Last week I had the unusual opportunity to attend a poetry reading by writer and actress Amber Tamblyn at the historic Masonic Lodge in Los Angeles. Accompanied by the musical stylings of indie rock cult favorite Yo La Tengo, Tamblyn performed a curated selection from her latest book, Dark Sparkler, a collection of more than thirty free-verse poems, all of which take their titles from the names of various dead Hollywood actresses (Sharon Tate, Brittany Murphy, and Marilyn Monroe included). For those of you who are unfamiliar with LA’s local burial grounds, Tamblyn’s reading was staged appropriately: the Masonic Lodge sits on the lush and manicured campus of Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where many of Dark Sparkler’s real life subjects are interred.
“When you find a skull in the woods,/ do you leave it alone because it disturbs you/or do you leave it alone/ because of what’s still living/ inside?” This is the question with which Tamblyn begins her collection, and it is also the entirety of her poem “Li Tobler.” Tobler was a Swiss stage actress who shot herself to death at age 27, the famous muse of surrealist painter and Alien designer Hans Rudolf Giger. Tamblyn very well sets the tone of Dark Sparkler with these five short lines, drawing for her readers a shadowy map of the seance that is to follow in words. So many of the lives behind these star-studded names are still shrouded in question marks. Very little is known about what drove 24-year-old actress Peg Entwistle, for example, to jump to her death from the H of the Hollywood sign in 1932, despite how memorialized her final dramatic act has now become (Entwistle’s suicide note didn’t say much more than “I am afraid.”) Nor do we know whether Brittany Murphy’s death in 2009 was truly a suicide, or whether it was homicide — murder by poisoning of the body (as her father claims), or by poisoning of the soul (as I am claiming now).
Whereas Hollywood instinctively shies away from the “why’s” and “what if’s” when a young female celebrity dies before her time, Tamblyn is haunted by these narrative holes more than she is afraid of them. Once a child actress herself and best known for her roles in Joan of Arcardia and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, it is acutely obvious that the stakes here are high for Tamblyn. More than anything, Dark Sparkler comes across as an impassioned eulogy, a rhapsody, a rage — as if Tamblyn’s own life depends on her ability to humanize every one of these actresses, to rescue their memories from the fetishization of the media and provide them a voice. Despite the weight of her subject matter, Tamblyn has somehow figured out a way to inject humor into her writing too, albeit the dry, sardonic kind. Most notably, her poem “Untitled Actress” offers a sarcastic take on the traditional casting call, listing an endless barrage of impossible requirements (“All ethnicities acceptable. Except Asian-American…Quirky but not unattractive…Weight no more than 109…Can do own stunts.”) before the big reveal: “Not a speaking role.”
The artwork included in Dark Sparkler, commissioned by Tamblyn from elite friends like Marilyn Manson and David Lynch, is not nearly as compelling as the poems themselves. If anything, this collection might be faulted for trying to do too much, when less would be considerably more haunting, more intriguing. At a certain point, I even found myself wanting to delete the content of Tamblyn’s poems altogether just to read their titles, which amount to an exhausting catalog of the names of dead women: Alison Andres. Rebecca Schaeffer. Elizabeth Pine. Dana Plato. Samantha Smith. Lucy Gordon. Barbara La Marr. And on and on and on. In fact, this is exactly where Tamblyn leads readers in the end, to a list of search terms in the epilogue that Tamblyn used in gathering information on her poem’s subjects. The list itself is sometimes humorous, a sly comment on how we access information in the Internet age, but mostly it’s ghastly and shocking. Hollywood claims so many victims.
To be frank, I understand why poetry lovers might bristle at the thought of reading a collection penned by a Hollywood celebrity like Tamblyn. I’ve never read any of James Franco’s books, and it’s likely I won’t in the future. From a distance, collections like Franco’s and Tamblyn’s appear opportunistic, which is aggravating (the nerve they have!). Writers have always found a way to talk about the act of writing so that it seems holier-than-thou, difficult and then some, the ultimate display of intellectual and artistic endurance and a club to which few should be granted access. Maybe writing is all of those things, maybe it’s none of those things. Regardless, to claim that Tamblyn’s poetry is somehow not worthy of inclusion in the conversation because of her celebrity status would be yet another example of the silence we demand from women who disrupt our idealized images of their bodies, how quick we are to discard these women and label them as has-been’s or wanna-be’s. Lindsay Lohan (another one of Tamblyn’s subjects) is allowed to be a dangerously underage Disney sex princess; she is not allowed to be a confused and maladapted drug addict — or worse, a bisexual. Likewise, Tamblyn is allowed to exist as that B-list actress you sort of recognize from her Django cameo, the young wife of her better-known husband, comedian David Cross. She is curiously not allowed to decide that she might want something else entirely.
Luckily enough, Amber Tamblyn “the actress/…died during the writing of this book.” And I don’t think her poet-ghost gives a shit whether or not we approve, to which I say amen.
Dark Sparkler, Amber Tamblyn. 128 pages. Harper Perennial. $17.99
Adriana Widdoes is a writer, editor, and co-founder of Which Witch LA. She lives in Los Angeles.