AN INSOMNIAC’S SLUMBER PARTY WITH MARILYN MONROE, a poetry collection by Heidi Seaborn, Reviewed by Deborah Bacharach

An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe, I could pick this book up for the title alone: funny and terrifying for the juxtaposition of insomniac and slumber, enticing for being set in a space where girls share their secrets, and thrilling for the chance to do so with the icon Marilyn Monroe. In Seaborn’s second full length poetry collection, she delivers all the dynamics the title promises, combining poems about a modern speaker who shares many qualities with Monroe, including insomnia, with poems in Marilyn’s voice. Seaborn embodies Marilyn Monroe. But this is no Halloween performance where she throws on a bustier and wig and hopes she can pull off next level sexy. As Seaborn has written about in her approach to persona poetry, she took a deep dive into Monroe’s oeuvre, personal mementos, and the scholarly work about her (Brevity). The voice that emerges is sometimes exactly that of Monroe from movie lines or diary entries, but also a Monroe based on research and poetic imagination who reads Ulysses because she’s thinking about optioning it, suffers awkward meetings with her mother-in-law, and suffers even more with miscarriages.

Marilyn Monroe has become so synonymous with representation—photos and movies of her in striking poses—that one could almost forget there is a real person behind the images. Seaborn takes an opportunity with this representation, a museum display of photos of Marilyn through the ages, and uses persona to speak as each of the images in the photos. The result is fascinating and heartbreaking. In “[1932—Norma Jeane at age six]” Marilyn states:

She & Momma went crazy & left me
with the goats, chickens & a herd
of foster kids. We sold brown eggs,
apples, plums, lemons & watermelon
from our stand.

A world of poverty and neglect emerges, but one also filled with the bright colors and flavors of the fresh picked fruit, all told from the matter-of-fact tone of a child. All the ampersands show a child’s ability to keep everything on the same level. Momma going crazy is just as normal as brown eggs. The verb “herd” lets us know the foster kids were just as commodified as the goats and chickens.

With persona Seaborn can bring us a very private Marilyn. In “What I Give of Myself” Marilyn says:

the scent of me   they feel belongs
to them  just don’t
let them see me sweat   the flush
rushing up my throat as they push
into my body   a body that is not
my body
these days   I don’t recognize myself

Seaborn shows us a Marilyn who both chooses to give her body in sex and to the camera and who feels forced to do so. It’s a hard complex moment. Persona allow Seaborn to give us an internal monologue, secrets a person might only reveal to themselves, and even then hesitantly. The use of spacing within the line creates that tension, that hesitation, as well as lines like “rushing up my throat as they push,” which standing on its own could refer to the speaker’s own words pushing to get out. Seaborn shows with her craft Monroe’s struggle to decide what she can and will give.

But this is not just a book in the voice in Marilyn Monroe. Another speaker is also here, one who feels quite invited to the insomniac’s slumber party. At “1:26 am,” the speaker, almost in a trance state from lack of sleep, finds Marilyn in front of her:

It’s the middle of the night & Marilyn’s here

Without a lick of makeup in my kitchen,
wrapped in a cream silk robe. Like mine.
So many men & marriages between
the two of us it’s hard to keep track—

I offer her tea. She opts for that vodka, says
Skip the Ambien darling, we have things to discuss.

Lines like “So many men & marriages between / the two of us it’s hard to keep track—” are funny and a bit self-mocking, but they let Seaborn focus on these women’s shared experience.

Seaborn’s technique of having the speaker and Marilyn talk to each other makes the relationship feel natural and intimate. In “Marilyn in the Tea Leaves” the speaker asks:

What do you have to say                                             for yourself?

The next poem, “What We Say For Ourselves” prefaced by the epigram “One in 16 American women’s first sexual intercourse experience is rape” answers in Marilyn’s voice:

O darling, before I was blonde as sunshine,

I was a strange girl
in a home of strangers,

schooled by a man
who called himself

Daddy
I baked him a whole pie.
He sliced it into fractions—
the fruit softening
before the knife,

In this poem, we have Marilyn’s insouciance and connection as she calls the speaker “darling”; we have her intimacy as she reveals her childhood; and we have this gorgeous and terrifying metaphor Seaborn provides of a young woman as a pie where rape slices her into pieces. This Marilyn understands what rape can do to a self. We trust the relationship between the speaker and Marilyn because the speaker too can remember the color of her rapist’s skin: “Even now decades later, when sometimes / I forget what happened yesterday.” They are building a world of shared understanding, of truth.

Of truth and beauty. Seaborn uses powerful gorgeous imagery. In “Earthbound” she writes, “Juice / stings each slight, slit / my skin sunlit” a sensual image rich with accented syllables, assonance, and alliteration. We can feel the sting, see the skin, and smell the lemon that is being prepared. The close-up creates a moment where time almost stops. In “Then I Slept,” Seaborn brings in lemon completely differently in the evocative: “First there was the lemon peel / of morning” an image that is surprising, recognizable, and beautiful.

If you already adore Marilyn Monroe, you will appreciate this book for the different sides of her Seaborn highlights, and the respect she shows as she does so. Your icon is in good hands. But, if you’ve barely thought about Marilyn Monroe, and I count myself in that group, you might like this book even more. “Who said nights were for sleep?” Marilyn Monroe demands in the book’s epigram. Seaborn takes up that bravado, and her lush language invite us all to the party.

An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe, by Heidi Seaborn. PANK Books, June 2021. 84 pages. $18.00, paper.

Deborah Bacharach is the author of Shake and Tremor (Grayson Books, 2021) and After I Stop Lying (Cherry Grove Collections, 2015). She has been published in Vallum, Poet Lore, and The Southampton Review among many other journals. She is an editor, teacher and tutor in Seattle. Find out more about her at DeborahBacharach.com.

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