Lady Be Good
By Lauren Hilger
CCM: Civil Coping Mechanisms Press, 2016
104 pages, $15.95
Reviewed by Rachel Wooley

This cinematic collection of poetry examines the many facets of being a woman of a certain era. Its lens focuses on various women playing their roles – sometimes literally, on stage or screen; sometimes just in appearances or public spaces. In other poems, the collection gives voice to the woman, particularly the glamorous, the idealized, the unapproachable.

There’s a lot to unpack in the 60+ poems which make up Hilger’s first full-length collection. Allusions and references abound, from jazz and symphony music to Greek Mythology. Movie starlets, musicians, and Tolstoy’s novel heroines are given space along with less heroic women of Greek mythology and opera: “You want her to hum in your hand,/ her skin witching over// as light glints off Salome’s carnelian crown, her melted candle,/ her vase’s thin turquoise lip.” The collective effect calls to mind another era, a classic era of Gatsby-like parties and glamour, with a gauzy nostalgia layered over it all.

Musical allusions add to the atmosphere of these poems – sometimes simply in titles, like “Beethoven/ Symphony No. 7 in A Major,” but also in the action of poems like “Red Paisley,” where “We play all of Art Tatum’s/ STAY AS SWEET AS YOU ARE/ and then once more.” The language of the poems themselves adds to the musicality of this collection, too. Surprising turns of phrase create their own unusual rhythms, like these in the poem “The Seven Year Itch (1955)”: “enter with a paper bag as if of tumbling oranges/ hips and wings in stereophonic sound, warning—soft and hygienic,/ pure eyelid.”  The reader can revel as much in the richness of the lines themselves as in the images they create.

There’s a certain timelessness to the collection, or at least a sense of history, as Hilger examines women from Leda to Lauren Bacall. Some of those women speak for themselves: Ivy Smith, from the 1949 movie On the Town, for example, contemplates her position in the poems like “As Miss Turnstiles” where she describes having “something/ not human/ in me.// Drunk on/ sailors and/ a fame that ends.” Many of the women given voice in this collection feel destined to play a role that isn’t fully them, but rather the person – the woman – they think they’re expected to be. Some seem to resent this, but others seem to treasure the part of themselves unknown to anyone else: “only the center of me/ knows how alive I am.”

The title of the collection, then, reads like an instruction – or at least a piece of advice – to the women in these poems. Despite their restraint to their roles, there’s still a sense of self-discovery for many of them, a rich inner life that unfolds: “There’s me, there’s a secret, and there’s the feeling I am giving it away.” For the reader, it’s these revelations that bring these women to life.

All of us find ourselves playing certain roles in certain places, and yet it’s easy to forget that we rarely see all the sides of another person. These poems offer the possibility that such limitations might also be freeing. There’s often a certain appeal to not knowing someone very well, just like there is a freedom in a one-time conversation with a complete stranger: they could be anyone, and we could be anyone. Of course, there is a reverse to this – it’s possible to feel stifled by the roles we’re pushed into. Hilger addresses this too: Leo Tolstoy’s idealized female characters, for example, are given liberty to exist outside of those roles. In “As Tolstoy’s Natasha on the Hunt,” she has a moment alone to “inhale the woods,” to allow her horse to run free: “This fast there’s no/ sight… the palomino/ has been shaking all day with this.” Is it only when we’re alone that we can be all versions of ourselves at once? These poems tease at this question but don’t try to answer it directly. Lady Be Good is all the better for it.