“What Do You Have to Say for Yourself?” — Heidi Seaborn’s An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe

Image by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay. CC0/Public domain.

An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe opens with “I.” The “I” is the poet, Heidi Seaborn. The “I” is the reader, identifying with the first-person pronoun. The “I,” in future poems, is also Marilyn Monroe. No celebrity beats Marilyn Monroe for recognition and longevity. She was the logical choice for Heidi Seaborn, who wished to explore persona work and superstardom, and to understand how a person arrives at such a status and what it might mean. To thoroughly embrace the persona form, Seaborn travelled to the center of her questions (among them, “What do you have to say … for yourself?” (p. 12, “Marilyn in the Tea Leaves”)) and discovered a loving human in search of herself, first, in Marilyn, and then in her poet self, and then, I venture, in her own self. I believe she stunned herself with her profound communion with a past presence and the familiarity of their experiences. Almost each time Seaborn wrote “I” she twined Marilyn, the poet, and herself—and all her readers, each assuming the “I” of the page.

Heidi Seaborn read and saw everything-Marilyn. Her meticulous research surprised her for what it revealed about Norma Jeane and who she—and other forces—turned her into, for the universality of role-playing, and for her own behaviors, and became this book, An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe.

Bestowed by the extent of her imagination and, in the case of historical figures such as Marilyn Monroe, by busy hours of archival investigation, the persona writer enjoys a delicious freedom to explore lives other than her own, to saunter a road not taken. Through her poems, Heidi Seaborn inhabits the icon of icons and wears the attendant make-up and costumes, fame and loneliness, dedications and disturbances.

John Berryman invented his Henry persona of The Dream Songs and David Bowie his Ziggy Stardust persona, and so they could make of these characters what they pleased, unconstrained. Heid Seaborn had to contend with truths external to her invention. The degree of care she took in investigating her subject permits her entry into a credible Marilyn-I. The poet sharpens this chosen persona by weaving her Poet-I through the collection, for perspective and connection. “I’ve taken Ambien every day this week…” (p. 1) launches “Insomnia Diary” and the book. The “I” of “Insomnia Diary” introduces the likelihood of the Poet-I expressing and confessing a good percentage of Heidi Seaborn’s “I,” but ever as the self-aware individual creating beings on paper, and here it establishes connection. Heidi Seaborn learned she and Marilyn Monroe share certain loves, among them, reading literature and writing poetry; and demons, insomnia and drug (ab)use to counter it. Both married several times. These common bonds enter the poems. Intermixing the Poet-I and the Marilyn-I stirs in unease for the reader who may wonder if a description, for example, of a frightening marriage, belongs both to Seaborn or Monroe—or is it somehow the reader’s own?—before identifying a marker of Marilyn’s life. A sense of possibility lurks.

Heidi Seaborn may have set out to understand better society’s fixation on celebrity, but what she made, and delivers, sums to far more and is encapsulated in “Divine Marilyn in Paris” (pp. 39-51). The long poem traces Seaborn’s curation of Marilyn Monroe’s biographical specifics and her approach to these, beginning with the Poet-I entering the exhibition, Divine Marilyn: “I am alone in Galerie Joseph with Marilyn” (p. 39). Hinging on an ampersand, and alighting momentarily on a “we,” the Poet-I metamorphoses, “I inhale, pull out a pen &/together we/rewrite the exhibition notes” (p. 40). Next Seaborn gives us the distinctly unglamorous childhood through Norma’s “I:” “I was a brown quiet mouse” (p. 41). The subsequent segments of “Divine Marilyn in Paris” lead the reader, chronologically, to the icon’s last sitting, “Me in black … Let me stain my fingertips with cherries …” (p. 51) and to the chromatic iconography of death—funereal black and blood red. Here is the biography of the celebrity. Here is a fleet of photographers entranced by the rise of the star. Here is the evolution from small-rodent brown to juicy-fruity red. Here is the lexicon of cocktails and flora. Here is the sadness, bared in the phrase, “Let me …,” (p. 51) as if Marilyn Monroe lived in a trap. Here is the expansion of the poet deep into the domain of another’s thinking.

Marilyn devotees will be sated. On the off-chance that they don’t garner new information, they will luxuriate in Heidi Seaborn’s immersive take.

Snippets from Marilyn’s own poetry, party plans, and punctuation slide into these poems because Heidi Seaborn steeped herself in the icon’s English and grammar. The Notes provide a view into process. From them, if not already understood from the poems themselves, the reader learns the variety of sources and inspirations ranging from interviews and films to Diane Seuss’s poetry and Sylvia Plath’s diary. Seaborn assembles a lush lexicon for Marilyn, full of fruits and flowers, colors and sweets, alcohol and glow, as in the third-person “Marilyn” (p. 2): “gardenia … petals … honeyed … radiating … bud … buttercup … corsage … snowdrop … peonies … bough … blooming.” “Should I describe her in color; honey,/champagne, the fading//lemon wedge of a horizon/before it melts into midnight blue,/or milk gone sour?” the poet asks in “Blonde Is a Color” (p. 9). Yes. Thank you for all the glamorous metaphors. And the reader notices the biographical plot line in the tints chosen to represent Monroe start golden and festive, with honey and champagne, then trend into the darkness of night and the sourness of milk. Glamour going south.

Diction choices keep the ear connected too, as with the onomatopoeic alliteration of “… a hummingbird whirs over the forsythia,” in “Then I Slept” (p. 78). All the Ds in the nineteen lines of “After the Miscarriages” (p. 36) —dearest, deflated, emptied, dust, windowpanes, parade, bands, loved, loathed, darkened, shuttered, dead, wonder, ending, wonder, and cinders—drums Arthur Miller’s despondency. Anaphora within “Loss” (p. 35) drills in what has been lost. Seaborn repeats and repeats “color” in the first several lines and then takes it away for several and then replaces it with something in the final lines that is only “like the color.”

An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe reminds me of Mike Bartlett’s 2014 play, Charles III. I am not a British-royal-family fan. When articles about Harry or Charles or new House of Windsor babies barge into my feed, I delete them with the “not interested” option. But I was interested in Bartlett’s House of Windsor and the thematic elements drawn from Shakespeare. While I’ve enjoyed Marilyn Monroe’s acting and learning about her literary interests, I have never sought out Marilyn-related anything. But I am much interested by Heidi Seaborn’s Marilyn. Like Bartlett, Seaborn meshes meticulous research with credible speculation and devotion to excellence in craft. I celebrate the quality of their creations.

Bartlett wrote Charles III in blank verse. Within the persona framework, Seaborn wrote in a variety of forms appropriate to the chameleon who was Norma Jeane Mortenson, to the chameleon-ness of all of us. An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe stays true to its title and it is, formally, a party. The poet dips into other personae linked to her primary subject, Arthur Miller and Marilyn’s maid each having a poem, but maintains persona emphasis on the guest of honor, Marilyn-I, and the host, Poet-I.

Most of the collection’s poems feature left-justification, some in couplets, some as thin rectangles of text. To accommodate very long lines, the Marilyn-styled-em-dash-filled “How to Throw a Communist Party” (p. 27) lies at right angles to the other poems such that the reader must orient the right side of the book as the top. Seaborn plays with form for good reasons, as with the time-stamped segments of “Hello, it’s Me, Marilyn” (p. 68) that mix neat, left-justified lines and loose, sprawling ones, and hint at the ebb and flow of Marilyn’s final conversations and thoughts, directly preceding her death.

Seaborn follows “Hello …”, told in Marilyn-I, with another, but this, as if from her grave, or as if she never can die, her voice persisting: “All I Ever Wanted” (p. 74). The “All” appears in the structure of the poem as an abecedarian—everything, from A to Z. In “Hey” (p. 16), another abecedarian, Seaborn sticks to a more familiar delivery of the form, beginning each line with the next letter, alphabetically. Instead, in “All I Ever Wanted” Seaborn embeds the alphabet. Each line gets its letter, which is capitalized, but arranged so that the alphabet falls diagonally from left to right and then back to the left, a sideways V. The alphabet so suits the subject— “An … Barbiturates … Champagne … Doctors … Everything … Friends … God … Heaven … I … Joe … Kissed … Love … Men … Naked … Open … Poetry … Question … Read … Studied … Things … Ugly … Violence … Would … X-rated … You … Zipped.” Seaborn conjures concepts emblematic of Marilyn-Norma-Jeane’s existence, death, and persistence in the pantheon of celebrity. Despite the constraints of the form, the language and story spill, almost hiding the discipline required to have created the poem. In the Notes, Seaborn announces the form, but nudges her readers to notice it among the poems by placing an installment of “Insomnia Diary,” that also relies on the abecedarian, on the facing page (p. 75, “3:51 am”). It is a mirror reflection of the Marilyn-I. Akin to counting sheep, the insomniac Poet-I lists categories alphabetically: “… fruits: apple, banana, cantaloupe …,” car parts: “… axle, break …,” cities, and countries.

A few of the long poems—which may run many pages—Seaborn sections in a variety of ways. “Divine Marilyn in Paris” (pp. 39-51), the multi-part ekphrases of the show of photographs, she divvies with the dates, photograph titles, and photographer attributions. “Hello, it’s Me, Marilyn” (p. 69-73), a conjuring of Marilyn Monroe’s final communications, she punctuates with time stamps of phone calls. “Shadows” (p. 10), a prose poem, comes in numbered paragraphs. But Heidi Seaborn keeps the 77 pages of poetry in An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe un-sectioned—a single, bundle in which “Insomnia Diary” pops up at intervals like an insomniac itself, unable to drift off. The Poet-I “Insomnia Diary” appears in eleven time-dated entries, each interpretable as a stand-alone, most only a few lines long, a few broken into stanzas. One, “1:53 am” (p. 62), is a garble-ramble, as if drug- or wakefulness-induced: “cut to interior black & white a girdle so loose she said/apple you big banana head she said diamonds edit film/goose-pimply she said …”. By interspersing the time-stamped “Insomnia Diary” entries, Seaborn unites the collection. Whenever this poem rears its sleepless head, it speaks to the poems rubbing shoulders, solidifying similarities and contrasts between the Marilyn-I and the Poet-I, and all the poems become one event, like a night in the life/a life in a night. A night of slumber partying. A life of slumber partying. As Seaborn quotes Marilyn, “Who said nights were for sleep?” Of course, the life of the party is Marilyn Monroe. And the poet-host invites the reader. And the reader gets to consort with—and to entertain a common “I” with—the most sexy of popular-culture icons in this mesmerizing vortex of insomnia. “Insomnia Diary” has appeared in a one-swoop version in The Offing, but here, with Seaborn’s inventive division of the poem, it becomes a new work, and a new form—a book-length form. This reader can think of no other example of a poem so divided and simultaneously uniting in any other poetry collection.

Ultimately, Marilyn Monroe’s is a sad story; Heidi Seaborn’s is the opposite. In the final poem of An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe, “Then I Slept” (p. 78), a solid rightness materializes. This comes about because Seaborn decisively untwines her “I” from Marilyn’s. Her profound dive into persona form here grants perspective and the poet cleaves herself from the icon. They may have shared insomnia, etc., but the poet trains herself off sleep drugs and gifts herself natural slumber and an attendant freshness. The reader joins the poet as she wakes, as if from a mythic trip to Hades, back to a burgeoning spring. Formally and thematically, “Then I Slept” serves as a coda to “Insomnia Diary.” After Seaborn’s “I” sleeps fully, her insomnia cured, her rested and restored senses pick up subtleties of hue—“… the lemon peel/of morning,” of temperature of matter and mood— “… the bed, still warm, my love’s body/still held in the indentation,” of local sounds and their meanings— “… the clatter of his oatmeal and tea/… a neighbor’s whistle,//a dog’s rugged bark, a man calling out as a car door slams,” and she realizes and announces the truth, “I slept in, slept through the night.//I slept without Ambien’s dark/fist pressing my pillow.” This Untwined-I has the strength to rebut her Love’s questioning of God’s existence with a lightness of a positive forecast, “…but I hear the weather//is warming this week.” The poet’s rested and restored senses pick up fragrances and events of nature in springtime— “… heavy perfume//of daphne drifts … a hummingbird whirs …” and, waiting for their cue, “… honeybees doze.” The collection ends with this bright awareness of existence, of the poet being well known to herself. I celebrate, sharing this “I,” full of possibility.

While the cover features an inviting Milton H. Greene black-and-white sultry-drowsy-Marilyn-in-bed photo and a title font that combines playfulness with an archetypal femininity in its fat all-caps yellow with magenta shadowing, missing from this new book is Heidi Seaborn’s intriguing biography and, yes, glamorous photograph. Please, be sure to look these up at https://heidiseabornpoet.com/. This poet’s shine increases wattage daily. Although she began writing poetry as an adult only in 2016, Seaborn has amassed numerous publications (books—Give a Girl Chaos {see what she can do}, Bite Marks, Finding My Way Home, and Once a Diva—and many articles and poems in journals, and this new book) and awards, and is executive editor at The Adroit Journal and on the board of Tupelo Press. She does not rest on these many laurels but steadily pursues fresh formal investigations and subjects, gifting readers this freshness. Heidi Seaborn strikes this reader as a celebrity of the poetry world. Keep her in your view.

An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe
Heidi Seaborn. Houghton, MI: [PANK] Books, 2021.
85 pages. $18.
Winner: 2021 PANK Poetry Contest.
ISBN 978-1-948587-19-8

Categories Poetry

Pamela Hobart Carter loves Seattle as much for its water and mountains as for its bustle and creativity. She explores the Emerald City daily while walking her dog. Carter used to be a teacher who wrote on the side. Now she is a writer who teaches on the side.

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