Voices by Sarah Gonnet

Reviewed by Emma Lee

In her introduction to VoicesSarah Gonnet explains:

The book you hold right now contains four voices from the mystical and outright mentally ill kingdom of my head. Some of them are drawn from life, some from shadows of life, some from fantasy; and one, Azra, is a personification of my madness. The voices came out as poetry this time. Poetry is something that can only be written under intense inspiration, so these poems project some of the voices in my head with a unique clarity hard to express in any other medium.

In turn we meet Simon, Azra, Joseph and Molly, each trying to escape tortuous mental pain, each wary of other people, and each seeking something they can’t quite articulate.

Simon has self-harmed, and ‘Forget’ ends:

Scars mark the paths of my past,
they fade and I get lost again.
Sometimes, in the cold,
silvery reminders,
shine like cat’s eyes,
only temporarily.
I will forget again.

He’s stuck: he knows he has to retrace his scars to make sense of who he is, but can’t yet face up to whatever it is that causes him to harm himself, because he knows that it will be painful. Unblocking such a memory requires support he suspects he won’t get. So he continues in a half-life, marvelling at scars when they catch his eyes, but retreating before completing his journey.

Azra seeks oblivion, in ‘The Zopiclone Guarantee’ (Zopiclone is a drug used to counter insomnia):

My permission
to not exist.
To not even remember.
A seven hour guarantee
written on the packet.
You will sleep.
You will forget.
It reaches back to trance-magic,
Zopiclone, my ally.

The respite is only temporary, though. Joseph seeks friends in ‘Returning’:

friends with new languages
sat in a circle
around a vodka bottle
pouring fake warmth
in through
their wounds.

Irregular contact and long absences mean that friends’ conversations have to be rediscovered and relearned, but Joseph also knows the alcohol they share is a brief relief. Molly too pushes herself out towards an external focus, rather than dealing with the turmoil within. Trying to reach size 6 isn’t so simple, in ‘Metamorphism’:

I was ribs.
I was cheekbones.
I was deep, deep eye sockets.
I was bowed thighs.
I was an ankle that could fit in the loop between forefinger and thumb.

They sent me away, to a cold, white, world.
They gave me pills to swallow,
gloopy milkshakes to wash them down.
They changed me. I didn’t want to change.

I became a projector.
I emanated rays of myself.
Rays of pain shoved out as I filled my body again.
Filled it with chocolate, crisps, cake…
Brown mush swallowed down, omnipresent pills
Displacing thoughts I used to have.
I do not have privacy anymore.

The lack of privacy isn’t a suicide watch, but observation to ensure she doesn’t make herself vomit. Treatment is focused on physical, not mental, manifestations. Dignity and bodily integrity are not permitted for these patients.

There are common strands to all four “Voices”, circling an inner torment which separates them from others, unable to communicate their pain, either because there is no vocabulary for it or because of stigma, an inability to convey it to someone not familiar with mental distress (a fault in the listener rather than the teller). This could be why the voices are very similar in tone; it was hard to build separate characters from the voices presented. I wanted to know Simon beyond his scars, why Joseph was eager for friendship, what Molly did outside of her bullimia – what makes these voices distinct? In trying to show the reader these voices, Sarah Gonnet doesn’t give them characters or dialects to show how she knows when Joseph, rather than Simon, is speaking. However, I did admire Gonnet’s directness, the way the voices’ personae were allowed to speak on their own terms, and her capture of their attempts to articulate their pain.