Poet's Notebook: Unsmiling

click to enlarge Poet's Notebook: Unsmiling - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
Poet's Notebook: Unsmiling

Greta Garbo Poem #25

When I’m with Greta Garbo

she gets very talkative

She likes me to put on my Russian accent

and she plays Ninotchka again

People think we’re crazy

especially the waiters at Howard Johnson’s

Do you want dessert? they ask

Oh no says Greta Garbo
Ve vant to be alone!

and she & I laugh and laugh and laugh

Actually, the movies’ greatest star later claimed she never said that (though I was there, as the waiters will attest). She said she meant to say “I want to be let alone,” though in Greta Garbo’s case, both seem to be applicable. She never married, but was loved by both men and women, and occasionally reciprocated to both, remaining, like Churchill’s Russia, a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

She was born in 1905, in Stockholm, so in 1969 she was 64 (it’s very hard to think of Greta Garbo as an older woman). In that year, Jeanne and I were living in the village of Falmer, England, near the vacation town of Brighton, with its famous boardwalk and the exotic Royal Pavilion where King George IV partied with his friends and mistresses. We’d been traveling with 16 Eckerd students, taking them on their continental education through Florence, Munich, Amsterdam, London, Lucerne, and Paris, before settling down at the University of Sussex for some serious teaching and study time (I was lecturing on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and a visit to Canterbury Cathedral was on our agenda). By sheer luck, we’d gone almost directly from seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre to a Greta Garbo movie festival at the university.

This was educational in many ways. As we sat through Anna Christie, Anna Karenina, Camille and Ninotchka on successive evenings, we decided Greta Garbo was the Mona Lisa of movie stars — or perhaps the Mona Lisa is the Greta Garbo of famous portraits: both of them mesmerizing, not quite smiling, and ineffably calm. In that 16th-century masterpiece — we learned — Leonardo da Vinci invented the sfumato technique, a blending of light and shade that emphasized the eyes and mouth, which in Mona Lisa’s portrait makes her both expressive and unknowable. And those are exactly the traits we remember when we think of Greta Garbo.

Americans have to smile so much! We’re bombarded by ads for whitening toothpaste, electric toothbrushes and waterpicks that promise to make us look more desirable as we smile at the birdie. Our “pursuit of happiness” has morphed from a right to a responsibility, and we worry if we don’t feel, and look, happy as a little doggie.

So, after seeing all those magical movies, with those serious eyes magnified on the screen in Sussex, Jeanne and I perceived that neither Greta nor Mona would ever smile at the birdie; and we resolved never again to smile unnecessarily. Whenever we entered a room where people waited for us, we vowed to remain dignified, unsmiling, and — yes! — mysterious. We could practice this with the English, whose dignity, though eroding along with the Royal Family, is still at a higher level than found in the average American gathering, where grins pop like paparazzi flashbulbs. Alas, try as we might, as soon we set foot in a room, or a camera pointed its lewd eye toward us, we felt the corners of our lips turning up against our will, distending into a desperate grimace. Charlie! Maggie! How’re you doin’ ?
Greta! Mona! Help!

Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa
Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?
—from the song “Mona Lisa” by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston (1950)

“Greta Garbo Poem #25,” by Peter Meinke, is from The Contracted World: New & More Selected Poems, U. of Pittsburgh Press (2006) 


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