May 15 2023
Poetry review –WILD GIRLS: Charles Rammelkamp particularly enjoys the rich cast of characters in Shirley J. Brewer’s latest collection
Who knew George Custer even had a wife? Or Wild Bill Hickok, for that matter? Or ever heard about Elizabeth Patterson, the “Belle of Baltimore” who married Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother Jérôme, the marriage annulled by the Emperor himself, even after Betsy gave birth to their son? Or biblical Noah’s wife? Job’s wife? Or King’s wife, i.e., Mrs. Kong (“Dumb ape, / gaga for that ditzy bleached blonde”)? In Wild Girls, Shirley Brewer turns the spotlight on these females and more.
Often unheard of in a world dominated by powerful men, the protagonists of Brewer’s poems are succinctly captured and typified in the poem, “Where Did the Wild Girl Go,” a poem in memory of one Elaine B. McCarthy, an otherwise obscure housewife in Severna Park, MD, who learned sign language and taught hearing impaired children, devoted to raising her own daughter and three sons and, without fanfare, painted stunning cityscapes, portraits, nudes.
Her four children wonder: Where did the wild girl go? the one who made such brilliant art packed away for sixty years like relics in her attic.
Jackie Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth II, Marilyn Monroe, Annette Funicello, and Annie Oakley are more recognizable names readers will be familiar with, though their backstories may be elusive, their courage largely unacknowledged. Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and Boston Marathon victim Adrianne Haslet-Davis are other women familiar from the news, but in her verse Shirley Brewer makes them come alive, their pluck and valor palpable. But Custer’s wife, Libbie? “She understood his talent for battle, often / risked it all to join him at the front.” She lived another fifty-seven years after her husband’s death at Little Bighorn, devoted to defending his good name, her “old fellow with the golden curls.”
But it’s the women in Brewer’s own life who really stand out, the world she paints like a mash-up of I Love Lucy and The Golden Girls in the lovable way she portrays them almost as the cast of a sitcom. Besides her mother, Grandma Alice and Aunt Emma, there’s Aunt Alvina, the pharmacist, who appears in at least three of the poems. In “Spring Break” she treats her niece to a vacation in the Virgin Islands during her senior year at college. Now ninety, Alvina laments her lost vigor, but her niece reminds her of that vacation in the Caribbean, when she herself got badly sunburned.
The hotel owners choose Aunt Alvina to pose for promotional postcards, assuring her fame. She turns them down. Together or bust, she toasts our bond, pats my heavily salved arms. Remember the glory days at Indie House, I remind Auntie now, my arm linked in hers.
There are also the iconic characters from childhood, the nuns who ruled the school, Mrs. Nowicki, a neighborhood parent, Rita Knipper, her best friend in high school, and Miranda Mason, her nemesis. Miranda and Rita both have in common an ambition to marry a man. In “Hope is the thing with salt & pepper shakers,” Rita has a hot pink hope chest at the foot of her bed in which she stows the things she will need for that magic day. And Miranda? She insists, in “Iron Maiden,” the speaker must learn to iron a shirt if she ever expects to marry a man.
Every single female classmate I know aspires to be a bride with a veil blushing above a bodice of seed pearls.
The speaker does not necessarily reject this aspiration out of hand, but
Meanwhile, the boy I love—Dennis Shaw— signs up for the seminary, chooses to marry God. With immense relief I pull the plug on my iron, re-cupboard the cooking pots— return like a prodigal daughter to denim.
Sibley’s Department Store in Rochester, NY, figures in several of the poems from childhood memories. In fact, in high school, the speaker had a part-time job in men’s clothing – underwear, pajamas, and ties. Her job? Attending to “the headless plastic gents,” dressing them up for window display. “For bikini briefs, my boss made me / use the dreaded mini mannequins.” As she matures, becoming skillful at manipulating the various fiberglass props, her romantic dreams likewise develop.
Someday soon I’d meet a guy with a face, plus all his body parts. He’d talk back to me, change his clothes daily, take off his own underwear, then mine.
The romantic dreams hit a hilarious Lucille Ball high when the wild girl narrator fantasizes various meetings with men. “Only Trouble Is, Gee Whiz” is a poem inspired by the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” in which she dreams of becoming a “femme fatale romancing boys / with pompadour hair”:
Afternoon sun reflected off my thick glasses. In my dream, I could see without them.
Others include “Dinner Date with Richard Gere” and “My Plain Romance,” in which the object of fantasy is Gabby Hayes (“Gabby loves this blue-eyed girl / better than his blue-faced mule.”). In “I Could Have Been The Godmother, 1983,” Al Pacino is the object of fantasy. The poem is written as a fan letter to Pacino, in which she is “gunned down by beauty,” at the Kennedy Center stage door, facing the man who played the mobster Michael Corleone. She tells him in the letter, echoing Brando as Don Corleone, she will “make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
While Brewer’s wit sparkles throughout this collection, her underlying theme is serious about the often neglected contributions and creativity of women.
The book ends with “Mermaids in the Basement,” an image from Emily Dickinson. Mom, Aunt Alvina, her sister Nancy and she are out on a shopping date – where else? – at Sibley’s Department Store. The imagery in the poem is all seashore and waves, the milieu of mermaids, as they spend the day together surfing for bargains, “swim around an island of frothy bathing suits,” have lunch at the counter, hot dogs “slathered in mustard, yellow as neon surfboards” until finally, exhausted, ready for a nap, the women “shell out cash before the tide comes in.” Shirley Brewer is a master poet, and Wild Girls is a sheer delight to read.