The cover of Miss Plastique, Lynn Levin’s new poetry collection, features a Barbie-like, plastic fashion doll with shining blonde hair, thick mascara, a lacy, strapless bodice, and lush lips. A blonde bombshell. A femme fatale. A foretaste of what you’ll find within.
The image evokes all the contradictions of young womanhood: the lure of traditional femininity vs. the compelling voice of feminism, its intellectual demands, its appeal to what we know, deep down, is true. And its call to arms — to prove that there’s more to this girl than meets the eye. Poem by poem, we are lured on by mystery, by both seduction and subterfuge. The poems warn us that what lies beneath the surface may be more than you bargained for.
“Just one word – plastics,” we were advised in “The Graduate.” And then, suddenly, they were everywhere — from toys to rolling pins. Cheap, mass-produced, artificial, phony. Today, the word conjures the ultimate in materialism and excess: credit cards. Plastique, itself, is an obsolete term for a plastic explosive. Soft, moldable, versatile, it can take on different shapes. Quick! How is an explosive like a woman?
The poems in this collection display Levin’s studied attention to craft and a delightful versatility. She is equally at home with received forms (sonnet, villanelle, sestina, aphorism) and free verse. But all of the poems are imbued with attention to form, space, and pacing — even when not explicitly formal. She often plays with form and narrative structures we recognize to render a double-edged message, to add another layer of meaning to a poem.
The book contains four sections. Section 1 recounts a time of innocence — for the country and for many young women who would come to question their roles and identities. Even then, there was an undercurrent of something simmering beneath the surface. And the title poem captures it, as well as the essence of the collection:
Something that looks like dough
can kill you. I love the stuff
with a self-love
I never knew I had.
– “Miss Plastique”
“Action Hero” is the first of two sestinas in the book. One of the recurring words is—no surprise—plastic. And the poem contains plastic bracelets (both bangles and the hospital type), toy monsters, action figures, and credit cards. It ends with the double-entendre: He wants nature to be plastic. “Idylls of Mayfield,” another sestina, recounts “orderly suburbs,” the world of The Beav, Wally, Ward and June, and Eddie Haskell.
The poems in Section II read like personal history. Like those in Section I, they help to set the scene. “Miss New York Princess” captures the way little girls are groomed, quite literally, for a life of glamor and artifice. Yet it happens in a thousand more subtle ways.
“Insomniac Romance,” a nonce sonnet, is only 10 lines. There’s no rhyme scheme, but the unmistakable rhythm and the almost-form is there.
“We hate to hate each other but we do—
then feeling bad because of that we lay us
next to next in bed, two statues on a tomb.
– “Insomniac Romance”
In “Yes, No, Maybe” Levin’s sense of humor and love of wordplay shines through. Each line ends in some variation on yes, no, or maybe. It’s a little like playing he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not while plucking petals from a daisy — until the last charming couplet:
yes, one of you should find a new address. No more
procrastination. Or maybe wait: do nothing in haste.
A perfect gem of a poem is “The Language of Wildflowers,” the entire poem a list of flowers’ names, nevertheless tells a story — from touch-me-not to forget-me-not. And along the way, there are kisses, shooting stars, and loosestrife. In sharp contrast, there’s the vivid visceral kick — and the shock of self-recognition — in poems like “People Can Get Used to Just About Anything” and “To a Lamprey.”
Section IV includes a series of four poems about Lilith and Eve that explore feminine identities and conflicts. Assertive and refusing to be subservient, Lilith has become a symbol, to contemporary feminists, of rebellion and self-expression. In one poem, Eve and Lilith go to Macy’s. In the self-multiplying mirror of the fitting room, Eve moves her right arm, but it looks like her left. “She can’t be sure which image reflects the real Eve.” The poem ends with the two women kissing under the all-seeing eye of a security camera. In another poem, Lilith counsels Eve, “Either accept your life or change your life.”
The final poem, “This Door or That,” gently explains that there are many ways that a gift can be used, may things a phrase can mean, many interpretations of a poem and a life.
Miss Plastique shows off Levin’s intelligence and wit, cleverness and charm. These poems are full of parallels and paradoxes, mirrors and doors. All of the poems here are well chosen. All address ideas that recur throughout the collection, such that ideas reflect and ricochet as images in a hall of mirrors. Enough complexity and ambiguity to keep you returning and rereading.