Loving Tallulah Bankhead

I’m as pure as the driven slush.” —Tallulah Bankhead

Perhaps the reason I wanted to write

About her was because I didn’t really

 

Like her. Her voice I was taught to find

Gross, for surely her tonsils were slathered

 

In cocaine, & her tongue danced in party at

The no-no a.m. hours. She was no-no. I saw

 

Her through my mother’s eyes, so I feared her 

Very countenance. Tallulah was a tramp, you see,

 

Could be smelled from the screen, a cocked

Cigarette roosting in silk, all her truth caught

 

Lying down. Thus, she was a woman I wasn’t 

To worship, not in the whatsoever, not in 

 

The heaven forbid. I was to be chaste 

As a cross-stitch. Yet, her name wouldn’t 

 

Leave my head. It bounced around there, 

Through Alabama’s lessons. I was to learn

 

God like Helen Keller knew W-a-t-e-r, was to 

Wreathe my neck in pearls, clutch my purse 

 

While politicians stood in schoolhouse doors, 

Was to wrap my voice in prayer, or say Rosa Parks 

 

To drum-up downtown constituents. I was to know 

All this righteously, to feel myself rightly situated, 

 

An Easter dress eyelet-laced. —But their psalms 

Were poisoned. Later, when I read the rumors 

 

That Tallulah had lain with Billie, had flexed & 

Ruined herself, I understood why the white women 

 

Of my state had said no-no to her, why she was 

Just an artifact of the silver screen but no darling 

 

Ginger Rogers, no Bless-Her-Heart Vivien Leigh. 

No-no, she had rummaged around in drugs, sex, & 

Party politics, defended too many Black men, 

Refused her womb a child. She had given up 

 

All the good upbringings an Alabama girl 

Could be so lucky to have, just to stick her feet 

 

In mouths of bliss & kiss Lady Day. & some days 

I still can’t bring myself to love her, Tallulah, 

 

This fox of a woman I’ve been chasing. 

She is my vixen, like the college girl I secretly 

 

Wanted to love me, or to be, but knew it would 

Surely flunk me, knew I didn’t have the vixen’s courage 

 

In vixen terms. At night I sleep with no-no’s, my body 

Caution-taped. This is what makes me hunt, hide, is 

 

Why I borrow from Adrienne Rich. This is what 

Troubles my stare: I am a woman drawn to ruin. 

 

I will never glow for them. Here, I can’t be myself, 

Can’t love Tallulah, yet I can’t let go of us. I whisper 

 

Our names in the perverted registers of gospel, 

Gossip. This is how spooky I am, a woman made 

 

Here, from the women made here. I count the rings 

Of shame in my jewelry box. I count the rings of shame 

 

In my mother’s jewelry box. Honor in Alabama 

Must be a sparkling shackle. I touch my heart where 

 

There should be a two-storey, but I see Tallulah. 

This is my sickness, my two-faces. In the mirror 

 

I look at myself turning myself against myself. 

I look at myself and turn myself against Tallulah, 

 

Tallulah against Billie, against real beauty. I am 

All mendacity. I live in fear of my own, turning 

 

Against me, calling me wicked, ruined. I hold 

The key to my inheritance. I hold no-no. I turn 

 

The key to my inheritance. I touch my heart where 

There should be a sister, & I hear her turning herself 

 

Against herself. I hear her, sick, among women turning 

& turning, twisting their keys to fit the locks of men.

Tallulah Bankhead Sits Beside Me on the Banks of the Cahaba River & Sneers, What the Devil’s in This God-Awful Call to “Roll Tide”?

We are naked, in costume jewelry. I’ve brought her to Fairy Rock, my old girl scout hiding

Spot, because I want to live with her here. She will be my evil flower, I swear to you, & I will 

 

Be hers. The night is quiet, which is rare for Alabama. No thing skitters in the sweet gums, except

Her question. Football is not my sport, & she’s stopped going on about baseball & Willie Mays.

 

We want to fizzle. She twirls her hands through the praising ferns, & I watch aroused.

Well, certainly Alabama isn’t all mud puddle! Just look at me! Oh Darling! Whatever chigger 

 

Bit me, I bit back! she says. Then, she cackles, & her clavicle looks as if it will unbuckle. She is

A haunted house. When her bones come to rest, I look at her & smile, knowing the laugh is 

 

A yowl, a hurt she’s been trying to drown for years. Yes, I look at her & smile, knowing that

Whether it is football cheer, prayer circle, or campaign slogan, we’ve both been thrown to 

 

The wolves. Lightning bugs marquee the air. My left hand flips from my thigh & lands at her

Side. I do not want to speak, so I touch her, put my hand to her heart. The night is cool & 

 

So is her breast. I lift the strands they’ve laced about her. I want to unbind. Each pearl is

A word—deluxe, gross, dogmatic. I pull them off, all that we’ve let slip, from their mouths 

 

Into ours. We aren’t their daughters. She pulls at what is at my neck. We shed all that is left

& hold it out, before our eyes. We drink our breaths. Then, we take their ropes, their glint & 

 

Government, & lower them down, past the studious roots & gawking catfish holes, past

Snapping turtle sermons, until they fall from our fingers, into the gag of waters.

Tallulah Bankhead & I Look at Each Other, Say, Fuck It! (I Taught Her the Phrase), & Drive the Hoop Skirt That’d Been Lurking Under My Bed Out to a Clearing to Meet Its Fiery End

Our arms on either side of it are pairs of forceps tugging at the disorderly. It’s summer, & 

We are wearing our fathers' trousers to mark the cross-over mission. They suck to our hips, 

 

Thighs. Desperation is the inseam running up our crotches, is going to be the beast’s release.

Suddenly, she comes loose, out, in a proof of dust & a small tinkling, turning-over 

 

Of a lost silver charm, my old piano keys. I sneeze, & Tallulah bites her lip. Apparently, my face

Is pained with juices, & that’s when she says, Well, leave it to a near clickety corpse to remind 

 

Us we’re just as vile alive! Never does she flatter me. Next, we jacket cans of lighter fluid & a

Bottle of Jack in my old tube tops, & set off in the blue Saturn. We are a southbound blur. 

 

Tallulah can’t believe the speed I insist upon, but I point to Exit 179 & bullet. My boot is

Steel-toed & my heart twice-baked. I turn to her & speak a spin of Nina: The name of this tune 

 

Is “Alabama Goddam;” & I mean every word of it. She digs that & slams her fist against the

Dashboard, rattling gas tickets & tire gauge. There is a moment of synchronicity &, like two 

 

Terribly angular birds, we drum up accents we’d presumed we’d entombed, to chirp, “After

All” is old meatball; today is the living day! We’d both been half-belle then jilted—Tallulah too 

 

Harsh a Scarlet, myself too melancholy to rebel yell. I tell you we are fed up. I pull down

Along the river road. Tallulah’s eyes catch the current, & I see her lashes ask their caps what 

 

Snakes & shores will drink our ashes. I swerve off-road & the plastic nose of the Saturn ticks

With rubble & beetle. Tallulah opens her door. Grassy bits bounce to the floorboards. I 

 

Stop, pop the trunk. We stare in at the shroud. Bending over, we pull, & the skirt, unlike

Before, comes loose in a second. Our arms, like those of knowing girl scouts, make for her a 

 

Carriage. This is not what she deserves, but suddenly the thing is a cat—sick-bit after a night

Too close to the bowl to see the possum. We lower her into the heaving chest of the field & 

 

Splatter her with butane. Tallulah insists on matches. Her hand twitches against the box,

Some blue balloons in a center. She flicks the stick upon the flat globe. The circle alights.  

 

I give Tallulah a swig, & then we swivel at our posts, turn away from the rite, take off like

Nymphs, so we might pluck shadows & cartwheel our naughty bodies into the bush of night.

Tallulah Bankhead & I Star in a Weeklong One-Act at La Comédie-Française

[Curtains! From stage right, Tallulah walks out, takes center stage. In her right hand, she flimsily coddles a small, beige-ish object. She situates herself on a bench painted the French Republic’s “vert du jardin.”] 

Tallulah:

Well, darlings, as you’ll notice the wardrobe is just negligee, 

Negligee, negligee. There’s a French word 

For you, fair scholars! One of which, I’m sad 

 

To report, the etymology & raison d’être 

Are entirely disappointing! Something 

About being “underdressed!”

Pause

Yet I, for one, have never felt more relevant.

[From stage left, I emerge, approaching her, hush my steps for seconds to regard her, & then turn my head down to behold a red hardback book.] 

Me:

Passing out French lessons again, are

You, Tallulah?

[She huffs, & I turn to the audience.] 

Shall we let her disrobe all romance, then? 

[From the orchestra pit many American-women-wishing-to-be-French nasal-yell, Non! I turn to her.] 

Tallulah:

Fine!

[Tallulah rises from the bench to hook her arm in mine. The audience can see now that she’s holding a small bird skull. The small golden emblem of a cross & flame flicker from the text in my hand.]

Me:

Tallulah, we know why we’re here.

We’ve made a pact. To them.

To us. We promised ourselves

A holy sermon, a rite of salvation, 

Straight from the tongues of two 

Of Alabama’s fallen women.

[Momentarily skeptical, she side-eyes me.]

Tallulah:

Me:

Tallulah:

We were gallows-giddy. 

We were martini-mighty. 

But, by goddess, you’re right. 

We were neither hasty

[& here, Tallulah thumbs, like one would a suspender, the left strap of her slip.]

Nor easy.

[I nod in agreement, unhook myself from her, &, in ironic gesture to prove sobriety, place the red book atop my head & begin to pace in front of her, arms-out.]

Me:

Tallulah, I’d like to re-create it, 

To share our prayer. 

[From the ceiling float down two martini glass. I rescue them. At this, Tallulah, to free me, pulls the hymnal off my head & heaves it into the pit. It makes a thud. I pass her a glass, as we hear shuffling from down below &, suddenly, a loud-Southern-whisper say, Lou Ellen, are you alright? Moments later, a voice begins, Maydamns, tournay oh hymn (pause) uhhhhm, (in annoyed English) five hundred & ninety-three! Then in unison, the American-women-wishing-to-be-French, front-&-center begin to softly sing, “Here I am, Lord. It is I, Lord. I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you need me. I will hold your people in my heart. . .”]

[Tallulah & I breathe out, exasperated, clink our glasses, take the martini liquid in long gulp. We turn towards each other.]

Tallulah:

Me:

Gentlepeople, if you please,

Ignore these desperate disciples, &

Instead, lend us your ears. Tonight, 

We present to you our piece, 

Our pact, Le Deuxième Hexe.

But wait!

[Tallulah, pumping her shoulders, big-winks to the crowd.]

Tallulah:

Tallulah & Me:

Attendez!

[In syncopated delivery.] Of course, 

You may recognize the word

Play & our salute to Beauvoir, 

But, even if it doesn’t hold up, 

We keep it tight because this, 

Too, is a part of our claim, 

Our refusal, our curse. 

 

Younger we both wrangled 

Terrible tempers, & now, 

After escaping our confines, 

Have found calm & conduit 

Through communion with

Our animal hunger, our feral 

Intellects. Thus, we have 

Composed & will 

Counterpoise our 

Souls in delivery of

A new doxology. 

Tallulah turns to me & passes me her bird skull. I take it from her palms & throw it towards stage right, but, mid-air, it animates, taking parakeet shape. Tallulah erupts in famous cackle.

Tallulah:

Great Hedda Gabler, it’s Gaylord! 

Hello again, you beautiful hussy!

Tallulah waits for the parakeet to descend on her shoulder. Then, she, facing directly the audience, puts her two hands together in front of her chest. She looks to me, & I follow suite, collecting my own hands in ready-prayer. 

Me:

Tallulah:

Me:

Tallulah:

Tallulah, with Gaylord back among us, we are, 

Indeed, ready. It’s time. 

Yes, & now you’re free those heavy pages.

Yes, the ridding hour is near.

Eh ouais! Laissons tomber ces broutilles de Birmingham! 

I smile to her & blow air through my lips, as if to say, we are doing it, it’s done, dismissed.

Tallulah & Me:

We call upon the haunted women 

Who have landed far from where 

They must go. We call upon them—

Brow, breast, & belly. We call 

Upon them—cheek, clavicle, cunt.

We call upon their toes.

Their thighs.

Their tears.

 

We call upon you, 

The haunted women 

Who have landed too near 

Those who wish you harm. 

We call upon our haunted

Sisters who have had to leave 

To save their minds. Sisters,

Sisters, sisters, join us. We 

Embrace you, haunted,

Hexed. It’s time to break 

The curse. Sisters, 

Welcome to our stage. 

From the audience—box office, gallery, mezzanine, balcony—many women stand, dressed in negligees, & file out, crawling over men & children, to stand, palms pressed-together, in the aisles. The American-Women-wanting-to-be-French arch their necks, curious, & then stand themselves to undo their frocks. From every part of the theater, women’s voices gather, with Tallulah’s & mine, as a united chant is heard. 

Tallulah, Me 

& Audience Women:

Wasn’t born shamed; they arranged it.

Wasn’t born ruined; they staged it.

Wasn’t born ruined; I became it.

Wasn’t born shamed; they paged it.

Wasn’t born ruined, but I claim it! 

 

Wasn’t born ruined; I became it.

Wasn’t born shamed; they arranged it.

Wasn’t born ruined; they staged it.

Wasn’t born ruined; I became it.

Wasn’t born shamed; they paged it.

Wasn’t born ruined, but I exclaim it!

Carrie Chappell is a writer, editor, educator, and translator. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Carrie is interested in exploring feminine personae and the narration of lives of women as they confront a conflicting nostalgia for and injury perpetuated by Western structures of prejudice, particularly those apparent in her homeland of the U.S. American South. Some of her poetry has been published in Harpur Palate, Nashville Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, SWWIM, and Yemassee. Her book and lyric essays have appeared in Diagram, FANZINE, The Iowa Review, The Rumpus, The Rupture, and Xavier Review. Currently, she lives in Paris, France, and serves as Poetry Editor for Sundog Lit.

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