There’s a spot in my garden where flowers ought to grow, but don’t. Likewise, there are spots in the landscape of American poetry where humor ought to flourish, but doesn’t.
Perennial prom queen Barbie made her debut on March 9, 1959. Her fun fashions, impossible figure and bouncy nylon tresses took suburbia–and later the world–by storm. Mattel claims to sell three Barbie dolls every second.
I thought Barbie’s ubiquity and over-the-top pinky-pooh girlishness was probable fodder for good, humorous poems. In honor of Barbie’s birthday, I set out to find them for the blog. The results were telling. Almost all–in what turned out to be a very small handful of Barbie-themed poems–were rife with anger and pain. The phenomenon of a laughably voluptuous, eleven-inch doll triggering deep, full-scale, animosity speaks volumes about the scarring effects of sexist imagery and the strange power we bestow on our cultural icons.
One poem stood out in sharp relief: “Barbie at 50”–from an award winning chapbook of the same title–by Jendi Reiter (Cervena Barva Press, 2010). This evocative glimpse through the hapless eyes of an outgrown toy is a skillful mosaic of reality, surreality, melancholy and mirth.
Barbie at 50
Her little girls no longer bite their nails,
the stubby hands that undressed her
have moved on to trouser buttons.
Pink polish, bitten to the quick,
or younger still, drawn on with purple marker –
now French tips, and a diamond or later
an untanned line where the ring once was.
Barbie knows the world by hands and feet.
Her own are forever arched for heels,
hot pink, one sandal and one pump.
Barbie’s been buried in the sand
beside mother’s toes, splayed in flip-flops,
chunky piglet barefoot girls,
who dunked her in a bucket,
drew on her nipples,
cut and stroked her hair.
Head down in seawater,
she could have told them that midlife nirvana
doesn’t need a plane ticket.
Barbie’s naked as the widows
floating in the Ganges.
She wasn’t there when Ken died.
A lady of her age steers clear of most events
involving small boys and firecrackers.
Pink is the color of mourning
for Barbie, who wore it on every occasion
when there was someone to dress her.
Plump hands brush pink on lined and powdered cheeks.
Barbie is carried out in a box.
Hands turn over tags,
hunting garage-sale bargains.
Nude, she lies on the picnic table,
points her inked-on breasts to the sky.
Jendi Reiter is the author of the poetry collections A Talent for Sadness (Turning Point Books, 2003), Swallow (Amsterdam Press, 2009), and Barbie at 50 (Cervena Barva Press, 2010). Awards include a 2010 Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists’ Grant for Poetry, the 2011 OSA Enizagam Award for Fiction, the 2010 Anderbo Poetry Prize, and second prize in the 2010 Iowa Review Awards for Fiction.