Finding Your Best Angle (Give this to an actor) by Mary Rose Betten. McKinleyville, CA: Fithian Press, 2009. $12.00.
Reviewed by Julie L. Moore
Mary Rose Betten, a retired character actor from both stage and screen, knows “the neon lights are bright on Broadway,” and knows, too, how the “glitter rubs right off” when an actor is poor and hungry, even when an actor is a star. Finding Your Best Angle (Give this to an actor), Betten’s first full-length book of poetry, combines the wit and spiritual sensitivity from her previous chapbooks, Hanging Out with Loose Words (FootHills Publishing) and The Prodigal Son’s Mother (Finishing Line Press), as she explores the poverty, loss, and dehumanization show business can engender.
Organized into five sections, which have been performed on stage in California, Betten’s book cleverly portrays her acting experiences, including her transformation into poet. Part One, entitled, “And, Action!” details the outlook of an actor preparing for a role. Playful with language, as she is in poems like “An Actor Prays” and “Head Shot,” Betten is also mindful of the economic woes that befall most actors. She writes, “I can be anybody in this dress / until some creature in my kitchenless, / windowless, apartment gnaws a / hole in it” (“I Can Be Anybody in This Dress”).
Betten also reveals her Midwestern roots, juxtaposing them and their corresponding values with Broadway’s mentality. For example, in the powerful “Cattle Call,” she describes a side of acting we’re all aware of—the way it can dehumanize women—as she and her roommate vie for a role at an open call. Her parents, who are visiting her in Manhattan “[a]fter sending their beef cattle to market,” see them as well as other “variations of daughters in black, white, and brown / some with mud still on their heels, / tossing heads with innocent eyes hoping to be valued.” Betten adeptly extends the metaphor of the “cattle call” so that we understand the cruelty of the business that exploits the young, treating them, indeed, like animals. Had we been there, we, too, would have “prayed” with her parents that she “wouldn’t be slaughtered.”
“Five Minutes, Please!” titles Part Two, where we learn, “Standing ovations have been known / To kill” (“At a Standing Ovation”), actors must find their marks “as bird finds blossom” (“Finding Your Mark in a Small Theater”), and “under hot lights the air thins” (“Living On Thin Air”). Other poems reveal the menial, even demeaning, side to acting, as in “Down to the Sea,” where her “unmarked script flops / before [her]—naked in a manila folder. / [Her] name misspelled in permanent marker,” and in “Character Actors,” where “We know their faces but not their names.”
The ghost of poverty also haunts these poems. “No Small Parts,” for instance, uses another extended metaphor, this time, appetite, to great effect:
Actors have the appetite of a newly
awakened hibernating bear. . . .
While the star signs autographs,
chorus members slip butter patties
into coin purses, character actors
pocket dinner rolls for breakfast
There are no small parts, they murmur,
only small actors.
The star returns her autograph
To eager hands, contemplating
fans faltering at her face free
of makeup . . .
Here, as elsewhere, Betten’s strength is her ability to anchor metaphor in the concrete details of the acting business, revealing the pitiable need for butter patties and rolls as well as for unconditional acceptance.
Part Three, “Dramatic Monologues,” features the propitious intersection of drama and poetry as well as inventive language and original perspectives. For instance, “Money Talks," the section’s first poem—where yes, money is the poem’s persona—has turns of phrase that are clever and strikingly wise, and in “Five Finger Discourse,” every digit gets a voice. Moreover, in “The Writer Takes a Bus,” after the poet-speaker is buffeted by various passenger-critics who disparage her skills, she steps off the bus, saying, “On bruised heel I turn to journey alone. / A soggy bag in the shape of a bottle / whizzes past my head.” Betten deftly blends the feelings of rejection so characteristic of the actor’s and the poet’s life, using a self-deprecatory sense of humor that is refreshing and rare in contemporary poetry. How nicely this poem ties together the middle section and segues into part four, “Life Achievement.”
That penultimate part treats the reader to some memorable images and lines. For instance, “Fade In Fade Out,” dedicated to Fr. Bob Lussier, OSB, a former actor turned Benedictine Monk, not unlike Betten herself who is a Benedictine oblate, pays tribute to a man who’s “No longer seen on screen / Or on the boards” for “Today you can see him saying mass / At the Cathedral in Santa Fe cast for you / In a different light.” Betten is also contemplative, as in “Liturgical Drama,” where the speaker rests “[i]n high desert stillness” awaiting Vespers, watching Monks filtering into the church, noting the “[r]ough fabric of their habits / brush dust-covered sandals, / stirring spirit to stillness.”
Although it would have made some sense to end the book with “Life Achievement,” Betten adds one last section, “Theme Music,” which paradoxically functions like an overture, giving the reader a taste of the themes, music, wit, and humor in the previous four sections. Here she tells us she “come[s] from loving where I come from, / playing it from my bones, and dying / in character” (“An Actor Is Made To Be Born”). Because of poems like this one, section five doesn’t feel extraneous but rather necessary. Indeed, as the book closes with “Soul Trumpet,” the reader mourns with Betten over the “Once eager spirit / now a shroud/ for stillborn character” as well as transforms with her when “Shallow breath turns steadfast / Talent shreds the shroud / Soul trumpets the sallying forth / Thank you Next!”
Although Betten’s poems don’t often demonstrate verbal dexterity or innovative moves, most do bring to light a fresh voice in poetry that’s both intriguing—an actress!—and all-too-human, someone who “know[s] lonely” (“The One-Person Show”), has “walk[ed] into the mirror / Of [her] terror” (“An Actor Retires”), and has exorcised an impoverished spirit. This is a poet who can challenge us “as we rush mindless / midst the homeless / and scavenging pigeons” to follow in the footsteps of the Pater Noster and the Monks and “take their walk / back to the city where / such stillness might repeat” (“Liturgical Drama”).
Julie L. Moore is the author of Slipping Out of Bloom (WordTech Editions) and the chapbook, Election Day (Finishing Line Press). Moore is a Pushcart Prize nominee and recipient of the Rosine Offen Memorial Award from the Free Lunch Arts Alliance in Illinois, the Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize from Ruminate, and the Judson Jerome Poetry Scholarship from the Antioch Writers' Workshop. Learn more about her work at www.julielmoore.com.