Gilbert & Garbo In Love
A Romance in Poems
by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 1988–90)
The Word Works, Inc.
April, 2003
87 pages

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964–65)

WHEN NARRATIVE SKILL AND lyrical imagination coalesce, as they do in Christopher Conlon’s Gilbert & Garbo In Love: A Romance in Poems, then readers are in for a delightful excursion. These sixty-six poems trace the lives of movie idols John Gilbert and Greta Garbo from early childhood to the height of their big-screen fame. Conlon presents a classically romantic but tragic view of these two Hollywood superstars. And he presents this in an imaginative, package of sensual sketches written in a natural, casual style.
     In the end, however, I’m most impressed by Conlon’s ability to unify the narrative and lyrical so comfortably together that the book’s major theme emerges as an integral part of the writing. The essential strength of this collection is how unobtrusively Conlon addresses the existential issues of the nature of reality and identity.
     As movie stars, Gilbert and Garbo basked in the sunshine of Hollywood fame. Conlon writes in the poem “Two People,” that they are “the two most / beautiful people on earth, ordained so / by a poll in a fan magazine.” The world of movies becomes their reality. However, Conlon presents these bigger-than-life stars as constantly questioning the boundaries of reality. He writes in the poem “Movies,” that seeing their images on screen

. . . frightens them, this
largeness, this luminosity, they fear that perhaps
the images are more real than they are: bigger,
brighter, angelic, everlasting, so much closer
than their own souls might ever come to heaven.

     The first sixteen poems portray the subjects when they were young, a time when both sought escape from harsh childhoods and had no sense of identity. Gilbert was dragged from theater to theater by his uncaring, stage-actress mother. In the poem “Small,” the six-year old Gilbert wants to “dissolve himself, / to shrink” so that he is “no bigger than a puppet, / or a toy soldier, or a picture in a nickelodeon: / tiny, perfect, worthy at last of home.” However, by his teenage years, Gilbert’s good looks made him popular, and he moved easily into silent films as an extra when he was just sixteen years old.
     In each other, Gilbert and Garbo found an emotional escape from loneliness and self-doubt. Their isolation on the movie set reinforced their dependency on each other. Their mutual sexual attraction helped verify a part of their reality, if only for three years. Conlon imagines a blazing passion between the two. In a wonderful display of poetic compression and rhythm, Conlon writes in “Two People,”

. . . they are the only two
people on earth, the only limbs on earth,
the only breaths and tongues on earth,
while millions of rain eyes gaze in at them
through windows, wistful and envious.

     These two silver screen celebrities possessed opposite personalities that meshed for a short time. Gilbert was assertive in the beginning, when he was cast as a Civil War cavalryman in his first silent movie. Conlon describes Gilbert’s youthful boldness in “Camera.” Gilbert turns “straight to the camera, grin gleaming / out to the world. Fire that son / of a bitch! the producer bellows, . . .” He basks in the limelight of fame, discovers himself as an actor, while all the time fully mindful that he was playing to an audience. Conlon writes in the title poem, “Gilbert and Garbo in Love,” that Gilbert is “never not aware / of the camera, his angle and lighting, his expression. He’s in the scene / but above it too, beyond it . . .” However, as Gilbert’s fame grows, he begins to doubt himself, the film crew, Louis B. Mayer of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and others around him. In the poem “Questions,” Conlon writes that Gilbert wonders, “ . . . are they real? / Are they actors, playing parts? / When he turns his back, do they vanish? / . . . . What, for God’s sake, is his life?”
In “Gilbert and Garbo in Love,” the introverted Garbo is portrayed as having no confidence in her acting skills. Instead, she believes that “All she can do is be in a scene, focus everything / to the pinpoint moment of it, be there / and nowhere else, lost in her lover’s eyes, . . .” She thought of her acting as “. . . not technique, . . . not acting: / merely being. . . .” She looks at herself as two persons, and the real Greta knows that Garbo is not Greta Lovisa Gustafsson, the poor girl from Stockholm, Sweden. In “Greta and Garbo,” Conlon writes that Greta “knows, / . . . that it’s all a kind of confidence game,” her Hollywood image. “She knows, / what she does isn’t acting, not really, but modeling.”
     Conlon creates the impression that Garbo felt “beaten” all of her life. When she retired in 1941, she was only thirty-six years old. In “Garbo Triumphant,” Conlon writes that “Greta retires, / and dies. No one, not even she, knows / quite when, but she does. Garbo goes on, / eternal celebrity.” Although asked to return to acting, she refuses, thinking, “Garbo would need Greta: and Greta’s dead. / Garbo’s finally, perfectly, absolutely Garbo.”
     My criticism of this collection is not about Conlon’s immense talent as a poet or story-teller. My only problem is the familiar one of sorting out facts from fiction. One example is Gilbert’s fall from movie stardom. Conlon presents the standard idea that he failed solely because of his high-pitched voice. In “White Voice,” Gilbert’s voice is described as “All top, no bottom. . . . / The laughter in the theaters drowns the dialogue, / drowns him. Falsetto and squeaky and girlish. . .” Conlon offers nothing about the speculation that Louis B. Mayer intentionally sabotaged Gilbert’s career after a fight over whether he should marry Garbo. Many people believe that Mayer himself had Gilbert’s voice altered in sound films so movie fans would ridicule him.
     One part of Garbo and Gilbert’s lives I wish Conlon had written about is their relationships with Marlene Dietrich. Both were supposedly sexually involved with Dietrich. One rumor has Gilbert dying in Dietrich’s arms. But only one poem deals with Dietrich: a meeting with Garbo at New York City’s Stock Club. In “Bons-Bons,” Conlon describes them sharing a deliciously funny moment together. Dietrich tells Garbo that when autograph-seeking fans ask if she is Garbo, “I say, ‘Yes, dahling,’ and sign ‘Greta Garbo.’!” Giggling uncontrollably, Garbo responds, “‘Do you know what?’ / . . . ‘I always sign “Marlene Dietrich”!’”
     What my minor complaints really demonstrate is the strength of Conlon’s poetry. Gilbert & Garbo In Love: A Romance in Poems projects impressionistic images of giant movie idols that excite the imagination. What more could poets and authors ask than their works spark readers’ curiosity for more information on the themes and topics presented?
    Conlon told interviewer Tony Albarella that his goal in writing is to “wrap someone up into an emotional whirlwind and offer them something so vivid, so real, that the characters and situations spring to life in their imaginations and become almost as real to them as people they actually know and memories they actually have. I see no other point to fiction or to poetry.” Applying his own standard, Conlon’s collection is highly successful. His talent certainly warrants national recognition.

Tony Zurlo's poetry, fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in over sixty literary magazines, newspapers, and anthologies. His nonfiction books include Japan: Superpower of the Pacific, China: The Dragon Awakes, West Africa, Daily Life in Hong Kong, China: Nations in Transition, and The Japanese Americans. His new book, Vietnam: Nations in Transition, will be published in the fall of 2003.