In London: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd writes that ‘London drives some of its citizens mad. A psychiatric survey in the 1970s revealed that cases of depressive illness were three times higher in the East End than in the rest of the country.’ From 1247, these citizens were contained in the hospital of St Mary of Bethlem, originally at Bishopsgate, just outside the city wall. Today, the word bedlam conjures confusion and uproar, but the hospital’s founders would have intended its name, Bethlehem, to symbolize the shelter and care of last resort. However, Shakespeare’s Poor Tom and his ilk were not loved enough to be welcomed into the warm bosom of the city, and it’s telling that they were corralled on the chilly side of the wall. The same’s true in my hometown, Poole, where St Ann’s Hospital is perched on Canford Cliffs, screened by Scots pine, and would once have been out of sight and walled on two sides by the sea.
Melissa Lee-Houghton opens Beautiful Girls with Heaven: ‘Heaven is the place between the sky and the planets. / You have to soar through the clouds to reach it. / You go there if you have a personality disorder / or learning disability, or if you made all three appointments / in a row. The drugs give you extra lift / as you go.’ ‘Heaven is the place where we spend eternity, amazed / that life has to happen at all; / the place where we are unnoticed and learn to sing songs / backwards and spell out names in languages no-one uses.’ Line one’s ‘Heaven’ should offer eternity, but this vision is rudely circumscribed by an end-stopped line. Still, everything sounds broadly positive, and line two’s ‘soar’ evokes an appealing effortlessness. However, ‘personality disorder’ changes everything, and suddenly ‘You go there’ sounds like a euphemism for burley men wheeling a gurney and a copy of the Mental Health Act. Since reading Thomas Hardy’s Hap, I have a fondness for the paradoxical qualities of un- prefixes – just stop and think about how something might actually unbloom? Flowers bloom, wither and die, but never unbloom. Lee-Houghton describes the residents of the psychiatric hospital as ‘unnoticed,': they have been un-seen and un-remembered by friends and colleagues, as they are dislocated to the margins of the community. This has been true for a long time: it’s on the heath that Lear meets Poor Tom the Bedlam beggar: ‘O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this!‘
Distance and isolation darken in Levi: ‘You can see jellyfish pink-blue veins in Angie’s arms and chest. / Her heart flutters like she’s swum too far out at sea. She / is afraid she’ll die with the weight on her heart; / we are all afraid of it. / Levi drank a bottle of vodka and / inhaled butane gas and / pulled tight the noose and / jumped over the side of the bridge.’ The jellyfish, beautiful, alien, drifts with the current and, observed from the deck of a boat, it’s barely there; a phosphorescence emanating from a void, a bubble. Lee-Houghton’s line drifts long and free too, and I could understand the speaker and friends noticing Angie’s arms, but her chest too? This is a bored community of scrutiny and introspection. The jellyfish adds a languid quality to Angie’s isolation, which contrasts with the short lines and brisk pace of Levi’s suicide. Each line serves as a suicide attempt and, taken together, they’re overkill. No wonder that the Samaritans report that ‘Male suicide rates are on average 3-5 times higher than female rates.’
The collection is keenly observed: Belly describes a mother’s recollection of her teenage belly button piercing: ‘When I was fifteen I took my two little cousins into town / and had them wait outside the tattoo parlour / while a woman with blue hair pierced my belly button / with a big red ruby that pooled inside like a roving eye.’ It’s a beautiful, disconcerting image which endows the belly with a life of its own, prefiguring the gestation of the speaker’s daughter. Perhaps there’s an ominousness to this cycle: ‘One day she will go to the tattoo parlour / just to have something done to her. Just to see if it hurts.’
There’s freeness and authenticity in Lee-Houghton’s restricted palette of line breaks and arresting phrases. Her poems are letters from the front line. In Alexander Pope’s time, visiting the inmates at Bedlam was a popular amusement. Today, out of sight means out of mind, perhaps because the frenetic pace of modern existence already ensures that ‘one in four of us will experience a mental illness at least once a year.’ Perhaps we would all benefit from a walk through Bethlem, and Melissa Lee-Houghton’s Beautiful Girls hands us the key.