Ekphrastic poem by Amy Jannotti
The Holy Ghost of Perpetual Adoration
By Amy Jannotti
Should I make lemonade? Sings
the poorly watched girl to a dark room,
a bow of straw in her red hair. Her voice trickles
like lemonade, pure sugar with a bitter kick.
Her lemonade has no sugar, bites sour against
the backs of teeth. Her hair is red. The blanket
on her lap is red & checkered white, checkered
with powdered sugar. Her habit is brown. Her sisters
line the walls, line the pages, line the pages
on the walls & she is singing should I make
lemonade, little sisters of the assumption? Her habit
is brewing lemonade. Her habit is red & veiled
with ghostly tulle, like crystallized sugar. Her trickling
voice can be heard outside, from the speakers
over the sidewalk, so passers-by will know even when
the room is empty, the poorly watched girl
is still singing. When I walk in & ask which
way to the exhibit? The girl at the counter says follow
the song. You’re already in it.
In the final days of her
life / career, Judy Garland
screen tested for the Valley
of the Dolls a performer
all her life, Garland is pictured
demure, bordering on shy
When I get off the elevator, a voice says
Welcome! & I jump out of my skin
The voice is a girl. I didn’t mean
to startle you.
She tells me let her know
if I have questions.
Projected on the wall are sixteen women, dressed
as Judy Garland, play-acting her, moving
& speaking in synch. Their voices blend
to cacophony it is impossible to understand.
The most coherent sound the static
from the speaker.
The girl coughs in the corner.
I have so many questions.
Who designed these costumes?
Were the costumes custom-fit to each woman?
Or did the artist pick actresses diverse in everything
from age to color but forget size?
Why were cigarettes so long back then?
Do wealthy people still use holders?
Is it healthy to make a habit of perpetual consumption?
How do turtledoves represent innocence?
The poorly watched girl made lemonade
to sell, to feed her family. Did she succeed?
Is it healthy to be perpetually consumed?
Days after she was fired from production,
Judy Garland overdosed.
These women projected now –
are they alive?
In the end, I ask no questions. I just leave.
The girl stays in the corner, obscured
by the outcrop of the elevator, unable
to be watched –
Let’s get unwatched now, girls.
Let’s get moss-headed, checker-printed, sugar-tongued.
If anyone looks, let’s sew buttons to their eyes.
Let’s wear breastplates of porcelain tea sets.
Let’s let our feet dance en pointe behind our bodies.
Let’s grow feet three sizes too small.
Let’s grow feet from the bases of our necks.
Let’s do pirouettes on shortening jars.
Let’s get woven, unspooled, satin-necked.
No one’s watching. They’ve all gone home.
It’s just you. Me. The girl in the chair.
The plaster recreation of a turtledove bust.
Let’s get doll-like. Deep-valleyed.
Let’s make lemonade.
Amy Jannotti received her BFA in creative writing from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she lives with her three cats and lifetime supply of Dr Pepper. Her work has appeared in the undergrad publications Underground Pool and Calliope Magazine.
The following has been provided by the poet
I’ll be honest: I resisted Poorly Watched Girls at first. Opening in a dark room with a giant projection of a white woman done up like Bjork, speak-singing Bjork-like nonsense would not have been my first move, especially as the exhibit branches out to greater diversity on later floors. Now, with the benefit of hindsight and Google, I can appreciate the nuance of Lemonade, Roses, Satchel (the first room) as a maybe-commentary on the way in which illness in women oft goes undetected because we spend so much time cultivating facades like Shara Nova’s Operatic, bordering on absurdist costume (gingham apron, moss skirt, headdress of straw & roses). In the moment, however, something felt off. I couldn’t gain a foothold in that statuesque projection. I didn’t linger. I glided through the soundproofing doors, into the Dialogue of Carmelites, and something began to shift.
From an art critic’s perspective, Dialogue isn’t anything to ogle at. The collage of thread over pages from an out-of-print catalog of nunneries in America aren’t intricate in their designs, Viewers don’t stay too long in this room: there are at least fifty pages, all told, and the illustrations are too similar to merit individual inspection. I, however, couldn’t draw myself away from the convent names: Little Sisters of the Assumption. The Holy Ghost of Perpetual Consumption. Little Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Here, I conceived my poem.
It had nothing to do with the thread collages. Nothing to do with the choral chants buzzing like white noise overhead. Everything to do with these words. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Bocanegra had chosen these pages for a reason. When I saw the word “sisters” align with phrases like “perpetual consumption” and “perpetual adoration,” the exhibit began to make sense.
For instance – why nuns? Because nuns cover themselves, yes. Because nuns refuse the notion that their bodies be consumed. And yet, in these pages, so many varied descriptions of different habits, veils, robes, et cetera. Because even in uniformity women find some way to distinguish themselves from one another. Because, if we are all too much the same, do we exist?
Leaving that room, my pulse quickened. On my way back through Lemonade, I noticed the room had emptied, but the projection still looped. Even without an audience, our Poorly Watched Girl must perform. I moved to the elevator.
Onto floor 2, now. Valley. 8 projections of different women, all re-enacting Judy Garland’s audition tape for Valley of the Dolls. 4 projections on either wall opposing each other, simultaneously mirrors and not mirrors. Each woman moving in a synchronicity not quite uniform. When they spoke, all at once, their voices – each a different pitch and timbre – became one sound, impossible to decipher. The only noise I could listen to – the only noise that made sense – the low hum of the projector fans.
Judy Garland never made it to the final cut of Valley of the Dolls. She was recast. Bocanegra recast her with not one, but 8 women. As I walked down the line, each one of those women replaced the last in my memory. And how easily.
When I reached the third floor, yet another employee told me – as they had on every floor – to ask if I had questions. I had many questions, but I never asked them, because I am a woman and I am too afraid to take up space.
By La Fille, all background music and sound had gone away. What remained was a deep, calm silence… full of dancing girls.
They weren’t dancing, really. And they weren’t girls, really. They were costumes on dress forms. Piecemeal of old ballet costumes, photographs, ephemera. One dancer had a chestplate of an old tea-set. The miniature kind that came in a wicker basket, and was meant for young girls to have tea with their dolls. The kind I received for Christmas as a child when we celebrated with my grandparents who lived on the kind of bucolic landscape La Fille mal Gardée is set.
Further on were more traditional installations: collages of various traditionally-feminine accoutrements (sewing notions, hidden pockets, cooking utensils, et cetera). Beyond them in the dark, illuminated by a single spotlight, is a bust of a girl, turtledoves on her shoulders. For innocence.
I stood there, and I soaked her in – her: girl without a body; me: body without voice – and I knew her. I knew her in the way that I knew the dancing girls before her, and the walled sisters before them. I knew the way they were caught – the way we’re all caught – simultaneously always ourselves and the performance of ourselves. Simultaneously the viewer and the viewed. Simultaneously consumer and art.
I left. And I wrote this poem.