842: Zelda Fitzgerald

842: Zelda Fitzgerald

842: Zelda Fitzgerald


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

I once met the great Afrofuturist jazz composer and poet Sun Ra while working at a contemporary art center. The encounter not only left me enamored, but also able to see the possibility of living as an artist. While he and members of his big band rehearsed for his annual holiday concert, I acted as a stagehand and set up the mics, monitors, and lights. His music, his wild glittering robes, and his mystical persona announced a freedom of being I had yet to encounter until then. Shortly thereafter, he passed away.

In graduate school, as an antidote to self-indulgence, which let’s admit, poetry can sometimes spiral into, I wrote persona poems. I wrote poems in the voice of other people, including Sun Ra. To achieve a naturalness and authenticity of voice, I acquired most of his available music. I read his poems and accounts of Sun Ra’s life, including John Szwed’s biography Space is the Place. My first book, Leaving Saturn, is even titled as a nod to the mythology of the big band leader, which is that he was sent from the ringed planet to save Earth with his music.

We have a long history in American poetry of dramatic monologues, of taking on a character in our own expression. Mask-wearing is one of the important means by which we become less indeterminate to each other and thus more compassionate. Lately, however, I’ve had trouble working out the ethics of portraying someone other than myself. When does the writing in the voice of others devolve into an act of appropriation, or empty ventriloquism or worse, into harmful minstrelsy? Before entering the stories of others, I try to question my privileges and motivations, and hopefully, emerge sensitive and aware of the life of another, even if imagined.

And yet, as one poet says, the dramatic monologue has been an important tool in recuperating silenced voices. Today’s phenomenal poem does just that. It avoids what my friend Akshya calls the “performance of marginality” by portraying a full, interior life of a woman writer, whose story of mental illness often eclipses her genius.

Zelda Fitzgerald
by Aria Aber

It’s true I hate the stories about the other women,
but I love the description of their daily lives, like the scene
with twelve raspberry cakes in a French café,
or the drunkard asking for the way. A bottle of whiskey
on a heavy walnut table, my husband’s hands on a glass.
No one’s muses are believable, said the painter
whom I loved for twelve weeks and who would
rarely touch me. To him, the female body
was a plant: it needed to be tended and spoken
to, but too much warmth would spoil the matter.
In his paintings that I like best, women wander through cities
and notice objects. Lanterns. Hats they can’t
afford. Little glasses of Pernod. I loved him
to hurt the other one, whom I loved more. And so,
most of my life, it passes like this: light touching
my skin, lying on the floor among my diaries, writing of him––
What did Proust say, months before he passed away?
I have great news. Last night, I wrote “The End,”
so now I can die. Oh! Had I known the boredom that my talents
had in store for me, I would still have asked for them.

“Zelda Fitzgerald” by Aria Aber. Used by permission of the poet.