There are loud and abrasive ways in which to speak about obstacles women face in sexuality, love, and loss, and there are also small, quiet ways that work just as effectively, as with the poems in Jillian M. Phillips new collection, Pretty the Ugly. From revelations of betrayal to confessions about sex, these stories sit like smooth stones on a riverbank, but their impact is felt to the opposite shore.
Much is intriguing about a poem that takes grand emotions and concepts and compacts them into a poem of a handful of lines. “Wishing Well” and “Not So Fresh” show Phillips’s mastery of this style, often read so quickly that one must reread them once they’re over the poem’s initial impact. On the other hand, Phillips’s verse shines in her longer pieces. “Those Women” is a tale familiar to most women of the distance resulting between them when they insist on favoring niceties over honesty.
There is, however, plenty of honesty in these poems. In “Your Tribute,” Phillips makes the claim,“I can create obsession / out of admiration or absence,” speaking obviously to the great impact of a critical void in one’s life. Other lines are heartfelt, honest pleas for a presence by one’s side, as in “Blown Away”: “If I raised my flag high enough, / would you fight for me?” The second section of the book focuses on sexuality and is the most candid, admitting all the secrets that sex exposes or struggles to hold on to. In “The Politics of Sex,” Phillips unapologetically suggests, “Perhaps your breasts / should be windows / so I can peek through the curtains.”
Meanwhile, it is unclear what exactly the work’s title piece wants to shout from the rafters, but perhaps that is because there are a myriad of hypotheses to consider — that everyone has a beauty and an ugliness within them; that such ugliness can be changed, but still not accepted; that the ugly part of someone cannot be changed, but one falls for the whole, anyway. There appear to be endless approaches to Phillips’s poems, but each one embraces its various meanings with a complementary grace and simplicity, themselves objects of beauty birthed from the ugly caves of experience. Seemingly, the message meant to be taken away from this collection is something similar: that beauty can be easy to find, but hard to create.