You may be surprised to hear this but poets are still around. Yes, a few survived influenza in the 16th century, and are now conquering contemporary culture with the same weapons poets have always used: words. Lynn Levin is one of those modern poets, as well as, a professor at Drexel University. Levin’s latest book, Miss Plastique, takes on the complications of female identity and views of feminine beauty.
The book’s cover says it all—a cheeky Barbie like doll, donning a provocative hot pink bodice with matching makeup. But their aren’t any secrets behind her Mona Lisa-esque smirk. Miss Plastique speaks as bravely as her choice of attire.
Because it should be handled
with care and can explode
at any moment, it is like me.
The candid opening lines of Levin’s poem by the same title, sets the tone of the collection. Unlike Levin’s previous collections of poems—Fair Creatures of an Hour, Imaginarium, A Few Questions about Paradise, and her collaborative book with fellow poet Valerie Fox, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets—the voices of Miss Plastique are entirely female. “There are many Miss Plastiques’, they are angry, they are funny, they are lovelorn, and they deal with whatever situation they are in,” says Levin.
The title of the collection was inspired by a magazine perfume ad for Miss Dior, and evolved into a question of who these Misses were. Themes of makeup, hair, and fashion intertwine with sporadic references to plastic to explore the characters in Miss Plastique. “The poems have an air of feminine bravado. The women in the book may not be bold and strong, but they try to speak as though they are,” says Levin. In this way the women Levin references are the very bold, and restlessly confessional females they try to be. We meet that Plastique in poems like Hotel Paradox, where Levin writes,
Oh, to rise from my nervousness like a carp
From a dark pool or eat half portions when I crave
The whole poison. What soap can wash away
My foolishness or deep years wake me?
Here, she is trapped in desire, the fear of desire, and the desire to be disburdened by those feelings. Capturing complex and yet ambiguous feelings in a few descriptive words is Levin’s forte. In the same way she reveals the density of relationships between women of every age with each other, and within the world of dating and marriage.
Two of the collections most captivating characters, Lilith and Eve, are reimagined from the Old Testament and ancient folk tradition. As Levin notes in Miss Plastique, Lilith “was said to be Adam’s first wife before Eve and was created as his equal. Characterized as a self-assertive woman, Lilith refused to be subservient to Adam during sexual intercourse or any other way and fled or was driven out from Eden.”
In some ways, Lilith has been viewed as the antitheses of Eve, yet Levin salvages and rescues her reputation with poems like Lilith at the Cosmetic Counter and Lilith’s Quilt and introduces readers to a Lilith that accepts her outcome. In Lilith at the Cosmetic Counter the piece concludes with “She knew fate was a bitch/but it was her bitch/ and that was the beauty of it,” showing us a self-aware woman who doesn’t contradict the legend surrounding her character but affirms it with entitlement and pride. In other poems the two join rebellious forces to fight misconceptions about femininity. “The idea that femininity is associated with contoured curiosity and contoured independence and that people are meant to pay for it… I don’t like it,” says Levin.
The personalities of Miss Plastique don’t hide behind make up and hair, and they are not solely concerned about appearances, instead they tackle identity in a way that incorporates the external with the internal. “With all of the turmoil and anxiety that these characters are having about identity there is still this acknowledgment that getting dressed and putting on makeup is still part of how we rally,” the poet explains.
To read more from the modern poet, purchase Miss Plastique and more of Lynn Levin’s poetry on amazon.com, as well as, in selected bookstores in the Philadelphia area.
Amanda V. Wagner is a junior English Major at Drexel University and the student editor of the Cultural Passport. Follow Amanda on twitter at @amandavwagner
Book cover courtesy of Lynn Levin
Photo of Levin by Beverly Collins-Roberts