Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Sunday 12 January 2014

"Beautiful Girls" by Melissa Lee-Houghton (Penned in the Margins, 2013)

I had friends with severe mental problems. Their monologues had the strange connections, discontinuity and novelty that poetry sometimes has. I was impressed. Some of them wrote poetry. Lots of it. I sometimes helped to make it (in my opinion) publishable.

At a Writers Circle I attended, there was a group of attendees who seemed to know each other. I was later told that the local mental hospital (as it was called then) had suggested the circle to them. They found it useful, and the interest was mutual. Readers attracted to confessional poetry, unconventionality, or to reading about lifestyles they're unfamiliar with, can also be drawn to such texts, especially if they don't have schitzophrenic friends. The novelty can soon wear off. One person's honesty is another's melodrama. Repetition can become unrestrained, and often there are simply too many words, too little control. There are complications regarding reviewing too - if one knows that the poet is (or even was) in therapy, it's difficult not to use kid gloves when commenting on their work. Also content can become too dominant - it's tempting to analyse the illness rather than the poem.

On her blog Melissa Lee-Houghton writes that she was bipolar. Robert Lowell amongst many others have struggled with writing poetry while suffering from forms of bipolarity. One doesn't want the drugs to destroy creativity, but sometimes it's the only option. The transition phases of bipolarity can be the most productive. Editing at the wrong phase in the cycle is a danger though. How much should one edit away the quirks and affectations? In some ways it's a more extreme version of the moods and bursts that many poets have, trying to balance "creativity" vs control, individuality vs communication.

She writes - "I’ve been a parent since I was seventeen, that’s thirteen years", a situation which intensifies the problems. As if that's not sufficient material, there are poems about the narrator seeking her/his biological father.

All that said, I think this book manages to avoid many of the problems that I've mentioned above. I like "Heaven", the first poem of this book. I'd already expected line-breaks to be gratuitous, and so it proved - "You go there if you have a personality disorder [LINEBREAK] or learning disability. ... When you get there [LINEBREAK] you can be invisible. You spend most of your life [LINEBREAK] that way - it's a comfort ... Heaven is the place where we spend eternity, amazed [LINEBREAK] that life has to happen at all. ... Being forgotten [LINEBREAK] is beautiful. Being forgotten has not always been beautiful". "Sixteen" is interesting too.

I liked the late Douglas Clark's Skiathos - here's an extract

They wave to me. But I am on business. The voices will follow.
As the morning comes up I am half-way across the channel.
There is no going back. I swim beautifully. Forever.
I hear the voices coming up behind me. They are to rape me.

Its short-sentenced style and use of absolutes ("forever"), is shared by "Heaven" and many other poems here. Emblems of identity are paraded - eyes, clothes (or lack of them), faces. In some poems there's a repeated use of "We" or "You". "They" are the enemy. Death (non-identity) and sex (fusion of identities) aren't far away. The body can become detached, organs itemized.

Throughout there are interesting images - "We can sleep together like release [sic] doves" (p.21); "They've dismantled the phone box by the abattoir;/ the one I used to ring you on with 20p coins" (p.25). Sometimes these images are strung together and momentum builds - I liked "Compassion" for example. Elsewhere, more mundane material interferes. I wasn't keen on "Codiene", "Group Therapy", "Hanging On", "Fettered Heart" (too long, though several lines including the final lines were ok), "I'll Find You" or "My Lovelies". "Town Show '82" is one of the poems where there's only one outlier line ("I want to ... burn the show tent down, stand in the ashes"); the rest comprise a standard (rather ordinary) poem. "Belly" ends with a surprise - "One day [my daughter] will go to the tattoo parlour/ just to have something done to her. Just to see if it hurts./ Just to feel something healing over". "Dimensions" has 4 3-line stanzas. The first three begin with

  • "I become more afraid of your body every year"
  • "Every year I become more afraid of your body"
  • "Your body, every year, is becoming more afraid"

which I don't really see the point of. The 4th stanza has "I try to imagine you without a body". The succeeding poem, "Peter Pan", continues the theme - "When I am with you/ I'm beside myself because I can't have you/ completely, and although/ you give yourself to me completely/ I can't have you and I'm beside myself", which is beginning to sound like R.D. Laing. "Tough Guys" has 2 phrases that interest me -

  • "We contracted influenza when I was seven or eight" - of course, the reader doesn't care whether it's 7 or it's 8, or that the narrator can't exactly remember. The reader might be impressed by the narrator's display of trying to be accurate.
  • "that it was possible to be apart from her/ without my chocolate eardrums" - eh?

I think it's my favourite "Penned in the Margins" poetry book.

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