There are many things that drew me to Helen Marshall’s poetry collection The Sex Lives Of Monsters. Quite apart from the intriguing title, the book was the winner of the 2012 Aurora Award, and features some fantastic illustrations by Chris Roberts (of Dead Clown Art). And who could resist a book of poetry which features a section titled “The Collected Postcards Of Billy The Kid”? I think, however, that it was the cover which I found most captivating. It shows a fleshy mound, oddly layered and twisted. There’s a sparse crop of hair on top, and a shaggy patch of fur underneath, as well as a dark void that could just about be a mouth. It is impossible to make anything recognisable out of that image, and yet it feels undoubtedly monstrous, and oddly sad at the same time.
The same could be said for many of the poems. Marshall promises us monsters, and while she does deliver on this, the monsters are often only just there. They are half-seen, flitting into the shadows as soon as the reader dares to look towards them. The subject of the poem “Beautiful Monster”, for example, is never described in full. We see only glimpses of its painful existence and malformed body, but nothing of the entirety. The nature of the monster in the poem “In The Off Hours” is similarly uncertain, although we are offered the fantastic phrase “hairless as a worm / crumpled as the classifieds” – an oddly pitiful description for something that is to be classified as monstrous, one might think. And yet The Sex Lives Of Monsters so often chooses to show us creatures at their most vulnerable. “In The Off Hours” is, in fact, a poem about a monster visiting a doctor to try and determine why he has become meek, why he has turned “soapy” and been stripped of his “uncomplicated rage”. He fears that, if he does not recover his fierceness, the woman he loves will lose interest in him.
The second section, titled “Domestic Affairs” features a number of more recognisable figures from myth and fairytale. A new voice is given to the wife of Bluebeard the pirate (she speaks to the reader as she buries her past lovers), and to the wicked crone from the tale of Hansel And Gretel (who desperately tries to drag children away from her oven, rather than stuffing them into it). There is, again, a startling vulnerability to these characters – Marshall is adept at placing the reader into the shoes of impossible and improbable people.
As we move into the third section, titled “Before We Were Lost”, horror becomes a much more distinct presence in the collection, and we move into the realm of the modern day. There is a dark and faintly-apocalyptic road-trip in “3623 Miles From Home”, and the ghostly tale of a phantom digit in “The Dead Man’s Thumb”. Here we delve even deeper into the rabbit hole of Marshall’s imagination – no longer are we dealing with literal monsters, but instead with things much more uncanny in nature.
The fourth section, titled “The Collected Postcards Of Billy The Kid” is a long voice poem told in several parts. We follow Billy The Kid on a lonely journey through a burned wasteland – a surreal and weightless pilgrimage that ends on a note of sadness, with Billy standing on the floor of a vast crater.
Throughout each of its varied sections, the poetry in The Sex Lives Of Monsters is never less than fantastic. Marshall creates a world that bristles with magic, but which is nevertheless utterly believable. Her descriptions are clear and her turn of phrase expert. The fact that she manages to evoke sadness and longing so effectively when writing about murderers, ghosts and grotesque monstrosities is a testament to her talent as a poet.
The Sex Lives Of Monsters is sublime in many ways, and there wasn’t a single poem between its covers that I didn’t fall in love with. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy as soon as you can.
Christopher Frost is a writer from the North of England. He works as a copywriter for a charity, and in his spare time writes book reviews.