In The World’s Wife, contemporary Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy created feminist subversions of a male-centric tradition by giving voice to the wives of significant male figures, both fictional and actual.
Carolyn Smart attempts something similar in Hooked, though her monologues assume the voices of historical females who became famous in their own right: serial killer Myra Hindley, British-born Hitler crony Unity Valkyrie Mitford, famed nutter and literary wife Zelda Fitzgerald, painter Dora de Houghton Carrington, and authors Jane Bowles and Elizabeth Smart each deliver multipage autobiographies.
Hooked’s monologues form a chorus of obsession, self-destruction, and longing. Hindley and Mitford both fall under the sway of charismatic, evil men; Fitzgerald, (Elizabeth) Smart, and Carrington labour for the love of men who are ultimately inaccessible to them; Bowles engages in a platonic marriage while pursuing love affairs with other women.
There are attempted and successful suicides, mental self-flagellation, drug abuse, and, as Smart’s Bowles puts it, “liv[ing] on tiptoe, gulping alcohol and angst.” Smart’s style here is one of clipped, prosaic lines (“I was good, worked hard/ shorthand, typing/ dressed well, pulling up my stockings/ with my long white hands”), more reportage than beguiling poetry.
In “Written on the Flesh,” the Hindley poem, the narrator describes herself as “radioactive waste with an afterlife” – a powerful way of summing up the lasting horror her depredations brought upon the world. But that Hindley line, the most memorable line in the collection, isn’t Smart’s at all. It’s a quotation from source material.
Which is indicative of the underlying problem with Smart’s book: it’s fascinating stuff, but the best of Hooked owes more to the arresting nature of biography than to the poet’s own artistry.