Sharing this poem for Labor Day. I published this a few years ago in a journal called Thank You For Swallowing. The journal was started by Cat Conway in response to a poem by a male poet that began with those same words as the name of the journal. It featured protest poems by mostly women writers and poets. I wrote this ekphrastic poem about Edward Hopper’s painting New York Movie, 1939. It’s also inspired by my first job, as a movie theater usherette, when I was 17. I wore a uniform actually very similar to the girl in Hopper’s painting.
She’s been told she belongs in pictures
twice already tonight.
It averages three, four times a shift.
It’s a line, but no lie…just look at her.
Yellow Harlow hair, formidable Crawford shoulders,
long legs dressed Hepburn style in slim straight trousers,
and high heels like the kind Ginger Rogers danced in
backwards all through the Depression days.
On slow nights, like tonight, she thinks
Ginger’s not the only one who can do her job backwards.
This one, in her sleep even.
She minds the attention from male moviegoers a little less
than her manager’s come-ons.
The moment the picture starts the customers forget
she’s there and she can be left alone awhile
at the periphery, beneath the three lamps
beside the red curtain and sworled blue stairs separating
the dark plush dreams of this movie palace
from reality and all the rest:
World War talk and World’s Fair frenzy,
dull dates, heartaches, mother’s meddlings,
the manager’s pinches and leers.
He puts her on the late shift on purpose,
keeps offering her a lift home
after midnight. She’s taken to telling him
she’s meeting someone, somewhere down the street
and no she doesn’t need a lift there either.
But tonight it’s no lie, not just a safety line.
Standing at the periphery in the wall-lamp glow
she counts the minutes to the closing credits.
Marlene Dietrich is dying in Jimmy Stewart’s arms.
Maybe this new guy will stick around longer,
make her laugh tonight or take her dancing,
backwards or forwards, any direction
so long as it’s away from here.
If not, there’s always the pictures…she belongs in them
so she keeps getting told. And she thinks some night
she may prove her admirers right:
wait for the closing credits, turn up the lights,
wake the audience from their dreams,
usher them out, close the red curtain,
then climb through the big screen.
She figures if they insist on looking and leering,
she’s gonna direct the angle they see her from, at least.
What she wants is to rewrite the script,
change the ending. She doesn’t want Dietrich to die.
Forget what the men in the seats want to see.
Let the heroines live. Make the pictures belong to the girls
for a change. She has ideas…not just dreams.
All the glow a woman basks in when no one’s looking.
All the good ideas to be got from the periphery.