Escaping Southern Belle Hell with Carrie Chappell’s “Loving Tallulah Bankhead”

“I am a woman drawn to ruin,” writes Carrie Chappell — no wonder she loves Tallulah Bankhead.

In Carrie Chappell’s book of poetry, Loving Tallulah Bankhead, the poems are as sophisticated and biting as the aforementioned actress. The collection is also illustrated by Lauren Patterson with sleek and bold ink and wash paintings. In her poems, Chappell writes both about herself and Bankhead, the controversial “pure as the driven slush” stage and screen actress whose career took off in the 1920s. She was perhaps known less for her capable acting as for her saucy one-liners and for batting both ways in her choice of paramours.

Despite her Alabama roots and Southern drawl, Tallulah was not a safe actress for Southern girls to look up to. Chappell writes how as a young girl she was “to be chaste as a cross-stitch…to feel myself eyelet-laced.” In the title poem, she takes precise aim at the lily-white standards to which middle-class white girls have long been held and are still subjected, standards that hearken back to the antebellum South and are reinforced by sexism and patriarchy. As Chappell pithily writes, “Honor in Alabama must be a sparkling shackle.”

Tallulah Bankhead, with her whisky-laced voice and shameless sexual history, “an artifact of the silver screen but no darling,” took a sledgehammer to those standards. Tallulah “had rummaged around in drugs, sex, / And party politics, defended too many Black men, / Refused her womb a child.” Tallulah has been the bête noire of many a good southern mother, yet she just won’t disappear from the southern imagination. Carrie Chappell is the perfect writer to dissect her mystique and examine her role in dismantling the sexism that buttresses “Southern ladyhood.”

Chappell’s language is crisp, lyrical, and biting, the perfect voice to illuminate why Tallulah Bankhead is still relevant, still enticing, “This fox of a woman I’ve been chasing.” The celebrated stage actress who was too controversial to be a film star is an empowering figure for Chappell, despite first disliking her because her mother did. And because Tallulah was not a lady: “You are the raspy space wherein/ I trample the shy girl scout within.” Exploring and discovering the controversial legacy of Tallulah gave Chappell a way to explore and discover herself. “Despite your destitutions, / I am able to scratch at my woman’s story.”

The actress becomes a companion and life guide to Chappell as she examines the social mores she was brought up with. Together they face and defy the condemnation of pearl-clutching Southern folks, naked and draped in costume jewelry: “Whether it is football cheer, prayer circle, / Or campaign slogan, we’ve both been thrown to the wolves.” Chappell is at her very best when stripping bare the suffocating nuances of middle-class values when her altar ego and Tallulah discuss how nonconforming women are punished.

Like all things
In America we needed someone to burn,
So we nailed you down, bled you of your
Humanity to punish ourselves.

Perhaps the most perfectly titled poem in the collection is “Tallulah And I Drive The Hoop Skirt That’s Been Lurking Under My Bed To A Clearing To Meet Its Fiery End.” It features Chappell’s most expressive language and strongest narrative voice as she and Tallulah channel Thelma and Louise in order to burn down the patriarchy: “My boot is steel-toed and my heart / Twice-baked. I turn to her and speak a spin of Nina: / The name of this tune is ‘Alabama Goddam;’ and I mean every word of it.” However, Chappell’s one weakness in this as in several of her other poems is to attempt to imitate Tallulah’s signature voice — it was inimitable, and Chappell’s own voice is more interesting than her imitations of Bankhead. Chappell is honest, especially when she faces the consequences of defying societal and familial expectations. She writes “I live in fear of my own / Turning against me, calling me wicked, ruined.” This is Chappell at her most vulnerable and most powerful.

Loving Tallulah Bankhead is the perfect book not just for nonconforming Southerners, but for all who want to learn more about the darkness behind the South’s beauty: “We call upon our haunted / Sisters who have had to leave / To save their minds.” It’s not just for “spooky, ruined women” but for all rebels. Despite their similarities and their intimacy, Chappell’s Tallulah remains elusive as the scent of perfume, vague but still intoxicating. Her mystique is most potent when ultimately left unexplained and when instead her nemesis, the ugliness of patriarchy, is illumined with blinding light. AsmChappell concludes:

Tallulah, you are
Not mine, as you were not yours,
No matter what Southern Belle
Hell we both escaped…
I know they tried to shut you up.
They tried with me too.

Loving Tallulah Bankhead
By Carrie Chappell
Paris Heretics
Published September 2022