“I want to say one word to you. Just one word . . . plastics”—this line from 1968’s iconic film The Graduate spoke to a growing awareness of “plastic” as a metaphor for the phoniness and materialism of postmodern American culture. This metaphor may be on the decline, but the concerns it represents are even more relevant today, and the poems in Lynn Levin’s Miss Plastique, her newest collection, explore this tension between the authentic and artificial that now more than ever complicates our lives.
From circus freaks to tot-pageant moms, Levin’s characters struggle to define themselves in a world that often values the superficial. In “Eddie Pratt as Himself,” after a photograph by David Graham, cross-dressing Eddie grows up in a world that “was a school / where [he] had to write: I will act like a man / 100 times on the blackboard”; now an adult male posing in “bustier and panties / redder than salvia,” his choice to reject love in favor of self-exposure is an act of defiance that also renders him a casualty of the society that produced him (18).
In the sestina “Action Hero,” Levin explores a young couple’s dysfunctional relationship—she with a spending addiction, particularly to plastic action toys for their son, and he with a fascination for monsters, making them a fitting couple and a tragic one, destined to view things differently but each necessary to the role the other plays, as evidenced in the poem’s finale, where the couple, Tim and Jo Beth, must spend
a lifetime trying to appease demons, and their strength is spent paying daily tribute. Still, brutal history can change its heartbeat. Tim and Matt laugh together reading tales of silly monsters. Yet when Tim speaks of divorce, Jo Beth weeps and yells, “I love you! Don’t leave me!” He sighs and gets no farther than the front door, walks back through the hordes of plastic.Matt enjoys spending days with his dad, who doesn’t yell that much at him. Tim has the heartbeat of a model father. He hopes monsters can change. He wants nature to be plastic. (7)
With these last lines, the end-words repeated throughout the sestina (plastic, spend, father, beat, yell, monster) undergo some subtle changes in meaning: active “spend” becomes the capitulating “spent”; hostile “beat” becomes caring “heartbeat”; the “plastic” of credit cards and cheap toys becomes an empty substitute for the kind of plastic capable of being shaped or changed.
Levin also explores femininity and female bravado with characters who present themselves as bold, confident, and sexy. In the title poem, for example, femme fatale Miss Plastique marvels that plastic explosives—“something that looks like bread dough” and can be wrapped like bubblegum—might also be used to entice her enemy to “Take me into your mouth. Taste me.” Her “stiletto / heels, Garbo hat, [and] lipsticks” are merely a weapon, but for self-defense as much as anything else. Her affinity to plastic explosives (they, too, must be “handled /with care and can explode / at any moment”) results in a sexual awakening, a recognition of power, “a self-love / [she] never knew [she] had,” and she longs both to share this revelation with another, even an enemy, and to be the catalyst of such awakening.
In “Lilith at the Cosmetics Counter,” the “baby killer! man raper!” from ancient folklore and Hebrew legend, contemplates “some ego first aid,” perhaps “plastic surgery . . . in good time,” until she “detects a whiff of sabotage” in the cosmetics-counter saleswoman who entices her with a store credit card and the possibility of transformation; but Lilith “glance[s] in the high-def mirror” at “the wilderness of her face” and decides that “fate was a bitch / but it was herbitch. / And that was the beauty of it” (47, 48).
This penchant for self-preservation occurs in other poems as well. The speaker in “The Hitchhiker” recounts how the “good old boys with honest mud on their jeans” who used to “pick [her] up in their beat-up chariots” culminate in the sleazy Tom Wise, with his “skullish face, dead tooth, watery eyes.” He offers her a ride, even though she “didn’t even have [her] thumb out,” and the next day, “reek[ing] of Aramis” and “simper[ing] around his brown incisor,” asks for her phone number—“Don’t worry. I just want to give you a buzz. / I won’t bite you . . . unless that’s your thing”:
Afterward, I feared I’d see Tom Wise
pulling up beside me, idling at a light.
Was spared that, but I remember
the pine-tree air freshener dangling from his dash.
the bluebonnets blooming outside his safety glass. (21)
Here, Levin draws a distinction between the car, the pine scent, the safety glass, all manufactured items, and the sanctuary of the natural world beyond. The speaker intuits the threat behind Tom Wise’s seedy attempts to woo her, the serpent “bar[ing] his torqued tooth” from the confines of a car instead of a garden.
When the speaker in “Faux King in the Parking Lot” has sex with an Elvis impersonator, she doesn’t rationalize her actions or hide her willingness to give it up to a man whose wife (what else?) doesn’t get him and whose retort to her comment about never sleeping with happily married men is, “Then you ought to sleep / with your husband.” She simply explains that “his thighs were hot / and the side of the car was cold” (5), her stark description of the event suggesting that she, like the speaker in “Hotel Paradox,” has learned to settle for “half portions” although she “craves / the whole poison” (31).
Throughout this collection, Levin uses the theme of “plastic” to model, expose, and explode the constraints against living authentic lives in the face of artifice, both in society and in ourselves. In “People Get Used to Just about Anything,” she presents this struggle as part of the human condition, suggesting that “If, like him, [we] ate rats in a sideshow / [we’d] make it look easy, too, with white bread/ and years of practice” (36), even as we long to “abandon[n] / [our] thirst and [our] hunger” (“To a Lamprey,” 38).
About the reviewer:
Michelle Moore earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College. She is the author of The Deepest Blue (Rager Media, 2007) and Longing for Lightness: Selected Poems of Antonia Pozzi (translation; Poetry Miscellany Press, 2002). She currently teaches writing classes at the University of Akron.