If you keep up with magazines such as 3:AM, Under the Radar, Hearing Voices or Tears in the Fence, you may be familiar with many of Melissa Lee-Houghton’s poems in Beautiful Girls. Previously recognised in the Lupus UK Competition as well as by The New Writer Collection, Beautiful Girls is now listed as a Poetry Book Society recommendation. In her poetry debut, A Body Made of You (2011), Lee-Houghton presented a series of poems for other writers, artists, strangers, lovers and friends written from interviews, pictures and paintings, including a couple of self-portraits.
Beautiful Girls explores the nature of perception further and also the intimacy of human interaction, even in the briefest of exchanges between strangers. Here she examines overlapping definitions of beauty framed in a series of confessional poems, from adolescent adoration to body dysmorphia. Whilst these poems offer concise and rich descriptions, there are often moments of touching simplicity, such as this embedded segment of “Anarchy”:
we laugh, though I know her life is tragic.
I walk by her in school and my nipples hurt:
I want to touch her all the time.
In her more complex analogies, the poet submerges the reader in delusional descriptions which simulate a variety of personality disorders. She does not always take the predictable path. Rather than ravelling a disjointed narrative of self-loathing, “Major Organs” is an example that shows both a complex and warped perception of beauty:
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.
Even in her frequent allusions to death and autopsy, which are scattered throughout the collection, poems explore each narrator’s differing definitions of beauty. Life, death and the traces of life, all seem to converge; life is vibrant, though sometimes violent, and death appears as a tangible presence, often with a sort of nervous anticipation. Despite the myriad guises explored, a certain universal idea of beauty blossoms as a transcendent force which constantly rebels against convention, even defying the finality of death.
As with A Body Made of You, sexually-charged poems predominate in Beautiful Girls. There are examples of naive excitement, discovery, the tenderness of teenage love and even carelessly comical moments. “Blowjob” is perhaps the most shockingly explicit example in the collection, concerned as it is with two girls on an overnight jaunt from the asylum. They find themselves performing sexual favours for cash. Whilst this might be expected to be sinister, the tone is light-hearted as the girls ignore the dissatisfied customer, enjoying their new-found freedom over a “celebratory bag of salted chips”:
Fella said they’d better get some practice
if they were gonna take it serious like –
and from where they are sat they can see
the whole world, the whole night.
Critics have debated on the surreal setting of this collection, discerning in the poet’s “rhapsodic” language an attempt to teach the reader how to engage with and accept a pure emotional responses. However, I don’t think Beautiful Girls is didactic. I believe that Lee-Houghton is writing to us, perfect strangers, with confidence, trusting that her reader’s “Fettered Heart” will find an affinity with her suffering protagonists in their attempts to find connections, attachments and ultimately love:
I could easily believe that nothing bad could ever happen.
Maybe the strength of our delusion is the truest test of happiness.
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, the five o’clock news.