London Grip Poetry Review – Kathryn Gray



Poetry review – HOLLYWOOD OR HOME: Charles Rammelkamp enjoys Kathryn Gray’s excursions into the illusory world of film where the past seems to be preserved even as time moves on for the rest of us.


Hollywood or Home
Kathryn Gray 
Seren Books, 2024
ISBN: 978-1781727126
60 pages  £9.99 

In a note to the poem “Night Game,” which is inspired by the Robert Redford movie made from Bernard Malamud’s baseball novel, The Natural, Kathryn Gray confesses that “Much of my later life has amounted to a competitive sport with my younger self.” She adds, “I am probably not alone in this.” Not by a long shot! Time and the passage of time make up a central theme in this charming collection, but for my money, it’s the satiric take on so many iconic Hollywood movies and the implications Kathryn Gray teases out of them that’s the great takeaway here. But it’s true, without the poignance of her ruminations on aging, the poems might merely be “funny.”

Even the titles of the poems give you a hint: “Portrait of My Superego as Mommie Dearest” (‘You’ve got to love her. / Her eyebrows are practically a fucking opera.’);“Meryl Streep is my therapist” (‘I worry that I’m all cliché. / I like to fake accents with strangers.’); “Shermerverse,” a poem that takes off from John Hughes’ 1980s films about teen angst and alienation, like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink. Shermer High School features in so many of these, including Sixteen Candles. “The Portable Dorothy Parker” (‘Morning comes at you like a gun: / point blank.’) with its dark repetition of “gun” and “blood” plays on the legend of Parker’s ashes, kept in shot glasses in a filing cabinet in New York ‘before finally coming to rest in—of all places—Baltimore.’

All of these poems are either explicitly or obliquely self-referential. In this, Gray is something of a stand-up comic, with her deadpan cynicism. “Fresh Hell” includes the line, ‘I want to put EVERYTHING IN CAPS LIKE CHER.’ The dark poem, “Bill Hicks Impossible Love Poem” actually refers to a stand-up comic, the American satirist who died from cancer in his early thirties, in which Gray confesses to ‘pity for myself’ (‘Honey, now you’re sucking on the tailpipe /of mediocrity.’). Who doesn’t have doubts about her- or him-self? Sometimes Gray’s seem almost crippling, even as her brilliance shines through.

“Lovely Young Men” is from the perspective of middle age when one does not feel as attractive as one did in one’s youth (‘you have reached that certain age when even / your dentist is the lovely young man now’) and one’s thoughts become even more viscerally carnal, almost desperate. She writes: ‘And it occurs to you how strange

           that you think only of their cocks, or all that their
            bodies and faces promise of cock, when as a solemn girl 
            all you cared about, really, was their hearts, and when 
            you weep that night for the life unlived, which you do,
            you are never sure whom it is exactly you are weeping for.

“Slightly, a Lost Boy” (to the late poet Roddy Lumsden) and the Sinatra poem “Night and Day, 1957” both allude (as do many others) to this relentless passage of time. ‘Time—the great annealer,’ she writes in “Some fragment”: strengthening even as it diminishes. “Nineteen-seventy-something” looks back to a time captured by old television technology (‘There is never anything to watch / on the Ferguson.’) that feels more more sinister than nostalgic. “Durante” is a memory of a brief sexual encounter in Rome, the kind of thing you do in youth. Again, there’s that sense of time recovered but paradoxically unrecoverable.

The poem “Donald” is a satiric take on the notion of celebrity, manifested by you-know-who:

            Donald is off the cuff.
            Donald likes golf.
            Donald likes pussy.
            Donald knows what Donald likes.

Sometimes Gray’s cinematic references might seem obscure. “As told by Alan Smithee” refers to the ‘pseudonymous credit in use from 1970 to 2000, granted by the Directors Guild of America to unhappy film directors who were able to prove they had lost creative control of a project.’ “Bruce the Shark,” with its sexual innuendo, refers to the mechanical sharks used in Jaws. “The Meet-Cute” is a rendition of the romantic comedy cliché employed in films since at least the 1940s in which two people meet for the first time under humorous or “cute” circumstances and go on to become a couple. “I am the world’s last barman poet” takes off from the 1988 romantic comedy, Cocktail and again plays on the effects of the passage of time (‘Let me tell you: staying relevant // in ‘volatile times’ is no mean feat.’). “Coughlin’s Law #127” likewise refers to Cocktail. ‘Bury the dead, they stink up the place’ Doug Coughlin says to his young protégé: Tom Cruise’s Brian Flanagan, the star of Cocktail. “High-concept” is a movie pitch somebody is making. It starts out:

            So there’s this woman—
            – there’s this woman,
            Picture it.

But if the references might seem obscure at times, Gray’s point is always razor-sharp, and her verse is always entertaining. You nod your head and smile. (And you go to Google to find out more!)

Gray’s poems are inspired by singers and poets as well as actors and filmmakers. “Testament” is addressed to Brandon Flowers, the lead singer for The Killers, also playing on time and sex and staying relevant as time moves on. A couple of poems are inspired by the legendary bluegrass Carter family, and another by Johnny Cash (“The Cave”: ‘Ends make fiction of our means. Johnny said it: he wasn’t lying.’). “Watermelons” is another poem for a late poet/musician, Michael Donaghy.

The title, Hollywood or Home, presents us with a choice. Can we live in the illusions of Lala land, or must we own up to the stark conditions of life? Can we do both? Think of Hollywood or Home as Variety on steroids – Heidegger’s Being and Time at the corner of Hollywood and Vine!