What Profit Is There In Being Marlene Dietrich

For this month’s Famous People poem, Barbara Hamby’s “What Profit is there in Being Marlene Dietrich

What profit is there in being Marlene Dietrich

if you don’t rip the intestines out of some dummkopf
who adores you? […]

This sonnet starts off with a roar — I admit I’m a sucker for poems that use sound combos like “intestines” and “dummkopf” in a single line. It’s a great setup for the attitude of the poem, and a really turn after the line break. (Though line breaks are a weakness in “What Profit is there in Being Marlene Dietrich” — the major drawback of this poem is line breaks keep the sonnet rhyme form at the sacrifice of the line’s integrity and rhythm. “Catherine the Great’s ermine / hat” being the most egregious.)

What follows then is a really nice handling of the eternal problem of writing about famous people (and, in this case, old movies), which is how far out do you go to meet the reader who is minimally, or not, familiar with the person in question, and how do you do that without getting prosey, imdb.com-ey, or condescending. I think Hamby handles it nicely here — helped enormously by the fact that the movie titles she uses are evocative even if you’re unfamiliar with Rancho Notorious or The Blue Angel.

And then the doll section, how Hamby plays with turning the general girly doll idea, first “For me, Barbie dolls were all about / the clothes” and then the real confession, the kicker ending,

[…] I want a doll who’ll flout
Cossacks, British law, a cellar full of drunk GIs,
a real doll—one who drinks martinis, laughs, talks, and lies.

I just love that ending. Love love love.

You can find more Barbara Hamby poems online here.

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