Rose Hunter reviews Hollywood Starlet by Ivy Alvarez

9781742234274.jpg.400x0_q20Hollywood Starlet

by Ivy Alvarez

dancing girl press

Reviewed by ROSE HUNTER

Each poem in Ivy Alvarez’ chapbook Hollywood Starlet features a female star from years past, for example such screen icons as Rita Hayworth, Jean Harlow, Jayne Mansfield, and Greta Garbo. Recognising these famous names is one of the obvious pleasures of the book, and it led me to wonder firstly about the title, since all these women graduated well beyond the role of “starlet;” all became fully-fledged stars. Merriam Webster defines a starlet as: “a young movie actress being coached and publicised for starring roles.” Other definitions include the idea of aspiration or ambition, for example (Macmillan): “a young woman actor who wants to become a star.” All these poems are involved in the act of becoming, as well as desire (the word “want” is one that comes up often). They are a mixture of biographical details of the star(let), along with what might be the autobiography of the poet, or made-up material.[1]

The first poem, “What Vivien Leigh Dropped,” features Leigh and “Larry” (Laurence Olivier) on a boating picnic. Thinking about the first line, “Larry’s Hamlet; I mouth Ophelia” – I thought I remembered that Leigh and Olivier starred in a film version of Hamlet, but when I googled to double check I found out they didn’t: the 1948 film featured Olivier as Hamlet and Jean Simmons as Ophelia. A further google search turned up this snippet (I’ll include the whole quote since the tone is sort of offhand amusing-devastating, a tone that is also found in Alvarez’ book): “Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh, had assumed she would play Ophelia, but Olivier told her she was too old at thirty-three. She pointed out that he was virtually forty himself, but he hired the eighteen-year-old Jean Simmons for the part. She required intensive coaching from Olivier himself. Vivien Leigh took it for granted they must be having an affair.”[2]

Knowing this, the opening line has more meaning; it makes me think of Leigh mouthing the lines, but not actually getting to play the role, although apparently she did play Ophelia to Olivier’s Hamlet in a famous stage production. The meanings of the lines will be multiplied in this way, for readers with more knowledge of Hollywood film history.

The poem continues, locating us in a seemingly idyllic scene. There’s a hamper, fruit, and wine. Everything is drifting along in a slumbering rhythm in the first stanza, wonderfully assisted by the sounds of the poem, complete with a lazy ditty, “Fiddle-dee-dee” – until everything changes in the second stanza, particularly with these lines:

I take an apple and consider it. —Ow! My tooth!
Something small falls in. Not to be outdone,
Larry yells about a splinter in his palm.
The pain’s woken us both.
What a pair we are. Look how far
the shore. And now we must row.

The sounds are lovely here. All those “o’s,” strung together in a pattern of consonance, rhyme and slant rhyme. A big “oh/ow” hangs over this poem; a sort of pastoral scene in a boat that takes a sudden turn toward something darker. Again at this point we could bring in any knowledge we might have about the life of Vivien Leigh, for example the fact that the star suffered from bipolar disorder as well as tuberculosis, the latter illness claiming her life at the age of 53.

The verbs attached to the titles and the “What?” forms all the titles take also provide readers with narrative interest, prodding us to ask the question, in the case of this poem: What did Vivien Leigh drop? – a question that the poem suggests answers to on various levels. On the first level, maybe she drops the apple because of the sudden pain in her tooth, or maybe her tooth, or a part of it drops out (less likely but possible I think), and/or, of course, something larger than this has occurred, something that has taken them far away from the (literal and non-literal) shore. Throughout the book the endings of the poems open up like this, creating rich and suggestive ripples.

The poems are immediate and vivid, told in the present tense, and begin in medias res. The tone is frank and conversational, inclusive, and at times conspiratorial:

On bended knees, we search
for the too-large ring I dropped.
Well — I search. Spencer’s stalked off,
nursing his grudge, perhaps to salve it with alcohol
(“What Katharine Hepburn Lost.”)

These are entertaining as well as finely-crafted poems with lovely sounds and a frequently wry or dark sense of humour. As in the Vivien Leigh poem, there’s a lot of internal rhyme, slant rhyme, and a fair smattering of end rhyme. A couple of times I thought the end rhyme risked being too much [for example, “I spot a chapel in the shade / covered in lichen’s dull brocade” (“What Ingrid Bergman Wanted”)], but this sort of large effect is dropped in sparingly, and there is a sensitive rhythm created with respect to the distribution of different types of rhyme. I’m just going to list some of my favourite lines here that illustrate some of these things, for the pleasure of it: “Forget the girls who wait. Before I turn to stone, / I drop it in the foam. Borne along — it’s gone.” (“What Rita Hayworth Threw Away”); “Crack it open. Inside, the embryo / duckling feathered in soupy broth, / unseeing eye a full stop. / Have you ever had a broken heart?” (“What Frances Farmer Ate”); “I bare my legs to mosquitoes. It’s not their fault / they need to eat. Let them feed. / I am full-blooded. And there is more of me to give.” (“What Betty Grable Gave,” with a wonderfully irreverent reference to those famous legs.) I can hear Sylvia Plath in the sounds of these lines; it’s not a surprise to read that Alvarez lists her as an influence.[3]

The scenes come across as so many “exposures,” in the dual sense of a take, a scene, or a vignette plucked out of a larger whole, as well as in the sense of revealing something – about the star(let), and the poet. The chapbook ends with the only person/persona who stayed a starlet in name rather than a star: Norma Jean, the early identity who became one of the most iconic stars of all time, Marilyn Monroe. In a way all these women are split like this, several times over: what they became (stars, myths), what they were before they became this (starlets), as well as what they might have been between and around that, and how all these identities might intersect or combine with the identity of the poet Ivy Alvarez/“Ivy Alvarez.”

And, of course, everyone could have been and is something else altogether. Here is the alternate trajectory the last poem offers, for the woman who became “Marilyn Monroe:”

A neighbourhood dog pants after me, all teeth,
eyes me adoringly — even as I wrinkle, stooped,
grow frail, loose — halt and stutter.
Becoming more anonymous with every step.


[1] Alvarez affirms that the material is autobiographical: “The personal-seeming narratives … constitute elements borrowed from my own life, though these are imbricated with what I have gathered, whether fact or rumour, about these women.”

ROSE HUNTER is the author of the poetry books You As Poetry (Texture Press, Oklahoma), [four paths] (Texture), to the river (Artistically Declined Press, Oregon), and the chapbook descansos (dancing girl press). She is from Brisbane, spent many years in Canada, and is now in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. More information about her is available at Whoever Brought Me Here Will Have To Take Me Home.