D.A. Prince reviews Hollywood or Home by Kathryn Gray (Seren, 2023)
There is something satisfying about seeing a pamphlet expand into a full-length collection. Kathryn Gray’s Flowers (Rack Press, 2017) was a very slim volume, and with just nine poems in a limited edition of 150 it could only reach a small band of readers. Now eight of those poems have grown into a substantial collection exploring the same themes. Don’t be misled by that title, Flowers: if your mind has drifted towards the herbaceous or the botanical, haul it back. The poems in the Rack Press publication revelled in the lure of the film world and the glamour of Hollywood, including its bit-players, the yearning to be a part of it all, the triumphs and the disasters. I’d liked the pamphlet; I like this collection even more.
But what is it, exactly, that I’m enjoying? My tastes in film tend towards the black and white gloom of sub-titled European angst where happy endings don’t happen. I’m not a natural reader for these poems if all I look at is what they are ‘about’ on the surface. This poet, however, can run with surface and subterranean simultaneously: underneath her relish for films from the end of the twentieth century is a yearning to be involved in that whole big, brash, noisy world. The collection opens with a rush of energy in ‘Miramar’:
Ghost Rider—full throttle on my bike,
I fist-pump the sky as if I were not weary of jets—
jets being what I do—as if I still had the need,
the need for speed. It’s true. I’ve lost that—
you know—that certain feeling. For somewhere
in this attenuated heart I know that Goose is
dead. He can no longer intercept.
You will probably recognise the references to Top Gun (USA, 1986). I had to turn to Wikipedia, but I only do that if a poem has already gripped me, if the way the poet writes makes me want to go beyond my lack of cultural reference, trying to get closer what’s going on. Here it’s the immediacy of those opening lines, the expectation that I’m part of the gang already, the headlong rush through names (stars and characters), action (the base in Fightertown), even the theme tune’s composer (Faltermeyer). So my Googling isn’t about accumulating a tidy set of facts so much as seeing what drives Gray to write a poem that almost falls over itself in the speed of its narrative.
Desire is what will drive this collection and it’s infectious
Over the page, a change of pace: ‘Hollywood.’ A double-spaced list, where every line begins “I have never …” and builds up the yearning of an outsider to be a part of all the clichés that come together to build up Hollywood’s image.
I have never gone to Hollywood.
I have never gone, but I would.
I have never walked a blistering dust road out from San Antonio.
How subtly that double-spacing works. Throughout this collection Gray is alert to how a poem sits on the page, what the white space contributes. The poet doesn’t want stardom per se, just to be connected to the whole of it, good and bad. So the list of what she has never done includes “warred with my sister for half a century”, “howled MY PAIN in the second-best bath of a mogul”, “swum in champagne” or “heard—immortal—YOU’LL NEVER WORK IN THIS TOWN AGAIN!”. I look again at the desire behind line two, with its “[…] but I would.” Desire is what will drive this collection and it’s infectious.
Cinema is packed with cliché, and knows it: for Gray this is good material. There’s ‘The Meet-Cute’ where she plays out the boy-meets-girl-by-chance scenario across six quatrains, in a city where it is inevitably raining and the soon-to-be-a-couple shelter under the same awning. Then there’s that archetypical small bar in ‘Two Small Erotic Scenes from Imagined New York, with Food’:
I am thinking of that small place that nobody knows
but the cognoscenti. After all these years
it’s nothing short of a miracle it’s still in business—
requiring, as it does, such specific conditions
That bar is a device, a sub-Hopper-ish place, unrealistically quiet but essential: the plot can’t move forward without it. I’ve seen it in countless films, letting it slip past me unnoticed. Next time, perhaps, I’ll pay it more attention.
Gray’s fascination with Hollywood and Las Vegas also lets her write carefully-pitched pastiche. ‘Testament’, tucked towards the end of the collection, uses a teenage voice to show how fandom operates, and how it can become obsessive:
O Brandon, my brown-eyed boy, I will not answer
critics who say you are a triumph of style over substance
and that your lyrics do not make grammatical sense.
Brandon, in our early days, when first I Googled you
hourly, I will confess I feared you’d disappoint me
because you were too pretty. But then I read you were
a Mormon and, though you found it difficult, you rarely
took a drink or smoked a cigarette. There again,
I must admit the fact you had a wife to whom you are,
at present, faithful, and who is the mother of your three
children, dealt a blow of not inconsiderable proportion.
The ghost of Adrian Mole hovers over that stanza. The line break before “hourly” pins exactly the desperate eagerness, the hopeful wide-eyed enthralled impossibility of a devoted fan. That’s the pull of Hollywood. Brandon’s surname, in case you don’t know, is Flowers, hence that earlier pamphlet title.
The line break […] pins exactly the desperate eagerness, the hopeful wide-eyed enthralled impossibility of a devoted fan. That’s the pull of Hollywood
Who else finds a home in these pages? John Cazale in ‘Six Ways of Looking at John Cazale’ – six tiny glimpses, fitted into one page, of the character actor who died in 1978. Dorothy Parker in ‘The Portable Dorothy Parker’ – a long-lined, loose narrative about guns, blood, death and her ashes, kept for seventeen years in her agent’s filing cabinet. Trump: this is a collection about celebrity after all, and Trump is another facet of fame. He is the focus of a longer list poem (‘Donald’), not double-spaced this time, where denser spacing and repetition mimic his verbal tics:
Donald likes golf.
Donald likes Donald.
Donald would like to turn Scotland into a golf course.
Donald is unhappy.
Donald likes doing things with his hands.
Donald demands, ‘Look at those hands—are they small hands?’
‘As told by Alan Smithee’ is a prose poem, recounting the disasters of ‘his’ life, in the voice of a man who doesn’t exist. The name is a pseudonym used by unhappy directors who don’t want to be directly associated with the film they’ve been working on. (Should you want to explore this further, Wikipedia blows their cover and I’m sure many now working in film will regret that the Smithee option was ended in 2000.) And ’Bruce the Shark’ fantasises about the sexual prowess of the mechanical sharks (there were three) used in Jaws.
Sexual attraction gets closer to home – and more threatening – in ‘Nineteen-seventy-something’ where a girl is the centre of family attention:
Everyone was kissing you at parties
and look at how you’ve grown!
There were uncles, everywhere.
It evokes both the boredom and the discomfort of being a child among those adults, “lying / in front of the Ferguson, staring out / the test card” and when “Everyone was / pinching your cheeks.” Being the centre of attention is a queasy option, even at that age, when you know something isn’t right but you don’t yet have the words for it. In ‘The Adventurers’, Gray is entirely in the company of bike-riding children – “and do not ask where the grown-ups have / gone” – exploring edgelands at night, aware of dangers and the thrill of danger. It’s childhood but also a cinematic trope.
A rollercoaster ride translated into poetry
Hollywood or Home is a packed collection merging the personal and the universal outsiderness of wanting connection to Big Screen glamour. It’s compelling in its energy and variety, and held my attention even while my pen was making look-this-up-later squiggles in the margin. The cover image pulls together all the facets of Hollywood that Gray touches on. Alain Magallon’s painting, Sunset Boulevard, has a line of blasted trees in the background, the body face down in the swimming pool and Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, dressed in yellow, striding forward into the projected fantasy of her come-back. Perfect!
It’s the ‘full throttle’ effect in Gray’s writing that stays with me from these poems, the racy zest and energy of the lines and how they drag me along, eager to keep up. With unforgettable elan, Hollywood or Home captures both contemporary love/loathe obsessions and celebrity’s various aspects: a rollercoaster ride translated into poetry.
D.A. Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her second collection, Common Ground (HappenStance, 2014), won the East Midlands Book Award 2015. A further collection, The Bigger Picture, also from HappenStance, has just been published.