Phoebe 2002: An Essay in Verse
by Jeffery Conway, Lynn Crosbie, and David Trinidad
(Turtle Point Press) $21.95
God Save My Queen: A Tribute
by Daniel Nester
(Soft Skull Press) $13
The idea of it alone is almost enough. A 600-page mock-epic poem, written tag-team by three poets, about nothing more than that catty old Bette Davis movie, All About Eve. There are few things more appealing than a strange, unread encyclopedia that sees the world through one crazy peephole or another. William Vollman's seven- volume treatise on violence, Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Caro's endless biography of LBJ, Henry Darger's 15,000-page illustrated history of an army of little girls with penises: They offer a promise of completeness that the experience of actually reading them can't help but disappoint.
Nevertheless, I went so far as to read every last page of Phoebe 2002, the brick-thick collaboration between Jeffery Conway, Lynn Crosbie, and David Trinidad that would surely have been called All About All About Eve if Sam Staggs's dishy behind-the-scenes book on the making of the movie hadn't taken the name already. (Instead, the Phoebe in the title refers to the predatory fan at the end of the movie who, it's clear, will soon eclipse Eve's star the way Eve overtook Margo Channing's. And 2002? The latest model year in stardom's insatiable cycle.) Phoebe retells the story of the movie in 16 "books," layered with gossip, critical analysis, personal confessions, and digressions on everything from the career of Patty Duke Astin to the invite list to Truman Capote's Black and White Ball to the plot of Go, Dog. Go!, putting All About Eve at the center of a web of show-biz melodrama, drag-queen camp, and poetic ambition.
Subtitled "An Essay in Verse," Phoebe often seems more essay than verse, with great discursive stretches of text that are only kept from being paragraphs by the regular, somewhat arbitrary line breaks. What makes it a poem is not its language, which is without rhythm or much distinction of any kind, but its compression. A book like Staggs's tells the same gossipy story--the backstage bitchiness behind the movie's bitchy backstage drama--but it files those life-and-art connections into the narrow path of narrative. Phoebe doesn't have to play by those rules and can leap like a dream (or a PowerPoint presentation) from association to association. When the poem reaches its full-speed brilliance, the linkages pile up in a delirious collage of life imitating art and art imitating life, of cat-fight classics like The Women, Carrie, Valley of the Dolls, and Showgirls; "distaff brutes" like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Ethel Merman; and glamorous suicides like Marilyn Monroe, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Jacqueline Kennedy is linked to Jacqueline Susann, Neal Gabler to Hedda Gabler, Johnny Guitar to The Exorcist. The parallels become so relentless--onscreen romances surviving for years off screen, Davis's rivalry with Crawford outnastying anything in All About Eve, Jackie Susann's stage-door obsession with Merman imitating Eve's obsession with Margo Channing--that they become a sort of tragic destiny, showing that nobody believes the fan's fallacy that an actor is the role she plays quite as strongly as the actors themselves, caught up in the drama of their own stardom.
Things peak pretty early, though, and midway through the book begins to bloat. "The whole thing is breaking down," Conway worries at one point, "it's barely about the movie now, / it's confessional and stalled, and I hope it's not boring." Unfortunately, it is. The poets appear to be aiming for the catch-all intimacies of James Merrill's Ouija-board masterpiece, The Changing Light at Sandover, with its high and low diction, its magpie appetite for any material at hand, and its celebration of a charmed circle of friends. But the language of Phoebe, despite a (lame) Ouija cameo, never approaches the disciplined strangeness of Merrill's. You can turn to any page in Sandover and find sentences whose mysteries you could live in for weeks, but that's rarely the case with Phoebe. (I've never written "so what" in the margins so often.) The book appears to have been a gas to write, but all the self-congratulatory messages back and forth between the authors and the score-settling poetry-world gossip make it seem like you are reading the notes in someone else's yearbook.
In Phoebe's bland language and grab bag of styles, poetry's formal lines, best when tense, lie slack. I missed the discipline. Strangely enough, I found it again in a tribute to the most bloated pastiche artists of them all: Queen, the jackbooted geniuses of stadium-glam bombast celebrated in Daniel Nester's God Save My Queen. In many ways, Nester is up to the same thing as the Phoebe trio, mixing autobiography, gossip, and criticism in poems that could be essays. But where they sprawl, he refines; where they reveal, he veils. Every song on Queen's first 10 records gets its own tight little seven-line poem (okay, "Bohemian Rhapsody" gets 12 lines), some almost straight music criticism, some obscurely allusive, some bittersweetly anecdotal ("I really wanted to cry when you / heard this, and saw you were unimpressed"). Nester too makes telling linkages ("'Ah, Freddie Mercury,' Sid [Vicious] says smugly, staggering. 'Bringing ballet to the / masses then?' Freddie takes a sip, looks up from his instrument. / 'Oh yes, Mister Ferocious,' Freddie says. 'Well, we're doing our best, my dear.'"), and he makes his own confessions, but cryptically, so the references can be entered on the reader's own terms. The effect is not to exhaust his subject, but to increase its mystery and thereby its magic.
For Nester, the slippage between art and life comes from the fan's perspective, in which your love for the art is what seems to bring that art into being. As confessional as Phoebe is, it never captures the intense identification of a drag queen or a kid in his bedroom the way that Nester does in "Bohemian Rhapsody," when he describes his adolescent ceremony of laying out all the Queen records in order on his floor, 45s neatly stacked on top of each album: "I would then stand in front of this, drinking a wine cooler, as if I were Noah in / the Ten Commandments movie, congratulating myself, clasping my arms behind / my back, as if this was my ark, my own creation." A decade or so later, he's still doing the same thing, lining up all the songs in order and making them his own, refusing to trade in that earnest teen yearning for a more ironic stance. As he writes, in response to the hipster derision that he imagines greeting an amateurish, wonderful drag show (no doubt similar to the contempt faced by any lifelong Queen fan): "Let's say, finally, that enchantment can really happen."