Whether they are really of her or not, the supposed nude photos of Scarlett Johansson are hard to ignore. Sure the body and its startling ways, hers but also all, but definitely the celebrity, the gossip, the odd affection. I came across them when I was battling a way to talk about, no no no deal with, the writing of Thomas Patrick Levy’s chapbook Please Don’t Leave Me Scarlett Johansson. I knew it worked, but I couldn’t figure out why the fake Scarlett of these poems was so affecting.
Then, I saw these photos, those closed eyes and rear angle, oh man, that’s just enough to let us see but not truly enter this world of hers. But then I started wondering: there are millions of pictures of attractive naked women on the Internet, but a couple of cellphone photos capture my attention beyond the first OHYEAH view?
I think it’s because, like William Giraldi said in a recent article on the ecstatic, “when the old gods don’t work anymore, we make new ones.” And that’s what Levy has done here with these poems, he’s rid us of our old gods to shout ecstatic love at, that tired “you” and the people we write our own love poems to, and placed Scarlett Johansson, with the help of Tom Waits and Woody Allen references, on the throne. Looking up at them, he bursts himself open, each prose poem a plea or prayer sent up.
In terms of construction, each piece is a small block of words always starting with some address to this Scarlett, buzzing along without punctuation, connected by ‘ands’. As a whole, Levy is unafraid to link and swoop back, while at other times he dares to totally ignore the assumptions easily drawn. For instance, in one poem, the speaker claims to see Johannson working at a diner, one of the first moments of “yeah this isn’t her,” and even goes as far to say “even then I knew that you were not real…” Moments like these, readers get a sense of the complicatedness of these feelings, these poems.
The remarkable thing for me when reading these poems was how they felt so ordinary in first passing before hitting like a KABOOM at the end. Like, “And sometimes Scarlett I am afraid to touch you with these hands I’ve broken over steering wheels and fuel pumps and you’re always wearing your whitest skirt”. We see the beauty in the tension, love and respect bashing into one another. But where I think the Scarlett Johansson frame does its magic is how such a tactic renders me helpless in trying to look away, look beyond.
My thought process I guess goes something like this: “Oh Scarlett Johansson is really pretty” à “I could totally feel these things for her” à “Well yes they aren’t really about her” à “I do feel that for Person X” or “That reminds me of that time with Person Y.” Sure, good literature is supposed to do that, but the points I’m trying to make is how these pieces shake up the process of interpretation and praise because of the unexpected relentlessness of Levy’s approach.
Or that’s all another way to say: this chapbook is perfect to read while your ex-wife drives you to a weekend vacation for your birthday. Ecstasy goes beyond love or aesthetic pleasures; it reaches out of those strange places cluttered with too much emotion and ordinariness, placing one on a plane of exuberance and pure stokedness. That’s what I appreciate most about Levy’s words: how they are unafraid of worship, how they are unashamed of their unruliness, how they are pure, fabricated runaway love.