Ella & Marilyn at the Mocambo

This poem won First place in 2-Day Poem Contest 2013

It’s a mad gambit, but she knows down to the skin

the workings of allure, pulls rank


in the slope of her shoulderblades

against formica & chrome. Marilyn twirls


the flute of Dom, sleek in blond chiffon & pearls.

The neon trapeze of light’s a treat


along her jaw; the cockatiels tremble their bars,

bob into silence. There’s something


about this woman at the table down front

that knows a bit about cages. All these men


in their rococo suits, smacking of a Paris

she’ll never see, scrim of absinthe & gin fizz,


sententious post-war bonhomie. & as she feels

she’s been gazed to the vanishing point,


Ella takes the stage with that calm relish

born in a woman out of long, slow trying,


chalking up the strokes in some record book

legible only to men. & it’s a plum way


she takes the mike, looks to Marilyn

across the scrubby hecklers down front,


scats her opener in a voice all

rasped-up thankful. What they share electric


in that impossible room. I feel the freedom in my soul,

flying home at last.



Historical note: Ella Fitzgerald was unable to play the Mocambo nightclub in Hollywood because she was black. In 1955, Marilyn Monroe called the club’s owner and told him that if he booked Ella, Marilyn would be at a table down front every night. When the owner agreed, true to her word, Marilyn was there every night, and so was the press.


The italicized words in the final two lines of the poem are taken from Fitzgerald’s hit song “Flying Home” (Goodman, DeLange, Hampton, and Robin, 1939).

Jenna Butler is the author of three books of poetry, Seldom Seen Road (NeWest Press, 2013), Wells (University of Alberta Press, 2012), and Aphelion (NeWest Press, 2010). She teaches creative writing in Edmonton, where she will be the CAA Alberta Branch Writer in Residence in 2013/14. Butler and her husband live with three resident moose and a den of coyotes on a small organic farm in Alberta’s north country.