Thursday, July 4, 2013

Review: It’s Hard Being Queen: The Dusty Springfield Poems, by Jeanette Lynes

It was so nice to finally get around to reading a full collection of poems by Jeanette Lynes. I’ve seen her verse around literary journals for years and have always been impressed by her output. She strikes me as a poet who revels in her own versatility, her ability to hit her subject matters from a variety of angles. She also strikes me as a poet unafraid of having a bit of fun on the page.

Both of these attributes are apparent in It’s Hard Being Queen, a kind of poetic rendering of the life of Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, better known to the world as Dusty Springfield. Lynes’ approach to capturing this crooner’s 60 years of turbulent existence is unapologetically linear but nonetheless engaging. The collection takes us from her early days in England, making her own recordings and trying to convince her family she’s destined for greatness, to the various vicissitudes of American show business and popular culture.

One of the focuses in the early part of the book is Springfield’s notorious perfectionism. Lynes captures this best in “The Producer’s Poem” when she writes:

If he had hair
he’d tear it out.
Hour nine, she records
the same syllable again,
again, again. She makes her art
one syllable at a time and it
hurts to watch …

Such methodical obsession could be applied—as Lynes no doubt knows—to poetry itself.

It’s Hard Being Queen walks us through Springfield’s initial rise to fame as well as her subsequent collapse into obscurity. Lynes captures this fall from grace in such aptly titled poems as “Some Things She Did for Money” and “How To Be Born Again (in the Secular Sense)” with its cheeky queries, “Have the fan letters the flowers/ stopped? Do your shoulder pads outsize/ your bank account?” The collection then leads us through Springfield’s improbable comeback, which culminated with Quentin Tarantino’s inclusion of her song “Son of a Preacher Man” on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. With strokes of small genius, Lynes braids the film’s relentless violence with Springfield’s animosity towards the journalists who once again pay her attention:

She knows them, they’ve been calling
her fat and bent and lost for years,
their meat-grinder words pressed
into scandal-shaped patties.
She’s often wished them
gruesome ends.

As the collection comes to its close, one must inevitably ask: Is this hagiography? The answer, I think, is both yes and no. To be fair, there are times when it feels like Lynes is a bit too enamoured of her subject. She has a tendency to place Springfield on the right side of every situation, every dispute or flare of tension in these poems. Yet her ultimate goal is to gain a prismatic view on the life and career of this celebrity, and this is a goal she achieves. I never once felt like Lynes was telling me what to think of Dusty Springfield. There is a enough wiggle room in these pieces for a reader to come to his own conclusions.      

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