“Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las Explains It All to You” by David Kirby

David Kirby


A student I haven’t seen for months stops by to say hello,
and she’s wearing a sundress, and when she gets up to leave,
I see she has a tattoo on her shoulder, so I say, “Hold on
a sec, let me take a look,” and when I see
it says, “Poetry is not reflection; it is refraction,” I say, “I like that,”

and she says, “You should. You said that in the first class
I took from you.” It’s times like this that I impress myself.
Not for long, though: the more interesting thing to think
about is not my excellence but the process whereby
we turn our experiences into art that moves others, to do, for example,

what Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las did when she sang “Leader
of the Pack,” recalling “I had enough pain in me, at the time,
to pull off anything. And to get into it, and sound—believable.”
We believe you, Mary. Mainly because you’re so
restrained when you sing that song, as though you’re not really bothered

by the fact that the love of your life has just roared away
on his motorcycle only to be turned into a pile of hamburger
somewhere out on Highway 30. Restraint: that’s the thing,
isn’t it? Discipline. Self-command. The more
he wrote songs, the more Burt Bacharach’s music took odd turns,

became clipped and staccato, offbeat. “One-level records
always made me a little bit uncomfortable after a while,”
he says. “They stayed at one intensity. It kind of beats you up,
you know? It’s like a smile. If you have a great
smile, you use it quick, not all the time.” Burt Bacharach sounds

like a smart guy. You have to trust the listener to pick up
on the little thing, to change and color it
until it’s the biggest part of the song, even though it’s the smallest.
And the least true, maybe, in the factual sense.
I don’t remember telling my class about reflection and refraction,

but if I did, I was freeing the students from the absolute need
to reflect their world and telling them that
what they refracted was theirs to make, that you can disconnect
your image from reality. Mary Weiss says,
“The recording studio was the place where you could really release 

what you’re feeling without everybody looking at you.” And the poem
is the place where we poets do the same. Everybody
listened to Mary Weiss—that song was number one
on the pop charts in 1964—and we poets, too, want
to lose ourselves in our early poem drafts so we can write and rewrite

and revise until the poem is so good that everybody loves it,
whether or not they actually end up doing so. When I ask
my former student what other tattoos she has, she says
that’s the only one, and when I say, “Wow,
it means that much to you, huh?” she says no, it really hurt.

from Rattle #56, Summer 2017

[download audio]


David Kirby: “In the early ’60s, I was obsessed with girl groups: the Ronettes, the Marvelettes, the Shirelles. And guess what? I still am, and with none more than the Shangri-Las, who sang of teen tragedy in a way that made me ‘half in love with easeful death,’ as Keats said. Their songs are little operas in which people meet, fall in love, die, and are born into eternity through the power of art. This isn’t the first poem I’ve written about Mary Weiss and her soulful sisters, and it won’t be the last.” (website)

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