POETRY

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy

New Directions. Feb. 2020. 64p. ISBN 9780811229364. pap. $12.95. POETRY
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Poet and classics scholar Carson (Float) reimagines Euripides’ play Helen in this genre-blurring performance piece, merging the mythic persona of Helen of Troy—whose abduction by Paris triggered the Trojan War—with that of the eponymous Norma Jeane, aka Marilyn Monroe, during the troubled filming of Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night in 1952. Carson adopts Euripides’ premise that the abducted Helen was only a phantasm created by feuding gods, suggesting that the catastrophic Trojan War—and by implication all war—was fought literally over nothing. Interspersed among Helen/Norma Jeane’s soliloquies on warfare, deception, motherhood, and sexism (“Oh my darlings/ they tell you you’re born with a precious pearl./ Truth is, / it’s a disaster to be a girl”) are etymological interludes, at once erudite and mordant, plumbing the origins and cultural ramifications of words such as wound, deception, and slavery.
VERDICT Lest this all sound academic or overly meta, one need not be a student of ancient Greek drama or a pop culture historian to admire Carson’s unique artistry. The poet’s wry, pointed diction and radiant precision (e.g., Truman Capote “had a voice like a negligee, always/ slipping off one bare shoulder, just a bit”) bring Helen/Norma Jeane to vivid life as she attempts to “save [tragedy] from sorrow.”

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