The Good Girl Is Always a Ghost by Anne Champion
The Good Girl Is Always a Ghost
Black Lawrence Press, 2018
$15.95, 102 pages
Anne Champion’s new poetry collection comes at such a timely moment, the #Metoo movement having a worldwide political and social impact. Champion’s collection is composed of poems by, for and to various women ranging from Annie Oakley to Amy Winehouse, from Indira Gandhi to Eva Peron. The first poem, “Woman Knight of Mirror Lake,” opens with an epigraph from Qiu Jin, the Chinese revolutionary poet who was executed in 1907, “Don’t tell me women are not the stuff of heroes.” This sets the tone for the powerful poems that follow.
The book title comes from a persona poem called “Bettie Page and the Wisdom of Old Age,” which begins with the lines: “The world’s worst sin is shame / and the punishment for it is women.” Called “The Queen of Pinups,” Page was the iconic nude model of the 1950’s. As we learn from a biographical note at the end of the collection, Page was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and institutionalized for a decade. Her poem concludes: “The good girl is always a ghost, / and her body is always a gash.”
The collection is divided into three sections, and while it is hard to distinguish between heroes and victims in a poetic treatment of the impact of women on social change, or particularly worthwhile to second-guess Champion’s categories, the women in the first section, “Staggering Blooms,” tend to seem more “legendary” – Frida Kahlo, Mae West, Helen Keller. Anne Sexton, from whose persona poem, “Anne Sexton Prepares for the End,” the section title comes, anchors the section (“When I’m gone, they’ll pilfer my poems / to trace the trash of my days”). Sexton committed suicide by shutting herself in a garage with the car’s engine on. A poem from this section, “Nicknames for Wilma Rudolph,” addressed to the Olympic gold medalist, concludes with the lines:
When you crossed the finish line, did you re-learn
the futility of escape, that the track goes and goes
but the laps are only a temporary stay
against your permanent world?
The poems in the second section, “The Most Terrible Thing,” after the first poem in the section (For Sylvia Plath on the 50th anniversary of her death) tend to underscore the horrors wrought on women. The poems include “Sadako Sasaki” addressed to the girl who was a victim of the Hiroshima bombing when she was two years old, dead from leukemia at the age of twelve. The poem concludes: “…forever a girl, / a legend war-crazed / men never learn.” The poem “Aileen Wuornos,” about the Florida serial killer who killed seven men (Charlize Theron won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Wuornos in Monster) concludes: “Every woman is born strapped to a track, / the train is coming, and no one gives a shit about rescue.” “Christine Jorgenson Speaks to the Press,” “Insomnia and Wine Make Jackie Kennedy Reminisce,” and “Eva Braun, Mistress to a Monster” are other titles from this section, which likewise includes poems to Judy Garland and Amy Winehouse. “Christine Jorgenson Speaks to the Press” begins:
There are two things that make a man feel powerful:
a cock and a gun. I had both. No sir, I never tended
any gardens, never nursed any sons, never let a man love
me so hard, he beat me until I was bitter and wise.
There’s one thing that makes a woman feel powerful:
Jorgenson was the first American trans woman, born George Jorgenson, served in the U.S. Army during World War II.
The poems in the third section seem to focus on the real violence committed against women, as the title suggests, “Only Our Bones Obey by Breaking.” It’s surely not a coincidence that many of the subjects of these poems are women of color – Rosa Parks, Sandra Bland, Harriett Tubman, Meena Kamal, Bessie Coleman. The poem, “Mississippi Goddamn, [Fill in the Blank] Goddamn” is written For Nina Simone. (“Freedom isn’t about choice: / it’s living with the absence of fear, / a feeling you’ve never known.”) Again, in “Conversations in which Nicole Brown Simpson’s Ghost Appears” Champion writes, “Every woman / watching had no need for proof, / the threat of a man is in our DNA.” In the persona poem entitled “Janis Joplin,” Janis observes:
Once you have the talent,
the rest is all ambition,
and ambition is only a measure
of how badly you need to be loved.
The anger of men branded
me, but not without a hind leg kick –
they didn’t recognize that I, too, am made
of pioneer stock, the stubborn mule
The Good Girl Is Always a Ghost includes a helpful section of “Short Biographies” at the end in case some of the names – Albert Cashier? The Hilton Conjoined Twins? – are not familiar. But all of these women in all three sections are at once legends, heroes, victims – stubborn mules. They engage our admiration and our sympathy. This is an engrossing, thoughtful collection of poems that should be read by any reader who appreciates the social value in contemporary poetry.
About the Author: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, has just been published by FutureCycle Press.