Inspired by the insanely provocative television series, Mad Men, Jennica Harper’s poem cycle here traces the meandering thoughts of pubescent Sally Draper, the oft times neglected offspring of paterfamilias and part-time Lothario, Don Draper. Harper’s monologues capture Sally’s experiences at the edges of the masculine, cut-throat world of Manhattan’s advertising, and the shifting social upheavals of the 1960s.
Though Sally’s not a leader for the sex, drugs and rock and roll revolution, she is a reactive element: a baby boomer kid with some indelible philosophy. In “Sally Draper at the Premier of Jaws,” her approval-seeking banter annoys her date and she realizes that she’s missing the entire point of being in a dark theatre with a boy. “This is me flirting,” she states, “I know I’m doomed.” In “Sally Draper: Upwardly Mobile,” she deems the consolation prize for not following her career path as being relegated to “wife.” For her, this means, “You may start pretty, but you get old fast. You become a secondary character in your own life. A wife.”
Harper foregrounds Sally’s sense of being a “secondary character,” by emphasizing her self-conscious voice and her obsessive need to see herself from afar. Whether she’s painting her lips in Hellbent and Taboo, taking peyote and contemplating the lyrical origins of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” or romanticizing her first abortion as “A calculated fainting” where she should be “woken with smelling salts by ladies in waiting – [her] problems gone,” her inner-monologue captures her disassociated steely understanding of the human condition. Despite the dishonesty and emotional fallout from her parents’ generation, she’s ready for change and wields it like “a sword in a virgin cocktail.”
These poems are not Harper’s first foray into adolescent voices and perspectives. She has also written a poetry collection from the point-of-view of thirteen-year-old girls, What it Feels Like for a Girl, and works on the YTV sitcom, Mr. Young. Incidentally, some years ago, Jennica and I completed our MFAs at UBC together. I remember her being quick even then at cross-hatching pop culture and the ten angst as she does here and in her other poetry collection, The Octopus and Other Poems.
For Harper, youth culture is a poignant watermark of what’s deemed frivolous in the previous generation. Perhaps this is why she is drawn to Sally Draper: because she is such a mercurial figure, as she struggles with realpolitik and her parents’ emotional tailspins into extramarital affairs and vodka martinis. These poems attest to Sally’s sense of unmooring. As Sally herself suggests, “There should be a system,” or at least balefire to illuminate her turn toward adulthood at the cusp of the most explosive youth culture movement in American history.
The Sally Draper Poems by Jennica Harper
Sally Draper at the Premiere of Jaws
I recognize that beach. Something about it – even in the dark.
Hey, Martha’s Vineyard!
I whisper to him. We used to go there in summer.
He rolls his eyes.
We’re under the surface now, with the girl.
She has pretty legs, like a dancer.
They hired that girl just for her legs.
He looks at me. Pleading.
She treads water. I suck in my stomach.
The cold water’s just making me colder.
They sure did crank the A/C – to the point
I barely remember that it’s June.
They made it cold in here
so we’d cuddle up to our boys.
This is me flirting. I know I’m doomed.
He doesn’t look at me. I guess to not
encourage more talking.
The sound kicks in, and I jump a little.
Da-da. Da-da. Da-da. I recognize it as a tuba
from the years Bobby practiced in the basement.
Stuck with that fat thing after being out sick
the day instruments were picked. I take it in. Know
the notes. E-F. EF, EF, EF.
I don’t turn to him. Don’t tell him about the tuba.
Now that I’m quiet, he takes my hand. Rubs
it between his to warm me up.
I know it’s supposed to be scary
but they won’t let this girl be hurt. They can’t.
Sally Draper Hides
Ten feet below me
decisions are made.
I hide under the bed, though
she says I’m too old.
You learn a lot, ear to the floor.
Which boards squeak; that the front door
(opening after midnight – witching
hour, I once heard Francine say)
releases a tiny gust of air that floats
up the stairs, ever so stealthy and sweet,
blowing dust bunnies by.
I watch them hop and bob…
they’re dancing like lovers! Or,
it’s possible, running for cover.
Sally Draper’s First Kiss
I knew kissing a boy would be different when it wasn’t your brother, I just couldn’t imagine how. I’d turned my hand into a mouth, like Senor Wences (but didn’t let him talk). Brought my hand close, really slowly, shut my eyes most of the way, keeping them open just a slit so I could see, too. Tasted the salt on my fingers; tried to imagine what the hole of my hand was tasting. I’d stuck my tongue in, but there was nothing there, just air.
When finally I made James stay still so I could kiss him, I knew what had been missing: resistance. I slipped my tongue through his teeth, happy he put up a fight. The kiss made me want to pee and made me want to kiss him again. Then James wanted to keep going, and I got distracted by the TV.
Now, whenever I see a ventriloquist – or puppets, Pinocchio, any wooden boy, boy on a string, boy with a hand inside him – I have to excuse myself.
Sally Draper Struggles to Buy a Christmas Gift
He’s got no hobbies –
doesn’t fish or golf
like other men.
He’s not cultured.
Wouldn’t care about
or the new Neil
Diamond. A magazine
of course. The ads.
He might wear a tie,
but I can’t bear to buy
him something so dull.
So I choose The Spy
Who Came In From the Cold.
Maybe he’ll see
the symbolism –
a man wanting
out. Hope. The girl.
And if not,
maybe he’ll at least
why this book, what does it mean,
and he’ll realize I’m
Sally Draper Buys Red Lipstick
The woman at Marshall’s
lines my lips first, with Brick,
as in House,
as in Shit-A.
I make an O.
Next comes the stick: Dare You.
I want to say, You win!
I’ll buy you, but you’ll just
languish in a drawer
with Hellbent and Taboo.
All my life I have
shied from these lips – his
lips. Bowed and smacking
of blow-up doll…
Ode to an O.
But today I’ll wear red.
The red of a cherry
on a sword in a virgin
cocktail I’ll have to sip
through a straw.
Sally Draper: Upwardly Mobile
I’ve seen what happens when you don’t push for it. Follow your dreams. You may start pretty, but you get old fast. You become a secondary character in your own life. A wife.
It’s the kind of war you can’t let them know you’re waging. And you can’t ever fall asleep – or onto a mattress – while on watch.
What they don’t tell you is, you still have to pay your dues. And your dues may mean bringing coffee to men, again and again. A wife on the clock.
At home, my mother had it made and brought to her by the help. Something I think about when I pour.
Sally Draper Contemplates the Interstellar Mission
Apparently the planets are aligned,
so they can shoot (launch? dispatch?)
the two pods into deep space – they’ll
hop from orbit to orbit, hitching lifts,
their trajectories curving out, dots
connecting to form a conch-like shell.
I guess Voyager is, kind of, a conch.
We’ve spoken into it, hoping sound travels.
Everything about the mission is designed
with beauty in mind: the hope of it all. The sounds
on the record (whales, that kiss from a mother
to her baby, and my favourite, thunder).
The fact there are two, a pair, twins,
a couple mated for life like swans.
So how come when I think of those things
hurtling out, carrying Earth’s seeds, all I can
think is that we are fucking the universe
like a man fucks a woman, and I want to fuck
the world like that too?
Sally Draper Takes Carla Out for Lunch
It’s taken me a year to find
her. There’s no maid directory.
There should be a system; something.
I’d no idea we could live with women
and they could be taken from us and we
could not even know their full names.
She cooked me hot dogs. She taught me
fractions. Once, she spanked me. I
deserved it, and she took no pleasure in it.
I wanted to take her to a nice restaurant, but
on the phone she said no. The lunch counter
at Woolworth’s it is.
When she arrives
she looks the same to me. Except my size,
instead of the powerful figure she’d been.
I stand to hug her, but she sits before I can.
She orders a clubhouse. I barely eat
my salad. I tell her about college. Classes,
living with the girls.
She tells me things have been fine,
she went to work for another family,
with twins. Smart boys. Nice boys.
I tell her she should have pulled the toothpick out
of her sandwich first. She smiles. Pulls
it out. It comes out clean, and I feel sick.
When I can’t stop the tears from coming,
she holds out her napkin. Then changes
her mind, daubs at my eyes.
I thought. I thought.
She says, I know, sweet pea.
You know, you’re nothing like her.
She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
When I get back home I dye my hair
a dull yet shocking shade of black.
Sally Draper On Doctors
As soon as she came out,
I bought Surgeon Barbie. Her scrubs
are short, it’s true. Still, score
one for us. I put her box
on my desk for when I study.
I will worship no idols beyond thee!
Then it’s Miss America Barbie.
For a laugh, I buy her too. Put
them side by side. But one day
I come home drunk and open her
so I can comb her hair.
I will worship no god but irony.
He asks me which I’d rather be:
the career girl or the beauty. Of course,
I say the surgeon. He knows it’s true.
What I don’t say? My doctor, dentist, gynecologist,
therapist… men. Always will be.
I worship you in hopes you’ll worship me.
Sally Draper Hears the News
I get the call. Feel my face
go cold. The lion can’t die.
No tears, yet – not till
I’m on the subway, really
trying not to cry. I let a man
give me his seat, and ride
in comfort all the way uptown.
At the wake, I speak, read
Yeats, though I know
he’d have preferred O’Hara.
Tougher. But tough,
the day isn’t for him.
It’s for us, the living.
And I wait for it. The fire.
I expect it to ignite in me,
his fire, it’s my
right, I’m the eldest,
the heir. But the cold
persists. A cold there’s no
coming in from.
Twice a week, I try
his death on for size.
A coat of imaginary grief
I’ll wear like armour.
I should send a card
for his birthday this year.
Sally Draper’s First Abortion
Junior year is hard on the girls. Two got married
and quit school. One became a drunk and flunked.
Then there’s me, failing for no good reason
and for the first time, two men in one month.
They ask me who’s picking me up —
I lie. Say my brother, though I haven’t called either
in weeks. I’ll take a cab home, have a nap.
Then study. Clean the kitchen. Be useful.
Except: I didn’t know you were awake
when they did it. I guess I imagined being under.
A calculated fainting, then woken with smelling salts
by ladies in waiting – my problems gone. But no.
Bet she never wondered what kind of mother
she’d be… I call her. There’s no answer. I will not cry.
They say a name, the name I gave them, the other
me, and I stand. Put on my father’s face.
So this is what it’s like to be brave.
Sally Draper Will Never Do Mescaline Again
It’s natural. It’s from a cactus. Native Americans
in Mehico have been using it
for thousands of years.
Yeah, but there weren’t cars you could get hit by.
Or fifth-story windows to jump out of.
Do you trust yourself, Sally?
Just, put it in a drink or something.
I don’t want to taste it.
Even you have limits
for what you’ll put in your mouth,
Now we wait. Soon the backs of our
eyelids will be like stained glass.
Puff, the magic dragon, lived by the sea…
My dad used to sing me that song.
But he’d turn Little Jackie Paper
into Little Sally Draper…
That song’s about grass. You want some?
It is not.
It’s a well documented fact. Ask anyone.
[Without warning, it hits me. I want to ask him.
I want to call, wake him up, beg him
not for the truth
but for what I want to hear.
He was always good
at what I want to hear. But
I don’t know his number
off by heart, I’d have to
I’m feeling pretty good. How about you, Sall…?
Sallster? I’m sall…ivating. For you.
Are you crying?
I’m Jackie, and I’m Puff.
I left and am left behind.
I am going to be like this
for the rest of my life.
Would that be so bad?
Jennica Harper’s books of poetry are What It Feels Like for a Girl (Anvil Press) and The Octopus and Other Poems (Signature Editions). In 2012, What It Feels Like for a Girl was published as an e-book for Kindle and Kobo, and was adapted into one-third of the critically acclaimed theatrical experience Initiation Trilogy at the Vancouver International Writers Festival (Marita Dachsel/Electric Company). The Sally Draper Poems are part of a new manuscript, Wood. Jennica is also a screenwriter and is currently working on YTV’s teen comedy Mr. Young.
Our guest introducer Tammy Armstrong‘s poetry has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in Canada, US, Europe, UK, and Algeria. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, the Governor General’s Award, and short-listed twice for the CBC Literary Prize. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick, working in Critical Animal Studies and North Atlantic Poetry.
I like these visions of Sally as she grows up in front of our eyes. Buying LeCarre for her Dad (How about “A Perfect Spy, though that would have been a few years later — another vain attempt); having lunch with Carla, dyeing her hair black.
The web is wide … it would be cool if Weiner stopped by to read these.
Thanks very much, Steve!
Wow, I love these. What a fantastic idea.
I stopped following Mad Men closely after the first season after moving far away from home and starting university. These poems are very interesting with the foot-in-the-door context that I read them in.
Thanks to you both for stopping by, and for leaving a note!
Oh, Jennica . . . you prescient young poet. I’m almost a Sally Draper contemporary and you come too close for comfort. But that is the poignant point — very good work. I’ve never watched Mad Men on TV, only in life.
What an incredible compliment, Janice. My deepest wish was to make my readers uncomfortable! (Only kind of kidding…) Many thanks for letting me know.
“Sally Draper Takes Carla Out for Lunch” reminded me of Salinger – in the best possible way. I loved them all. Very cool.
These are spot-on explorations of a potentially complex and well-written character and gave me chills and tears. Beautifully done, insightful, witty, sharply realized and a fascinating inner journey through years (seasons?) we’ll never see. Loved these, thank you! You have a new fan.
This poem cycle was casually referenced on the slate.com Mad Men blog. Am I glad I clicked the link to read all the rest! What a pleasure.
An inspired idea, and beautifully executed. I’ve often wondered what Tom Stoppard felt like when he got the idea for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern…and then pulled it off. Maybe you experienced a bit of that.. .
Great cycle of poems. What makes me most (productively) uncomfortable in a real visceral way is how they deal with physicality/sexuality. “Sally Draper’s First Kiss” is so sweet in its reference to her apparent innocence and early trials, but then it quickly becomes fairly disturbing, perhaps for a male reader in particular, as it upsets traditional gender binaries–something Mad Men deals with ingeniously. We see that Sally is taking control in the relationship with James, and then rather than him “petting” her, it is James who is associated with the puppet who has a hand inside of him. Something about those half dozen words–“boy with a hand inside him”–reached inside of me and plucked a highly effective (dis)chord. Thanks for that.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful (and visceral) response, Cory. It’s wonderful to hear.