Helen Marshall is an award-winning Canadian author, editor, and doctor of medieval studies. Her poetry and fiction have been published in The Chiaroscuro, Abyss & Apex, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Tor.com and have been reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies. Her debut collection of short stories Hair Side, Flesh Side (ChiZine Publications, 2012) was named one of the top ten books of 2012 by January Magazine. It won the 2013 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and was short-listed for a 2013 Aurora Award by the Canadian Society of Science Fiction and Fantasy.[i]
And her poetry collection The Sex Lives of Monsters won the 2014 Elgin Award given by the Science Fiction Poetry Association for best chapbook. So, if you haven’t read it yet, hop to it!
This brief collection contains 17 poems, one of which is actually a set of ? linked poems. It’s broken into 4 sections with an introductory poem (if you will). The poems in the first section, “Blind,” explore some type of blindness, not in the actual sense, but metaphorical as in a Gongon’s (either Medusa or one of her sisters, it’s not clear) lover, who cannot look at her or as in “love is blind” and does not see the monster as such. There is a lot of watching and looking in these poems, but not a whole lot of seeing and this lack is palpable, it creates a barrier in the relationships, one that words can’t bridge. “In the Off Hours” is about a werewolf who visits a doctor not realizing that the girlfriend won’t appreciate the change. Listen to this one:
“In the Off Hours” – read by Diane Severson
“Domestic Affairs” is the second section and as the title suggests the poems are about the relationships between a monster (of sorts) and a member of their immediate family (except the witch, although I suppose she thinks of Hansel and Gretel as her children). While we might not think of Zeus as a monster, when he changes into a swan to seduce Leda, I find the idea a little revolting. Just have a look at this picture:
When I was young, we kept no birds in cages,
we worshipped the hawk, the sparrow,
and we lay beside the river
to draw him forth.
In “The Stairwell” the story is of Eurydice after she is forever banished to Hades by Orpheus’ weakness, what it’s like and what she feels (darkness and resignation):
And then your face
brilliant with sunlight
as you speak my name.
Eurydice eurydice eurydice . . .
I had forgotten.
These poems aren’t so much about Monsters (with a capital M) but about monstrous things that happen to “regular” people or there’s a turning of the tables, in which Hansel and Gretel’s witch is the one who falls victim and the children the monsters.
“Before We Were Lost” is a section all about the monstrous bits of oneself: A dad with “demons”; a shadow self, who is quite wicked; a severed appendage that lives on somewhere disturbing the man who lost it. Did you know Sleeping Beauty was a witch trying to preserve that part of herself?
The last section is “the Collected Postcards of Billy the Kid” and is a series of linked poems about, yes, Billy the Kid. Have a listen:
“The Collected Postcards of Billy the Kid”
I find it really interesting in a chapbook about monsters, this Billy the Kid, the one Helen Marshall helps us see, is not really monstrous. He sees beautiful things and he says things, which make you think, maybe he wasn’t so awful. Who said he was, anyway?
In general, I find the title misleading because these poems are more about love than sex, but it does get your attention! They are about how monsters, in their myriad incarnations, love, which is more about longing than anything else. Love that others have for monsters, which is surprisingly beautiful and not at all creepy. Marshall’s voice is soothing, aching and sympathetic to the monsters she gives voice to. I love how beautiful Helen Marshall’s phrases are and yet they describe difficult things. You can help feeling sympathetic to all of the “Monsters”, because they are, in the end, simply human and we are just like them.
Helen Marshall has a new collection of short fiction out called Gifts for the One Who Comes After. It has received much critical acclaim.
[i] From her website: http://www.helen-marshall.com/