Becoming Lyla Dore
by Teri Youmans Grimm
Red Hen Press. 2016.
Silent films are, for most of us, part of a quaint and distant past. In flickering black and white, accompanied by piano or organ, plots unfold via the exaggerated physical movements of the actors, and ornate “intertitles” that convey dialog and other information to viewers. In her second collection of poems, Becoming Lyla Dore, Teri Youmans Grimm manages to take her readers back to that past and make it live in the present. The Lyla Dore of the collection’s title is a fictional character, created from an amalgam of early film stars. More than just a narrative thread running through the collection, Lyla’s story is a fictional celebrity memoir—at once a life story and a reflection of the cultural history of an era.
Indeed, the collection reads like a novel, and a pager-turner at that. When asked by an interviewer why she wrote the book as poetry, rather than a novel, Grimm said simply, “I am a poet.” She also referred to the compression that poetry requires as helping her to get to the heart of the story. The visual nature of lyric poetic imagery, quick cuts, pacing, spacing, and room for mystery will make sense to the reader as a vehicle for the story.
The poems, all in first person, are structured in a variety of forms with long and shorter lines, couplets sometimes, unbroken columns, or other arrangements on the page that make for visual interest. In this collection, as in her earlier collection, Dirt Eaters, Teri Youmans Grimm shows herself to be very skilled at writing about people, whether she is creating vivid characters from whole cloth, or choosing the details that will make Aunt Ater from Grimm’s own family interesting to her readers.
Grimm, a fourth generation Floridian, placed Lyla’s childhood in Jacksonville, once the home of thirty film studios and known as the “World’s Winter Film Capital,” it was Hollywood before Hollywood. Grimm’s prodigious research into the public history of the silent film industry stands behind the personal history that she created for Lyla, and her use of real people as characters in Lyla’s tale is very effective, keeping readers poised on the cusp of reality. In fact, the reader will find an ongoing contemplation of what is real and what is illusion to be a significant part of the act of reading this book.
In the equivalent of “Once upon a time…” the first poem, “Magic Lantern” begins:
Forget what you know about faded stars
about curiosities and relics.
This is about magic.
We learn that the father of the child who will become Lyla Dore was a lanternist—his job was to show lantern slides to audiences before there were movies (or electricity!). By creating a family and friends for Lyla in these persona poems, Grimm both creates the illusion of memoir and draws us immediately into Lyla’s world. “Magic Lantern” also introduces us to the lyricism that shines through Grimm’s largely narrative style:
he’d show glass slides of the Taj Mahal
or lovers kissing in a Venetian gondola. Familiar
scenes too and after the flickering black and grey,
unexpected colors glazed the screen and one
could watch a frozen landscape deliquesce into spring,
lilacs move by a perceptible wind, a rabbit disappear
into a hole and the lake reacquainting everyone with blue.
One of Grimm’s skills is the ability to pick out interesting, unique, sometimes off-center details to enhance the narrative. There are many factual details incorporated in the poems that teach us something of the history of silent films, and movie-making in general, without interrupting the figurative magic of illusion; as in this section from the first poem:
Before arc light and electric bulbs, the lantern’s glow
came from an oxygen and hydrogen flame fixed
on a cylinder of lime. Combustible, surely, but the illusion
blazed brighter! To be in limelight is to become incandescent
in the alchemy of dangerous gas and mineral, to smolder
in another’s mind or heart. I would have risked setting
myself on fire, if it meant the world could see me better.
The poem ends with “But that was before I knew better,” foreshadowing not only the play of light and fire in the collection, but also the arc of Lyla’s story, which the poet describes in interviews as “the fall and rise of Lyla Dore;” for this is not a typical Hollywood celebrity melodrama, nor another telling of The Star is Born where the main character descends into ignominy by the end of the piece. By contrast, the reader will find that the difficulties of Lyla’s early life, her “fall” detailed in poems in the first part of the book, leads to lessons learned and to these lines from “This is How It Really Ends”:
When I could have utterly ravaged my soul
I made some good choices, wise investments.
The final poem, “The Snake Man and the Ghosts of Beautiful Women,” leaves us to wonder, along with the beautiful women, “whether their lives served/ any purpose beyond/ the ornamental.”
There are many such moments of both light and dark to be savored in Grimm’s poems as we move through the life of Lyla Dore, and in parallel, the history of silent films, arriving finally at the end of both.
From “Star Dust”:
Combusting into dust, we were
brittle kindling it seems, flash
of light, pile of ash, disintegrating
into nothingness so easily.
We were supposed to be
immortal there, on our own
little planet of nitrate and silver.
Instead we were the experiment
sent to prove life could exist,
could subsist on light and adulation.
- Review of BECOMING LYLA DORE by Teri Youmans Grimm - September 22, 2016
- A Review of James Davis May’s Unquiet Things - May 4, 2016