Hollywood isn’t so much of a place as it is a locus of yearning. It’s a crucible for those who aspire to fame. Cheap businesses thrive here, catering to the tastes of the masses, while daring artists toil on the fringes making ambitious work. It’s a city where sexual politics are at their worst and their best—women are treated as sex objects on and off screen, but most of the major studios are actually run by ladies. Tinsel Town is such a peculiar city, it has been canonized in innumerable novels, memoirs, biographies, and tabloids. Surprisingly, not many books of poetry have sought to make the strange city its muse. Robert Polito took on that challenge in 2009 with Hollywood and God, a collection of poems that deals with celebrity, new Hollywood, old Hollywood, successful superstars, and washed-up has-beens.
The book is about Hollywood, but Robert isn’t an insider. He never played a significant role in a major motion picture like writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald or William Faulkner did in the 20s. Robert is someone who has viewed it from the outside.
In the book, Robert creates tension between the triviality of the entertainment industry and the highbrow elements of the poetic form. The collection’s title speaks to this dichotomy and the mission behind the book: to explore the spiritual state of the country by examining its most popular medium of entertainment through its most underappreciated form of artistic expression.
The poems in the collection differ vastly in terms of form. The three-poem sequence that begins the book—“Hollywood Hills,” “Barbara Payton: A Memoir,” and “Paris Hilton Calls on Jesus”—is especially effective because of the way each poem’s similar subject matter is accessed with a different perspective and execution.
“Hollywood Hills” is the first work in the book. It is lineated in a traditional style, which tricks you into thinking that Hollywood and God will be a “typical” book of poetry. “Barbra Peyton: A Memoir,” which follows “Hollywood Hills,” destroys that notion with its prose structure and establishes the scrapbook variety that defines the book.
“Barbara Payton: A Memoir” begins with the narrator speaking about his youth and his father. His father had two jobs. His main gig was with the post office, and his second one was tending a bar on Sunset Boulevard called the Coach and Horses. The narrator describes how he spent time helping his dad at the bar and ended up proofreading manuscripts for a publishing house owned by one of his dad’s customers. Actress Barbara Payton, who is long past her prime when the narrator becomes acquainted with her, is a regular at the bar. Eventually, the narrator starts working with Barbara on her own memoir. Thus, the poem is built around two levels of flashbacks. The first is the narrator, reflecting on his days as a 13-year-old, and the second is the narrator reflecting on Barbara, who is divulging her past to the storyteller for her memoir. Through the narrator, we hear the sad and very true story of Barbara Payton—how she went through a series of turbulent marriages and then worked her way down to hooking on Sunset Boulevard, before dying in her mid-30s. The narrator’s nostalgic and earnest retelling of Barbara’s story energizes the facts so they don’t feel like a Wikipedia entry.
The narrator and Barbara are in analogous places, considering they are both preoccupied with recalling their former lives. However, the stories they tell are vastly different. The narrator is telling the reader of his days working at a bar where his father moonlights to make ends meet, while Barbara tells the narrator (and the readers) about her glamorous and gilded days working in Hollywood. But by the end, they switch places. The storyteller is doing something artistic—writing poems—and Barbara has turned into a drunken $5 whore.
“Paris Hilton Calls on Jesus” follows “Barbra Peyton: A Memoir” and really hones in on the theme of the whole book. In the poem, she’s not an actual person. Instead, he uses her as a symbol of the vacuous spiritual state of the town in general. Here the figure of Paris is a stand in for a type, not a non-fictional examination of the actual Paris.
It is meaningful that Robert writes non-fiction (check out Savage Art, his great biography on Southern noir master of darkness Jim Thompson) as well as poetry, because it allows his poetry to examine territory that he covers in his factual writing but through a different lens. In the poetry, Hollywood and its high and low priests and priestesses become icons that he can manipulate to find poetic truth rather than journalistic proof.