The two poems I want to discuss today are not at all alike. One is the title poem of Lynn Levin's Miss Plastique. The other is "Another Shirley Temple," the first poem in Diane Sahms-Guarnieri's Images of Beauty.
The cover of Miss Plastique is a picture of Barbie, but the poem "Miss Plastique" isn't about Barbie or any other doll. It's about what plastic explosive has in common with the poem's speaker:
Because it should be handled
with care and can explode
at any moment, it is like me.
The next stanza has the perfect pop culture reference: Ilya Kuryakin on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. blasting open a door with a bit of the stuff:
Something that looks like dough
can kill you. I love the stuff
with a self-love
I never knew I had.
That's quite an admission. So is this:
I want to wrap some up like bubble gum
and give it to my enemy.
I won't spoil things by quoting the last line, but this is poem that uses a wry, almost innocent tone to pack a wallop. It certainly reveals something about the feminine sensibility that doesn't get a lot of attention.
Diane Sahms-Guarnieri's "Another Shirley Temple" is altogether different. The title is a reference to the non-alcoholic cocktail and the poem recounts a little girl's accompanying her father to the neighborhood bar. Sahms-Guarnieri and I share a working-class background. Her father and uncles worked in textile mills, as did my mother. But Sahms-Guarnieri has a knack for writing about growing up working class that I lack. Which may explain why I find this poem so affecting.
I didn't know my own father all that well, but I did spend some days with him in bars. I liked my father and owe much to him despite his absence from my life, and one of the things I love about Sahms-Guarnieri's poem is the absence of resentment. No weeping over Daddy taking me to the bar when I was so young and innocent in these lines. One feels that the kid had a pretty good time, actually:
He turns a doorknob
opening to barroom
black as a jelly bean.
Neon letters glow orange, red.
"A Shirley Temple and a Ballantine."
"Like valentine?" I ask.
What follows is a small girl's taking in the bar scene — the juke box, "Red Roses for a Blue Lady," the machine dispensing cashews. Her father supplements his Ballantine with "a little glass of brown / poured from a bottle with roses on it." Eventually, they return home, "past the red roses that he planted," and her Dad flops down onto the sofa, "like Popeye / after Brutus knocks him out."
Did the poem end there, it might seem only another sad tale of too many shots and beers.
But it doesn't stop there. The final line, set off by itself, is, "I reach for his hand."
This is a love poem.