Lucy Lepchani, Ladygardens, (Burning Eye Books, 2013), 69pp., £10, ISBN 978 1 90913 612 0; Melissa Lee-Houghton, Beautiful Girls, (Penned in the Margins, 2013), 76pp., £8.99, ISBN 978-1-908058-03-4
Reviewed by Phoebe Walker [Originally published in LP1, August 2014]
At the outset I should make this disclaimer: these two collections aren’t being reviewed together just because of their titles. The casual observer might read ‘Ladygardens’ and ‘Beautiful Girls’ and think, ah, that’s the feminism box properly ticked then. But these collections don’t complement each other merely as explorations of ‘wimmin’s issues’; it’s more the anger, sometimes smouldering, sometimes flaring brutally, and the uncompromising vitality and frankness of the writing that marks them out.
If covers (supposedly) aren’t important when it comes to books, titles usually are. ‘Ladygardens’ is simultaneously blunt and euphemistic, and I found this pretty well matched the tone of many of Lepchani’s poems. ‘Beautiful Girls’ sounds immediately more enigmatic, but I found myself ultimately reading back from the poems themselves to the title, then appreciating some of the weariness and bitterness that inheres in that phrase. This makes it sound as if the poems themselves are pretty sobering things, which both is and isn’t the case; Lee-Houghton’s work is sobering but never joyless, and she writes with a sprightliness that belies the gravity, even the heartbreak, of her themes.
Ladygardens brims with that most desirable of poetic knacks – the ability to translate minutiae, the infinitesimal dregs of twenty-first century existence, into at times exquisite, jewel-like phrases. Lepchani reminds us of a lipstick’s “buttered hues” and magics a grandfather’s daily shaving routine into “cut-throat antics” over a bowl of “luke-warm whisker soup”. For me, the most impressive example of Lepchani’s skill in this sense is displayed in the titular poem, which is also placed first in the collection. No prizes for guessing what’s being described here, but the measured spareness of the phrasing and the modest alliteration makes this a poem of quiet elegance.
Pink butterfly nestled into roseate nectarine.
Plump white peach […]
Tiny, peeping, sleeping mammal […]
Glistening oyster open to the tide.
Closed, lobed seed-pod.
Over-ripe Victoria plum.
These are phrases worth quoting in full. Although other poems come close (I particularly liked the description of the moon as “a bodhran throbbing silent beats”), the intensity of these opening phrases struggle to be matched in the rest of the collection, which is perhaps a risk worth taking to create such a lingeringly vivid introduction. The slight sense of a climb-down after ‘Ladygardens’ is exacerbated by the movement into rhymed verse. Lepchani recourses often to rhymed poetry in its more traditional forms, something I wasn’t displeased about; contemporary rhymed poetry can be too often, and unjustly, viewed as a literary anachronism. However, Lepchani’s rhyme falls short, in places, of the exactitude that these forms require if they are to ring out perfectly. Take this example from ‘Keeping the Wolf from the Door’:
The people who moved in next door
are unemployed. Their dwelling is a house of straw.
The housing benefit they claim is often paid late,
And yet the blame falls squarely at their worried feet
The rhythm and the scansion seem off kilter here, a clumsiness which gnaws at the reader, particularly when there are examples of other poems where the rhyme is handled deftly and wittily. Who wouldn’t grin to find “Syndicalist banners” rhymed with “local Nannas” or thrill angrily along to the quick-fire spit of couplets in ‘How To Be Desirable’:
Fix it up, hitch it up, turn yourself around again!
Needles full of fillers, botox and collagen!
The issue here is perhaps that these poems are really meant to be read to an audience – I found myself muttering them aloud, deploying my (impeccable) sense of comic timing and thrusting in a dramatic gesture or two. Lepchani looks to more overt forms of rhyme and rhythm in what seem to be her ‘public poems’, detailed polemics lamenting society’s ills from a heatedly empathetic liberal perspective. Lepchani gives us unemployed ‘scrounger’ Ernie, who “values attitude – he does not want to fit/ into a cog just like a cog – will not be part of it”. I like the way a pacey, controlled rhythm is used here and elsewhere, both for the energy it lends the poem and for its effect of controlling, and so tautening, the meaning and the justified anger of the piece.
Considering the current clamour from some quarters for poems to present themselves in more demotic ways in the public arena, the simplicity of language, form and content, matched with acuity and a total absence of condescension found in poems like ‘The Importance of Being a Dole Scrounger’ should surely be applauded. If some of them veer slightly towards worthiness, the collection’s poise is remedied by poems that take an elegant inward turn, and which are perhaps more to be savoured. ‘Conversation’, cleverly partnered with its Polish translation on the facing page, is a pure sliver of a poem exploring language, in which the “zig-zag of consonants/ buzz and curve”, English sounding, “to the Polish ear” like “circles inside circles”. It’s in these quieter, private poems that Lepchani’s impressive craftsmanship, her profound intimacy with words, really comes through in resonant, deceptively simple phrases. A scar becomes “The punctuation mark in every personal myth”, a line that I can’t shake out of my mind. A proliferation of these more thoughtful poems might have made the collection seem a little ponderous, but is, for the most part, judiciously ordered (I could wish for just one or two fewer jauntily-rhymed pieces), so that more plangent poems, like ‘Scar’, are followed by a change in pace, if not in tone, the reader surging into “the foam-backed glide/ between fast water and the board”.
Beautiful Girls offers a more homogeneous set of poems, which isn’t intended as a criticism; in fact, the consistency here makes for a holistic, well-defined collection. These poems are dark, brutal, spiky, an invitation to inhabit those dimly-lit interstices of psyche and society where, even in daylight, we don’t like to tread. In these poems, self-possession becomes the talisman to be obtained at any cost; the title poem whispers “In our graves we are all/ beautiful girls/…all inhibitions gone/…serene as pawns and queens/ and home in ourselves/ forever”. This is poetry that is painful to read for all the right reasons, honest, biting explorations of mental illness, of minds that aren’t diseased, but swerving pathlessly along. Lee-Houghton introduces us to the inhabitants of the asylum: Sunita with “clods of food in her soft, dumpy hands/…her big mammal laugh booming”, Melvyn “eager to get his injection/ so he can go shopping, and maybe today he won’t cry” and the army of asylum girls who “count out paracetamol” and “covet glass and razorblades”. Lee-Houghton also embraces the lyric voice, wanting to draw the reader as close as possible into the labyrinth of the mind. ‘Major Organs’ imagines this literally:
When they take my brain out of its casing
it will be fluorescent
and the mortuary assistant will stand back
because it will dazzle so brightly.
My brain will be heavier than a watermelon
and shot through with gold.
Other poems are more earth-bound, their effect lying in the measured precision of images – a mother falling asleep, drunk, in her dressing gown, or two wannabe prostitutes sharing a bag of salted chips “on a park bench at midnight in June”. The language of these poems relentlessly translates the extraordinary into the seemingly ordinary, skewing our perceptions and presumptions in a way that is valuably disorientating. The deceptively simple ‘Square Man’ worms a finger into a tender spot with its images of a person
With so many sides and corners you can bump
it away, the pains and the conflict and the history
We eat the round food you make for us,
chocolate puddings and cakes
too round to fit inside you whole
These poems are the more valuable for the fact that they don’t necessarily function as exorcisms – this is not poetry-as-therapy. Sadness and anger are alive in all of them, and although Lee-Houghton is adept at creating slick closing phrases, these never dull the reader to the real impact of her writing. In the astonishing long poem, ‘Fettered Heart’, we hear:
There are old tears swimming in my head like larvae
I would pluck each one with tweezers.
I have tried to extract them before,
sad songs, bad poems […]
There’s comfort to be found in knowing that if ‘old tears’ are ‘bad poems’, new tears at least make for good ones.