“Electra Woman,” The New Yorker October 13, 2008
I don’t have a lot to say about Dietrich’s “Electra Woman.” One reason is that it continually tells me what “you,” meaning me, the reader, are doing, and I don’t care for poems that tell me what to do, etc. This, of course, has nothing to do with a poem’s craft. It’s simply the way I’m built as a reader of poetry in terms of innate likes and innate dislikes. That having been said, the poem is funny, unnerving, and somewhat too predictable.
“Electra Woman” is a twenty-line, single-stanza piece whose longish lines swing someplace between ten and fourteen syllables. The opening three lines are iambic, but much of what follows are lines with shifting stresses: “You come home to find Electra Woman / and Dyna Girl in bed. You know they’ve been up / to something. Freddie the Flute’s all sticky. / It is, you might say, disconcerting. At least / one of them isn’t a witch, black skirts all akimbo . . .” This is notable only because this brief pentameter sets up a formality and feel that the poem seems designed to break; it is a set up afterall, reflecting the poem’s contrast in content. As for much of the prosody, it’s prosaic, particularly the middle of the piece wherein three back-to-back sentences begin with time-signal phrases: “Later . . . . At one point . . . . After the dust clears . . .” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this; simply, the language sounds a lot like prose—that’s all. The line breaks, which don’t appear to be used for rhythm and pacing, add to this prose-paragraph feel as they don’t, as a whole, create effects other than getting us from one line to the next.
The poem’s allure is its contextual contrast: the “Electra Woman” of the title, as well as the names dropped throughout, are characters from the Krofft Supershow or Krofft Power Hour, live-action kids shows from the Seventies. As references to these shows, they, on one hand, evoke nostalgia for the simpler times of childhood. Even though I’ve never seen these programs, I feel it too: Saturday mornings, sugared cereal, toonies. On the other hand, Dietrich’s use of them is sexual, which strips them of their innocence and playfulness (though the poem remains playful) by placing them in an adult context: “Electra Woman / and Dyna Girl [are] in bed . . . . Freddie the Flute’s all sticky . . . . you join / in . . .” The innuendos are obvious, and they all lead directly to the poem’s predictable ending: “you used to wait for, want, them all . . . live girls . . .” It turns the Power Hour into a twisted loss of innocence that was, for me, a known theme as early as line four, if not earlier. As a result, for me, the poem doesn’t really go anywhere. It ends where it begins with little added, other than plot and sexual play, by its middle.
Nevertheless, I find the last line interesting: “You will feel like you’ve been puffing stuff.” The Krofft creators claimed their shows and characters were without drug references, but much as it doesn’t take a pornographer to see the double-meanings in Dietrich’s piece, it doesn’t take a drug user to recognize them in the Power Hour either. Intentional or not, the references are there. So, the last line does bring in an extra element commenting on the Krofft shows in general. Perhaps that’s what all the sexual gimmick is for: the poem isn’t about sex, it’s about denying it, about ignoring it, about convincing yourself it isn’t there. Perhaps, precisely, that’s the joke.