Beautiful Girls – Review by Kayo Chingonyi
In his lecture on Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Nick Mount figures the lyric poem as an attempt to ‘stop time’; to bring a moment into heightened focus that it might be better dealt with. It seems apt to begin a review of Beautiful Girls here since the book follows in the wake of Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, in its engagement with the lyric mode as a means of exploring the deeply subjective nature of mental illness and, in particular, how our understanding and treatment of mental illness is complicated by our gender norms.
The first poem in the book, ‘Heaven’, gives us a strong indication of the poet’s concerns since it shows us the world through the eyes of the ‘forgotten’; a world in which the afterlife represents a haven from a life on the fringes delineated by such classifications as ‘personality disorder’ and ‘learning disability’. These phrases prefigure a recurrent focus in the book: the lives of those who are failed by society. This thread is picked up again in ‘Asylum Girls’ which, in its frequent repetition of the phrase ‘the girls’, places the emphasis on those who are so often elided in the final analysis of a patriarchal society. This poem also illustrates the way Lee-Houghton sets up subtle echoes throughout the book that collect to devastating effect.
While the world of institutions is the main setting there are frequent depictions of domestic life that serve to illustrate the effects of having been exposed to things that most people do not see. This tension is, perhaps, most evident in the three poems that close the book and the way they vacillate between celebrating intimacy and reflecting on the attendant fear that comes with it. This from the last poem- ‘That Afternoon We Listened to Sparklehorse and Thought About Dying’ – is a wonderful evocation of the duality at the heart of this book:
You know and I know how messy life can get
when you mess with it, when you push your luck
‘Mess’ here is standing in for great suffering and shows how adjusted the speaker has become to being disappointed by life. We could read sadness into this though there is a triumph and celebration here too, of that fierce resilience that stirs even the most disconsolate to ‘push their luck’.
Kayo Chingonyi is a poet, editor, events producer and educator. His pamphlet, Some Bright Elegance, was published by Salt in 2012. Follow @KayoChingonyi