What I notice first about DeMisty D. Bellinger’s chapbook, Rubbing Elbows, are the varied forms of the poems within. There are prose poems (“The Unrequited Love Story of Mary Mallon,” “What Did You Mean To,” “Yoko Ono Said,” and “Madonna’s Letters”), list poems (“A Treatise on My Ignorance, in which I Wallow Happily, Blissfully,” and “Orlando”), and even a Petrarchan sonnet (“King of Pop Sonnet”) interspersed among other poems. This varied style serves to keep the poems fresh when read in succession, and allows common themes to be explored in different ways.
This collection uses music and pop culture as accessible bridges into studies of human character. While I am personally of a camp that enjoys discovering hidden meaning on my own, there is a helpful “Notes” section at the end of the book that explains a lot of the references. The celebrities feel influential to the speaker, formative—like a personal roadmap to the stars in the neighborhood of her own mind.
In “Conversations with Whitney over Colas,” the speaker seems to feel as if she could save Whitney Houston from her tragic downward spiral and death if she reminds herself to avoid triggers like “Do not mention hotel bathtubs” and “Do not mention men who go freely before / cameras and boast,” and offer her human intimacy, “Make eye contact and make her laugh.”
These touching moments of humanizing these figures are blissfully frequent in Rubbing Elbows. In “Jimi Hendrix and I Wait Together,” the speaker begins by announcing she “won’t use any of the clichés to describe his hands,” reassuring the reader right away that this is a personalized account. “You can find pictures and pictures” of him, she says, but she goes on to describe the intangible aspects of Hendrix, “Everything about him, musical, musical, musical.”
My favorite poems in this collection imagine two different celebrities interacting. Two who (probably) never met, Barack Obama and Marilyn Monroe, are imagined on a bus, resulting in “Harmless flirtation on his part, on her part.” Two who famously met (and were photographed singing a duet), Tina Turner and Janis Joplin, are imagined painting one another’s nails and laughing at how funny the word for the color of the polish sounds, “We say this word ‘azure’ aloud / Exaggerating the ‘Z’ / And share sounds that make our lips / Pucker.”
Rubbing Elbows is, in many ways, a collection with heart. The personalities it imagines are universally beloved, the humanization of them is touching, and the tone of the work is accessible and earnest. “It can be enough to rub elbows with the stars,” Bellinger writes in the titular and final poem, “Rubbing Elbows.” While the speaker insists her “elbows are dry and bruised / From the quick tour,” Bellinger’s readers are, in my opinion, left quite improved by their brushes with stardom.
DeMisty D. Bellinger
Finishing Line Press, 2017