The copyright page of any dancing girl press chapbook series title includes a brief statement about the press and its mission, which is distinctive. It states, “The series seeks to publish work that bridges the gaps between schools and poetic techniques—work that’s fresh, innovative, and exciting.”
Those descriptors most definitely apply to the 2015 release Edie (Whispering): Poems From Grey Gardens by Sarah Nichols. All of the poems in this collection were sourced from the dialogue transcripts of the documentary Grey Gardens, and specifically the voices of Big Edie (Edith Bouvier) and Little Edie (Edie Beale), the residents of Grey Gardens.
For those who don’t know the 1975 documentary, it is about the two characters, an impoverished mother and a daughter, who lived in a run-down mansion in a rich neighborhood in East Hampton, New York. The two women were the aunt and the first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy.
The language in Nichols’ work comes directly from the transcripts. The very first poem, “Mother Do You Realize,” sets up the project very dramatically:
Mother do you realize I love Marlene Dietrich?
Mother do you realize I’m singing?
Mother do you realize that the scene is set and
that I’m dying away?
These questions are strange and compelling, and they’re just the kind of thing one can imagine being discussed in a house full of trash, cats, and raccoons.
That poem is in the voice of the daughter, but the mother, too, is represented, as in “Mrs. Beale.” Here Big Edie recalls her youth and beauty. “Everybody thought I was perfectly terrible. / I think I have to go back to bed, she states.
Both women are interesting characters, which I guess I’m using as a term of benign mockery, as my own mother used to—“What a character,” she’d say about someone truly odd. Their unusual character traits show up in such poems as “The Best Costume,” which contains the assertion, “I / don’t like women in skirts.” The poem continues,
I can’t help it: I
like to wear certain things.
A kimono, a cape, pants
under the skirt, stockings
up over the pants—
I have to think thee things up, you know,
this is the best thing to wear for the day.
I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship of the women who lived in Grey Gardens, and Nichols uses their own words to present poems that showcase their unusual ways of making their way through the world.
It is an interesting project, too, and a fast but evocative read.