The Barbie Diaries by Dale Champlin
Just a Lark Books (November 17, 2019), 65 pp $14
ISBN #: 978-1708450267
Available at: [email protected]
Is it possible to say anything new about Barbie? Since her introduction in 1959, the PVC fashionista has been reviled and revered, loved and loathed. Her literary footprint includes adoring preteen blogs, scathing doctoral theses, and an authorized biography from Random House.
Still, I’d be willing to bet that Oregon poet Dale Champlin is almost alone in considering Barbie a fit hero for epic poetry. In her 2019 book, The Barbie Diaries, Champlin presents a sequence of 57 poems that portray the inner life of a Barbie doll who is both typical of her kind and a compelling individual. Aware she’s both sentient and plastic, this Barbie wrestles with several troubled relationships including her unequal marriage to a Ken doll, the doomed love of her girl owner, and the sadistic depredations of the girl’s brother. The result is a free-verse dramedy that is thought-provoking, literate, and awake to the absurdities on display in American Pop Culture.
The Barbie Diaries cleverly invokes the epic tradition with a three-part narrative that begins by portraying Barbie in the context of her suburban milieu. In the second part, Barbie undergoes her hero’s ordeal when she spends a year submerged in a backyard swimming pool. Rescued by a pool cleaner, she returns home in the third part, wiser and more self-assured, but not entirely relieved of her issues.
The book begins with an ironic take on the epic argument in a short poem titled “Writing Weird” that introduces Barbie’s inner turmoil and ambivalence about her hopeless marriage. Since you’ve left I’ve been writing weird, Barbie says before describing her unique existential predicament:
Alone in lostness, with my new Barbie body,
I teeter across the four-lane in my six-inch stilettos,
without a blink of my swimming-pool blue eyes.
She recalls the good times in her marriage, including a camping trip to Reno in my bubblegum-pink convertible camper. She waxes nostalgic about how she and Ken squatted in the motel / and swilled dry martinis, then recalls that Ken is now gone. Where are you Ken? I miss your square jaw, she concludes.
Much of the book’s first section tells us why the marriage is over. In “Terrible Fun,” Barbie recalls a premarital date whenthe couple had sex in Ken’s apartment. I should have guessed by your plastic pompadour / that you’d be into S&M, Barbie comments before describing how Ken tied her hands with a twist tie, then slid a bit between her teeth.
You rode me like a demon—
clenched me in a choke hold, snakebit my neck
and hard-knuckled my thighs.
Fearing Ken has finished with her, Barbie worries that he will sell her on eBay. The poem concludes with a terrifying image of sexual abuse:
After you flipped me over,
you told me my tits
looked like dead rabbits.
As her marriage careens toward divorce, Barbie also contends with the family who owns her. In “Possession,” Barbie recalls how she began her life as a little girl’s treasure, only to see this relationship fade as the girl grew up. At first, she remembers, the girl carried her everywhere and even shared chocolate ice cream with her. However, as Barbie begins to fall apart under the wear and tear of daily play, the relationship with the girl becomes less certain. Once again, Barbie finds she is an object in a disposable culture.
After her mom’s hairdryer
scorched my hair
she cut off the burnt ends.
It was not an improvement.
I thought I was priceless,
but I was replaceable.
Like many Barbies throughout the decades, Champlin’s hero must deal with her girl’s brother, whose boyish hi-jinks are revealed to be cruel and misogynistic. At various points throughout the book, the brother kicks Barbie into a gutter, buries her in the backyard, and hangs her from a silver thread / compelling as spider silk.
The rest of the book explores and expands on these relationships and themes. In the second section, the year spent in the swimming pool gives Barbie a chance to face her demons. As she feels her polyvinyl chloride off-gassing in the chlorinated water, Barbie reflects on her life and relationships and recognizes some unpleasant realities about her family.
“The Day All I Could Think of Was Suburbia” begins with a deft lyrical landscape that offers an example of how The Barbie Diaries paints Barbie as a convincing character:
I remember looking out the picture window
the sprinkler on the lawn twirled,
rainbows gleamed in the fine mist,
robins tugged worms from the damp turf.
Noting there was a fire hydrant on every corner, Barbie portrays the security of the American middle-class lifestyle before turning toward its darker side:
My little girl’s mother clutched
her first drink of the morning
in her white-knuckled manicured hand.
Rescued unceremoniously by a pool cleaner, Barbie goes “Home At Last” in the final section. In a mere eight poems, we learn that Barbie, like all epic heroes, has grown and matured because of her ordeal in the pool. In the book’s final poem, “I Feel I Understand Existence,” Barbie considers all of her relationships from a stance of hard-earned self-knowledge. She accepts she is a discarded plaything while also expressing her sense of agency.
Although I may be no more than a tchotchke
on a shelf gathering dust that I will never return to—
my thoughts resurface as artifacts
lured to the present by something
I don’t quite understand.
Still, she ends by hoping the girl will once again turn her way.
When will she remember where she’s
concealed me? What box, what chest,
As The Barbie Diaries tells their peculiar tale, Barbie flirts with religion, falls in love with a frog, and parties in a Motel 6. Still, the book succeeds in connecting Barbie’s anxieties and struggles to larger questions of identity, gender, and sexuality. Even as I laughed at her ridiculous situations, I empathized with her struggle to balance her need for independence with her need for love. Against the odds, Champlin enabled me to relate to Barbie as a real person.
Paul Telles’s poems have appeared in several print and digital publications, including BoomerLitMag, Verseweavers, and Children, Churches, and Daddies. He is a winner of multiple Oregon Poetry Association prizes, including an Honorable Mention in the Traditional Verse category in Fall 2019.