Social media, we are told, defines who girls want to be – or at least who they want to look like. Earlier this year, The Telegraph reported that ‘6% of girls aged 13 to 16 – equivalent to more than 100,000 – said they had undergone cosmetic surgery to improve their looks for non-medical reasons.’ CNN suggests that a new raft of expectations for girls online, combined with pre-existing societal pressures, adds up to what psychologists call ”role overload – too many roles for a single person to play – and ‘role conflict’ – when the roles you play are at odds with one another. The effort required to get a bikini body will cut away at the hours you need to spend in the lab to get into medical school.’
Rachel Piercey’s new pamphlet, Disappointing Alice, is a brilliant exploration of the developing self and opens big, with a resounding ‘Hwæt’, suggesting testosterone fueled fights with monsters. Instead, that initial Hwæt is re-run: ‘Well · Hey · Come · Mark me’ as Piercey’s speaker tries on voices for size. However, there’s nothing diffident about this voice. An exclamation like ‘Hwæt’ is filled with confidence and purpose. The speaker may be exploring possible selves, but she knows who she is – which is just as well, as the poem ends with ominous certainty: ‘I’ll tell you this / The world · is full · of monsters.’
In ‘Post-film’ we meet the monster. The title is also the poem’s first line, which creates a sense of urgency – the young man carbuncular has a pressing engagement: ‘Post-film, / he has the pleasant sense of being watched. / The cameras are trained on his back / as he walks naturally towards the gents, / opening the door in a manner / which implies upper-body strength.’ Piercey’s third person narrator helps to convey the sense that the young man is being watched – and we wonder whether the cameras suggest that he fantasises about playing a role in the movie, or whether they are the smartphones of his adoring fans, adding moody filters before he is uploaded to their Instagram feeds. If the speaker in ‘Hwæt’ is trying roles on for size, the young man has selected his already – and it is calculated to deceive: his upper-body strength is implied rather than actual, suggesting a degree of concealed vulnerability. We meet ‘all the girls in his past’ like some inverted ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ and the speaker, acknowledging the young man’s preoccupation with the construction of his image, notes that ‘From this angle, all the girls in his past / are beautiful, sunlit and melancholic, / and all the girls in his future are beautiful / and sunlit too.’ Angles develop the poem’s sense of cinematography and perverse, precise vantage points from which to view the scene. Lighting too dominates and we’re left wondering whether a generation’s obsession with the aesthetic possesses a sinister quality.
By contrast, Piercey’s women defy societal expectation. In ‘Bad Apple’, an admirer ‘believed her comely barrel-fun / to be tight-celled and stain-free’ and ‘felt most sorrowful. / How she took pleasure in the contagious mush, / she liked to nudge it with her finger’. Piercey’s lines, riven by deep caesuras, suggest the pleasure taken in subverting expectation.
In ‘Deep in the Desert,’ Piercey’s exploration of social media assumes the quality of a parable. Deep in the desert, ‘Alice sent a message re. her total dereliction / of spirit and body in a far-off country, / stripped of wallet and phone’. The detached businesslike quality of her ‘re.’ is at odds with her claimed crisis. Do we overdramatise our lives on social media, or is it simply the case that the topsoil of our affection thins when faced with existential crises reframed as status updates?
Rachel Piercey wears her learning lightly and Disappointing Alice is a rich meditation on modern life. Although it acknowledges the complexities and challenges of modern living, her women face the future with the confidence of that opening ‘Hwæt.’