Poet and short story writer, Melissa Lee-Houghton’s fourth poetry collection, Beautiful Girls (Penned in the Margins, 2013) retrieves the narratives of mental asylum girls in a sequence that marks the physical and social disintegration of lost selves. Here those with personality disorders know heaven as ‘the place between the sky and the planets’ and seek comfort as best they can. The poems draw the reader into their world.
The girls had been abused, the girls had been misunderstood.
The girls had been put there under false pretences. The doctors
fell in love with the girls. The nurses fell in love with the girls.
Madness was attracted to the girls, as they were to madness.
The narrator’s tattooed body, cut, hungry, forgotten, needy and dependent, is shown in relation to drugs, locale, family and others. The poems have a painful physicality, vulnerability and a movement towards healing that is always one step further on. There are some extraordinary poems, such as ‘Codeine’, ‘Belly’ and ‘Dimensions’, which define the comfort of body pain and hurt through absence and fear. ‘Erasure’, Lee-Houghton writes, ‘is never complete’ in a chilling riposte to healing. These are exceptional poems. Reading the sequence as a whole, individual lines stick out and carry more weight into the next part. Lines, such as, ‘The girls wished they were not girls’, with its idea of the trapped body, ‘I cannot cry; these girls are beautiful and dying’, and ‘We don’t have to worry about our insides / or being mistaken for someone else’ echo in other poems that show scarred, fractured and careless bodies and work cumulatively to reinforce the acute physical malaise.
When they told me I was mad, nobody wanted to touch me
in case it infected them too. The doctor had my mother
and father put their arms around me so I couldn’t move
and I squealed and they shouted, is this necessary?
They didn’t want to hold me and I didn’t want to be held.
The collection pivots upon two splits. One is the narrative between the self, including body image and pain, and others, including the sense of community between the girls. The other involves the narrative voice dipping away from controlled and beautifully sustained poetry into sloppy prose with odd and perfunctory breaks and endings. The latter mars what is an exceptional and, at times, extraordinary work.
David Caddy January 4th 2014