamblyn’s books document events our culture might prefer to cover up, to ignore, Tamblyn’s book brings the issue of the downside of stardom up close and personal. She will not let us, consumers of a celebrity culture, forget our complicity in the game.  And as she began to examine the downfall of countless actresses she began her own dark slide. A dark slide she documents in e-mails she sent at the time and in some of the poems:

from the third poem in Epilogue

My childhood neighbourhood is a shrine to my success,
and I’m a car with a bomb inside, ready
to pull up in front of it and stop

Amber Tamblyn from Dark Sparkler, ibid

The book took Tamblyn six years to write and three years into it at age twenty eight, Tamblyn experienced her own dark night. She began to face many of the demons that ultimately destroyed the actors she profiles in her poems.

This is how she describes this time in her commencement address to Chapman University in 2014:

At this point in my life, I couldn’t get a job, I couldn’t finish my book about the dead actresses, I couldn’t stop drinking, and I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I didn’t even know I was in a tunnel.

In her first poem in her Epilogue, she includes a poem with every line crossed out except this one: The author died/ during the writing of this book. She explains the truth of this utterly unexpected line in a recent interview with Rachel Matlow. To read this 2015 interview in The Believer click here.

Dark Sparkler is my death on paper. It is the death of my twenties. It is the death of the person who had no boundaries. It was the death of somebody who didn’t believe in herself, who didn’t think she was good enough, who didn’t think her poetry was good enough, who didn’t think she was good enough to direct a film. That I should just audition for the rest of my life and get plastic surgery and that was the ultimate outcome of anything I had to contribute: this book is the death of that person. That person died. This is sort of the invitation to the funeral. Which to me is a total celebration.

The ironic power of Tamblyn’s collection for me is that as she documents in poetry the tragedy of so many female actors she begins her own descent but then reverses course and finds healing and her own redemption which she also recounts  as her revelation in her commencement address to Chapman University:

On the other side of this time in my life came revelation. Yeats once said, “In order to be reborn, you must die first.” I realized that all along, what I had craved and explored indeed was happening right before my very eyes. Le Petit Mort. A Small Death. A part of me was dying, like shedding skin. I realized that life would forever be a series of shedding skins, some more painful than others…….

My revelation was that I had earned the right to rest. That life, or God, or Jay Z, was going to make me take a breath, no matter what I thought I wanted, or what was good for me. I had earned the right to let a part of me die and be reborn.

Since my revelation, I’ve completed that book about the actresses and found new avenues and ways in which I can love the experience of acting again. I got married. I’m directing my first film next year.

What a journey. Here now is the first poem she wrote for Dark Sparkler. The poem that set her on a journey through Hollywood’s underworld. About  Brittany Murphy, star of numerous movies including Clueless, who according to the official report, died of  accidental causes ( pneumonia and anemia, exacerbated by the mixture of over-the-counter cold medications) at age 32 in 2009. To make her story even stranger I have read reports that her husband died five months later of the same accidental causes.

Brittany Murphy

Her body dies like a spider’s.

In the shower,
he blooming flower
seeds a cemetery.

A pill lodges in the inner pocket of her flesh coat.
Her breasts were the gifts of ghosts.
Dark tarps of success.

Her mouth dribbles over
onto the bathroom floor.
Pollack blood.

The body is lifted off the red carpet,
put in a black bag,
taken to the mother’s screams
for identification.

The Country says good things
about the body.

They print the best photos;
the least bones, the most peach.

Candles are lit in the glint
of every glam. Every magazine stand
does the Southern Bell curtsy
in her post-box office bomb honor.

The autopsy finds an easy answer.
They say good things about the body.

How bold her eyes were, bigger than Hepburn’s.
The way she could turn into her camera close-up
like life depended on her.

Amber Tamblyn from Dark Sparkler, ibid

Here is how Tamblyn describes writing this poem in a blog post on Poetry’s Harriet blog in 2010:

I think about how lost and alone this place can make people feel- how isolated. The secret epidemic of pill popping that occurs in Hollywood to survive the superficiality and the rejection. The way in which this town can so easily unravel the most beautifully woven. I wrote a small poem for Brittany a few days after her death. It’s not meant to amaze you, I don’t expect this board to go bananas over it. I just wanted to share the instantaneously complex feelings of one young actress who was born here, about another young actress who died here. To share for sharing’s sake.

What a dark gift Tamblyn delivers us. Behind the glittering images we support on screen lies a more disturbing tale: how the star-making machine takes its toll on so many of its glitterati. The pressures the system and our support of it puts on its players, especially women like Tamblyn who had her own fall but blessedly for us, lived to tell the tale.

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