Beautiful, Brilliant, and Dead: Portraits of the Female Poet in Film

by Danusha Laméris
Featured Art: Standing Girl, Back View by Egon Schiele

The film Maya Dardel, a 2017 American-Polish drama, written and directed by Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak, opens with a famous, gravellyvoiced, fictional poet, played by the mysterious Lena Olin, contemplating her demise. Sequestered at her hideaway in the mountains of Santa Cruz, California, overlooking the redwood forest (around the bend from where I happen to live) she’s decided to kill herself. But not before choosing a young, male heir, whom she will select by way of a contest, through a sort of Atalanta-esque maneuver. Only, instead of a race, she will subject her suitors to feats of sexual and psychological endurance. All of which she has announced on NPR.

Here is a woman spent. A woman who is charred to the soul, devoid of affect. Who tells her agent, “I’m going to end the life of Maya Dardel . . . I see no need to birth a few more books, and finally in my seventies and eighties squirt out a few more abortions.” “Euthanasia,” she calls it. Indeed, why go on if one is no longer in one’s prime? She is barren, artistically. A fate, the irreversibility of which, she does not question.

“What do you think of me, physically,” she asks her first young prospect, an awkward twenty-something sitting across from her in her darkened living room. One can still see her powerful appeal. But it’s also clear that the loss of her youthful beauty is, for her, reason number two not to exist.

Maya sends home man after man, in quick succession, either for their incompetence in pleasing her orally on her proverbial casting couch, or for their tepid writing skills. She is by turns cruel and more cruel, putting the men to sadistic tests of loyalty. And while I might enjoy her unapologetic sexuality, I can hardly disagree, ultimately, with her scathing self-assessment. She has become one who somehow possesses Eros without life force.

*

The Victorians loved a dead girl. A beautiful dead girl, floating in the creek, blossoms in her hair. Look at the paintings: Found Drowned, a woman lying 188 face-up by a river bank at night, her visage illuminated by the moon. Ophelia, floating in a creek, surrounded by bright spring flowers, her lips pink, mouth slightly ajar, her pale, flushed face, her palms turned upward in a gesture of supplication or surrender. Impossible not to see the erotic in this stance. The dead girl, appearing again and again, by the river bank, in the river.

Maya Dardel begins with a long shot of the burbling creek on her property, its lush muck and undulant greenery. Sylvia, a 2003 British biographical drama directed by Christine Jeffs, meanwhile, opens with the beautiful, though ghostly lead (Gwyneth Paltrow) lying, eyes closed, under a white sheet. Is she in a morgue? Asleep? “Dying is an art . . . ” we hear her say in voice-over. Plath’s words from beyond the grave. We get to see Plath in brief moments of joy and the early throes of love before bearing witness to her decline. But, ultimately, the film’s arc is that of an arrow, showing her creative ascent, briefly, before pointing toward the bullseye of the stove where she famously succumbs.

If I didn’t know better . . . if I were newly arrived on Earth and wanting to know what it was to be both a woman and a poet, I would think it a vocation of the suicidally privileged. A last ditch. A psychic cul-de-sac rife with paleskinned women who can no longer cope. Who, as vessels too small to contain sexuality, beauty, privilege, and brilliance, are obliged, instead, to end it all. Preferably before losing their looks. I am not denying, of course, that there are layers to the lives of real women, such as Plath, who were plagued by demons. Who were, as she was, searingly brilliant and clinically depressed. Of course there are poets who commit suicide. Who see no other way out. And who deserve and compel our deep empathy. What strikes me, though, is the fascination represented by these consistent depictions. Are filmmakers unconsciously creating a kind of glass ceiling? Or are they consciously exploring the idea of the limits of feminine power in society? Are these films eroticizations of the idea of the somewhat weakened woman, who, despite her genius, is still helpless enough to engage desire? How is this all different from the Victorian fixation? Is it?

Young women, especially, are familiar with this landscape. The culture of thigh-gaps, skinny jeans, and sky-high Louboutin heels is one that marks a territory of diminishment. You can be smart, but not too strong. Or, at the very least, you are asked to offset your intellect or strength with a gesture of helplessness. Be slight, we, as a culture, are still saying. If you want to be loved, take up less space. The physical here becoming an expression of the psychic. How many ways do we, as a tribe, perpetuate that logic?

Ready for deliverance (or relief?), I turned to the South Korean film Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, 2010). Here, a grandmother—caring for her video-game fixated grandson—enrolls in a poetry class, wanting to write even one poem. “How do you write a poem?” asks our protagonist, Mija, sensitively played by Yoon Jeong-hee. “You must go and beg for it,” answers her teacher. “You must pray for it,” he says. “The blank page is like the world before creation.” Erotic. Fertile. Possible. Something one might plead for on hands and knees.

Did I mention the film opens with a river? With a dead girl, floating? Not the lead, the female poet, but another. A girl who has drowned herself. Who floats face down, anonymous.

Still, it seems the oblivion our heroine longs for is one of surrender, not death. Of giving herself over to whatever forces might elicit the poems she is told by her teacher are inside her, waiting to get out. Poetry as sacred progeny. When she learns of a medical diagnosis that will, in due time, rob her of her faculties, she goes to visit the bridge over that same river. Reader, I need not tell you what I knew would happen next. And yet, before the end, she does, at least, write a poem.

*

In my experience as a woman, a poet, and a teacher, in the company of the same, I have seen poetry as a kind of CPR. A beloved moves on or falls into a long illness, leaving us gasping for breath. Our own bodies fail. A child dies. Something brings us to a broken core in ourselves that wants—and needs—expression. This is not news. This is something we, as writers, understand. Poetry saves us.

Just as we understand that the world of poets is one of great humor, as well as pathos, marked perhaps by a penchant for trespass, for seeking the truth behind the truth. In no way is it entirely macabre. The accomplished women poets I know, by and large, are individuals who have overcome, persevered, fashioned lives of trust, grit, and words. And they possess tremendous intelligence and good humor and (yes) even sex appeal!

I can’t help wondering if the popularity of the suicidal female poet might have something to do with a collective, unspoken desire to see a certain kind of person brought down. In some cases, these films feel like morality tales that end in the ambitious/gifted woman getting what’s coming to her. And while I can also see that the dramatic arc of such a poet’s rise and fall lends itself easily to cinema and to Oscar-worthiness, perhaps we have given in too easily to the available trope.

*

For the first time in years, I watched Poetic Justice, to see how John Singleton’s 1993 romance would add to or subtract from the Portrait of the Woman Poet that was beginning to emerge. While I enjoyed the walk down memory lane— those Nineties cinched-waist jeans and box braids—and also enjoyed seeing a black woman at the center of the story, I was struck by a missed opportunity. Here, the culminating event of the film is a hair show, not a poetry slam. And while the camera loves to love the young Janet Jackson, it’s a cameo by Maya Angelou (who wrote the poems for the film) that gives gravitas to the story in a way that makes me wonder: why not make that movie? The drama about an actual woman poet, say, Maya Angelou, and her almost unbelievable life. The life in which she endured and triumphed over the experience of child rape and early motherhood, and so much more. What about that film? Or at least one less focused on road-trip romance, and more on the grit and power of language.

We do, however, see a heroine who has survived some deep personal losses and kept herself a safe distance from the grave, her Eros intact. When she encounters a body of water, in this case the Pacific Ocean, she stops to admire it and kiss her love interest, Lucky, played by the late rapper Tupac Shakur. Perhaps, unburdened by privilege, Justice, as her character is named, is allowed to live. She is not too threatening and not, therefore, the person we want to see brought down. She will, at best, finish her days loved and healed, if somewhat invisible.

These films called me to question their imaginings of female poets. I see them all emerging from the same source as the viral, Victorian dead-girl strain. We seem to be (some of us, at least) entranced by stifled representations of female potentiality. It’s about power, I think. Poets, it’s said, were the first priests. Or priests, the first poets. Either way, there’s no denying the potential for agency that comes with harnessing blade-sharp language. That’s a nearly otherworldly force, almost a usurpation. “People don’t like a woman with too much power,” says Maya Dardel. “I like raw power.” And don’t those words describe the work of Sylvia Plath? Raw and powerful, indeed.

So what do we do about the dead girl perpetually floating in the river? How do we revive/revise her? What would it look like to create a cinema of survival, of the woman poet as hero? Recently, I taught my students about early American poet Phillis Wheatley, brought by a slave trader to the colonies as a small child, too asthmatic and weak for hard labor, perhaps even close to death. How she went on to study Greek and Latin classics, publish, at a young age, her own Poems on Various Subjects to wide acclaim, both in the U.S. and in England. All while appealing to religious leaders to end slavery and corresponding with the likes of George Washington, whom she later visited at his request.

Or what about the dramatic possibilities of the life of Elizabeth Bishop, born in the early 1900s—also a sickly child—who endured the loss of her father at eight months old, and a mother who was committed to a mental institution by the time Elizabeth was five. She grew up in the mostly unhappy care of various relatives. Not to mention she had a romantic relationship with a woman before such a thing was socially recognized. Oh—and she went on to write some of our culture’s most memorable poems, winning a National Book Award and Pulitzer. While there is a documentary of her story (Barbara Hammer’s Welcome to This House, 2015), we have yet to see a high-profile Bishop biopic.

I imagine that these women, too, contemplated their beauty from time to time. That they were both kind and unkind. That they may have considered ending their lives. But these things don’t define them. What I want us to question are films and narratives that allow any one thing—even suicide—to draw a circle around a woman poet. There are other stories. We need to see and hear them.

We do, of course, have portrayals of Emily Dickinson, who holds her own mystique and stands alone in the lexicon with two recent films exploring her legacy. The most recent, Wild Nights with Emily, becomes an occasion to talk about sexuality and intelligence and power—can they make bedfellows in the American psyche when a woman is concerned? Kudos for progress in that regard. But, again, I believe we need more stories about folks other than the Belle of Amherst.

People read poems to know something about survival. About what it is to be a human being. About how we navigate grief’s perpetual landscape—erotically, mentally, and emotionally. Films about poets who have, sadly, ended their lives can certainly do some of that, but I am concerned about what those films leave us dwelling on. There are, in the realm of possibility, films of women poets that take us to different places, that show us the writer on the bridge turning back toward life and sensuality. I think of the words of Lucille Clifton, another poet whose story I’d like to see on screen:

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life?
. . . every day
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.


Danusha Laméris’s first book, The Moons of August (Autumn House, 2014), was chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye as the winner of the Autumn House Press poetry prize. Some of her poems have been published in The Best American Poetry 2017, The New York Times, The American Poetry Review, The Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, and Tin House. Her second book, Bonfire Opera, is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press in spring 2020. She teaches poetry independently, and is the current Poet Laureate of Santa Cruz County, California.

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