by Anna Sandy-Elrod
Anne Champion’s The Good Girl is Always a Ghost inhabits, identifies, praises, and laments the multifaceted, complex nature of womanhood. Champion writes odes to women—Sandra Bland, Amy Winehouse, Billie Holliday—and poems in their personas—Indira Ghandi, Bettie Page, Eva Perón—in a way that devastates, humbles, and breathes life into women across history, across continents, across the spectrum of what makes a good girl.
The good girl, this collection says, does not exist. When a patriarchal society demands that a woman be a good girl, an impossible task is set. Champion claims that the only good girl is a dead girl; only in death is a woman respected by a patriarchal society.
The collection begins with a tribute to feminist revolutionary, Qiu Jin, in which the line “I’ll take a dagger into me before I’ll take a man” hits with striking and unapologetic clarity. The poem knows how things end for a woman who so loudly rejects men, says “they’ll aim the blade at my voice. The sword is the last thing I’ll see.”
Feminine identity is the central theme of this collection, residing in every facet: political, romantic; revolutionary and groundbreaking; tragic and ruined. In each poem, the woman is neither a good girl nor a bad girl; she is a complexity, a real, flawed, human, trapped in a patriarchal society that degraded them, inflicted violence upon them, manipulated them, constrained them.
In some poems, the woman learns the rules of the patriarchy, used them to her advantage. In “Josephine Baker On How She Did It All,” Champion writes “Getting naked is the perfect/ camouflage for a woman. Once they see your tits,/ they’ll never see you as anything else.”
Beauty is not protection though, not a shield from brutality. “The world’s worst sin is shame,/ and the punishment for it is women,” Champion says in the voice of Bettie Page. “The punishment/ for shame is us: we torment men/ as our hour glass curves expire./ … They love us so much they have to kill us.” Page’s persona laments violations against the body, cruelty inflicted because of men’s lust for her beauty, writes “the good girl is always a ghost,/ and her body is always a gash.”
Love for men lives alongside hatred and fear here, often more damaging and brutal. In “Diego and I,” Champion gives voice to Frida Kahlo, writing “my love for Diego is as deformed/as my spine…/…I’ve always been a bitch./ I’ve always been a painter./ Diego made me better at both” before moving into a speculation on Diego killing the woman who loves him this way with his bare hands.
Violence looms large in these poems, always pointed at women, often held by men. “My mother says: She was nearly decapitated./ A death like that can only come from a man who loves you,” says one poem, referencing the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson. “There are two things that make a man feel powerful:/ a cock and a gun,” Champion writes in another.
The thirst for power struggles its way through these lines, in the desires of both men and women. Annie Oakley boasts of her skills with a gun, says “when women squealed, it was only at realizing they could save themselves.” Eleanor Roosevelt ponders herself as leader of the free world, says “Sometimes when people say President Roosevelt, I/ look/ up, mistakenly thinking that’s my name.” “I was not made by God: a political woman is always made by man,” says Indira Gandhi; “the political woman is as good as dead,” Champion writes in the voice of Benazir Bhutto.
Champion does not shy away from taking on the persona of unpopular women such as Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, a woman who stood by the side of an evil man, said “the wolf loves me because I don’t threaten/ authority,” allowed power to be man’s alone.
It is clear from the precision of these poems, their startling and clear lines, the resonance of their truths, that Champion carefully crafted each one, researched and absorbed the women she paid homage to, and infused them with her own experience with being a woman in the world, with having a woman’s body, with this political landscape, with the variant privileges and curses she contends with, with the decision to let the good girl die.