Melissa Lee-Houghton – Sunshine

‘I was born to love / a megalomaniac or an addict, and all I got was this t-shirt’ (‘Hella’)

Mephistopheles: Isn’t the real problem that this poetry scares you, because what it describes is so far out of your field of experience? You don’t have any authority over it, so you’re trying to abrogate authority through criticism.’ (John Clegg, ‘I’ll Find You’ – Essay’, Prac Crit 3)

‘We can all be kind to each other and can all love each other. It’s the pinnacle of human endeavour – everything that we strive for, everything that we do, is about the pursuit of love.’ (Melissa Lee-Houghton, interview with Michael Conley, Prac Crit 3)

Disclosure: Have not met the poet, friends on FB; review copy provided by Penned in the Margins. As with Clegg in his essay, much of the matter of Sunshine is outwith my experiences. While this is almost always the case, it’s more starkly so with Sunshine. In the linked interview Lee-Houghton states, ‘it’s an art form too. And a performance. It isn’t just me voicing my experience like a journalist or an autobiography’: the poet’s life and the reader’s encounter with the poem are not continuous, and the literary artefact should not be mistaken for historical fact. It would also be a mistake to assume a merely lit-crit approach would be a sufficient means toward a full understanding of the book.

I think this book is special, I’m not the best person to talk about it, I’m talking about it because I think it’s special; I hope this is worth something to you.

Review: In her keynote speech to TIFF a few months ago, Transparent creator Jill Solloway argued that at some level, almost all art contains the message ‘it is okay to be me’. From the endless superhero movies propagating white male saviourhood to the trans characters in her own tv show, art may be understood as, in Solloway’s words, ‘propaganda of the self’, which can preserve existing social hierarchies or challenge them, merely by presenting a particular way of being a body in that society. By doing so without passing judgement the artist challenges (or reinforces) what is acceptable, what is ‘normal’; as writer and critic Saladin Ahmed recently tweeted, if artists want to make a difference about Islamophobia, include Muslim characters in stories that aren’t about terrorism.

Sunshine is a difficult book to read. I read it more or less in one sitting a few months ago, and struggled to will myself to read it again for review. To be blunt, I’m attached to my sense of comfort, and Sunshine has no time for it. Its much-cited first line, ‘If Disney made porn they would pay us well for our trouble’, is typical of the book in that its ostensible brashness gives way to something more nuanced with repeated reading. These poems ask the reader (this reader, more to the point) to acclimatise, to keep responding beyond whatever initial shock one might experience, to allow each scene’s emotional complications to percolate. As ‘Video’, the book’s second poem, asserts, ‘There’s nothing final when you can play it again’; this opening tableau of a couple having apparently passionless sex in the bath is worth thinking over, and seems to shift on repeated reading:

‘we used to talk but now I just pull sad faces and you sympathise.
I was thinking about abstract things, like what distance means to lovers […]

I fit inside love like the breath in a flute. I will escape
at the slightest pause or hesitation. You need to clasp me.
You need to tie me down. Please. I want to go nowhere.’

What on first exposure might feel simply detached or affectless (‘[you] watched me clean / my pussy, and dry my body, and grow cold and silent again.’), emerges as one of its quieter, more peaceful moments after reading the whole book. The invocation of Disney (‘Immediately, a dozen bluebirds flew in and tidied your hair, / a gentle and spritely music soothed your brow’) exposes an unattainable, naïvely simplistic set of values; the poem seems to imply that there are other ways of loving and being loved, and sometimes the best case scenario is not the culturally affirmed, Disneyfied norm about romance. This is also okay. It is okay to be me. The speaker can be clasped. The speaker can go nowhere. Sometimes this is what love looks like, and it’s not necessary to understand it completely.

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The opening poem is titled ‘And All the Things That We Do I Could Face Today’; it implicitly focuses on what can be faced, while that ‘and’ gives the impression that the reader has been abruptly included in a private moment, one that was happening before we arrived and will continue after we’re gone. It’s difficult to know to what degree the reader is being addressed in the lines:

‘I love you baby. I love all of you and I will never love myself.
This book is gonna be a killer. It’s gonna suck me dry,
suck me white, suck my insides out and leave me hollow and high.’

Those ‘gonna’s give me the impression what in pop music is merely read as highly marketable bravado is being harnessed here to the poem’s emotional reality. There is plenty of textual evidence in Sunshine to suggest its production was not a pleasant experience. Lee-Houghton seems to be couching this fear or anticipation in the familiar idiom of rock stardom, maybe in self-parody, maybe suggesting that such sentiments have been co-opted for mass consumption. This may also suggest that our position as readers is not innocent. It seems to me that unlike art in which our awareness of the artist’s real-world suffering is hidden or disguised, there is some kind of responsibility to be taken in how we read work like Sunshine. Not to treat it with kid gloves, but to witness it to the fullness of our abilities, to read as if the stakes were our own, to read as empathetically as we do critically.

Even if it were not the case, even if I was reading Sunshine like any other book, the quality of the literary work here is outstanding. Lee-Houghton writes at a level of emotional intensity that few single poems maintain, let alone entire collections. What’s striking about Sunshine is how little space it has for downtime, for moments of peace – how that opening poem starts to seem such an island of calm. These poems are repeatedly marked by moments of stunning lyric clarity:

‘The White Path was where the suicides went and where we sat on benches to get incredibly stoned and see through the history and the fog and the debris, the death that will come for us all in its most imaginative ways.’ (‘Hangings’)

‘From the hospital you watched the sun come up and I watched it break
its Day-Glo light on our half-empty bed. It was beautiful, you said –
it told me your shadow fell somewhere else; it consoled me
because it lent a colour to your bright and sincere absence.’ (‘Cobra’)

‘Give me hope, because hope will undo the eye-hooks and lay down
its black lace. Give me hope, because love aims always above our heads:

at sunshine.’ (‘Mad Girl in Love’)

I could go on. The book is full of these sudden, beautiful, unsettling flourishes, and a dozen readers could likely choose a dozen such passages without overlap. Perhaps the book’s most salient quality is not so much its urgency as this fullness, this tension between being overwhelmed by sensation or sensitivity on one hand and the poem’s attempts to maintain formal or narrative control on the other. It’s a powerful dynamic, and nowhere is it better exemplified than by ‘i am very precious’. In an interview at Prac Crit, Lee-Houghton described how ‘the poem is about men and women and the tensions between them and men being dominant,’ and how ‘In real life, these things are hard to put into words, but when I do it in poetry I build and create a safe haven for it to exist.’ As the poet also notes, ‘i am very precious’ inhabits a near-ecstatic state: ‘it’s wild and it doesn’t go any quieter’. The poem perhaps dramatizes the lengths necessary to create context for such a discussion to happen at all; if ‘rational’ discourse precludes our ability to say that ‘rationality’ is irreparably formed of dysfunctional gender biases, then other rhetorical forms must take over. Which is an inaptly dry way of noting that ‘i am very precious’, even in its title, goes to extraordinary lengths to assert its right to cultural space, its right to be heard, to be considered whole and valuable.

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The poem itself navigates a series of sexual questions about the speaker and the culture in which she speaks, the poem’s ‘I’ and its ‘some people’:

‘Some people don’t actually want to be wanted.
Some people actually want to be harmed. I used to fantasize
about being annihilated.’

This easy movement between the personal and the general sets the speaker in the middle of her cultural moment, not an outlier or fluke but a logical conclusion. The poem plays out how that same culture (the one we’re sitting in right now) has deeply unhealthy attitudes to sexual desire, and how those attitudes diverge along strict gender binaries. The men in the poem are violent, numb and limited: the poem’s ‘you’ tells the speaker not to talk about her trauma, which she interprets as a kind of solidarity, but in context it reads as unwillingness to perform emotional labour. Men’s sexual advice to her extends as far as ‘pace [your]self’, ‘it’s easy to get consumed and the main thing is to hold out’. The recurring pornographic images are prompted by the speaker’s boyfriend, and are marked by an unflagging opposition to sincerity: ‘it’s the lack of perceived sensation, / their bodies just seem numb’. These figures stand in opposition to the dynamic, creative, often grimly hilarious narrative voice (‘Handjobs just don’t do it for me, I’m sorry – / maybe if I really like you, you can tell me about it’), whose will to communicate her needs and desires truthfully, however culturally stigmatised, form the heart of the poem’s rhetorical achievement.

That said, there are several moments at which the speaker’s voice seems to snag on a particular image or phrase:

‘Wanting to be loved is not the same
as wanting to be fucked is not the same as wanting to come last
is not the same as wanting to be married’

‘I want the voice of someone with a heart that knows about hearts
that know about hearts that know’

‘You’ve got to hide the mirror, you’ve got to hide
the mirror. […] and look in the mirror
and in the mirror and in the mirror I saw
a girl, a little younger than me’

The poem incorporates these un-grammatical, almost musical, phrases without breaking stride, rendering their non-verbal meanings as valuable as their more conventional counterparts. The poem’s closing lines seem to confirm a connection between literary expression and expression of desire:

‘Blood pours into all of my poems like it floods
the veins around my clitoris when someone says they like my
name. So please do say it again.’

The poem’s radical act of claiming ownership over her cultural space is here connected to the radical act of claiming ownership over her sexuality, and the final line might refer to the saying of her poems as well the saying of her name. It’s worth noting that this poem is deeper and more complicated than I’m confident about discussing, and I do worry that in trying to make sense of it to myself I’m erasing a lot of the messiness, nuance and compromise that makes this poem what it is. Perhaps, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if we can fully or convincingly explain the poem or the book to ourselves; perhaps as important is our ability to read everything Lee-Houghton gives us in Sunshine and acknowledge it as a way of being, as whole and legitimate as any other. To acknowledge that this is okay, without qualification. ‘i am very precious’ deserves a great deal of close attention, hopefully from readers better equipped for the task.

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Perhaps the fact that one can spend so much time unspooling just two of the poems in Sunshine is an indicator of the depth the book holds, just how much it has to tell you. I’ve not even touched on the book’s sensitive, complex handing of mental health and the social structures around it, its discussions about family, about austerity politics and its victims, the heartbreaking hopefulness of ‘Mad Girl in Love’, how ‘sunshine’ appears in all its various guises throughout the book. There’s a lot more to be discussed than what I’ve touched on here.

Sometimes, consciously or not, I treat the writing of criticism ultimately as a capitalist venture, a function of the publishing industry or of an artistic ‘career’ first and foremost, rather than a function of being alive, a function of a need, will, or desire to express one’s self publicly. Sunshine has the feel of a book that was compelled into existence, that would have happened whether or not there was an industry to support its publication. It’s a book unlike any other I’ve read, and as a community of readers we’re far the richer for it.

Some Books That Came Out This Year (Or So) Which I Enjoyed For A Variety Of Reasons And To Varying Degrees

2016 has been shit. On individual terms a number wonderful things have happened, but it’s hard to look back with any fondness on a stretch where so much evil has been visited upon so many. A lot of illusions have been broken forever, a lot of hard truths have emerged about the kind of fight we’re in for. We’ve been challenged to put our hearts, minds, bodies on the line for the kind of world we’ve told ourselves we believe in. It’s going to be shit! Rule of thumb number one though; there are a lot of people who’ve been fighting these fights most of their lives, and if we haven’t been listening to them before (we evidently haven’t), there’s no time like the present. I’m here, you’re here, let’s make things better, let’s be better, one day at a time.

Right so I do poetry and things so here are some poetry books I liked this year.

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Vahni Capildeo – Measures of Expatriation

If I did an end of year awards thing this would be my winner. It’s extraordinary in the most basic sense, and it’s hard to remember a book by a poet in these islands that so thoroughly questioned our understanding of what a book of lyric poetry looks like, or what it can do. It’s a book I’ll turn back to for years to come. For what it’s worth, it’s also hard to think of another book that managed to carry such heavy subject matter while transmitting so much humanity, warmth and wit, or made these things such a core aspect of its enterprise. Suffice to say I want you to read Measures of Expatriation and then talk to me about it.

Denise Riley – Say Something Back

The sustained intensity of this book’s opening sequence, in elegy for Riley’s son, is unlike anything I’ve ever read; the emotional situation the reader is permitted to share in is often brutal. Riley spares herself very little, and in criticising the elegiac impulse, or what might appear to be a very natural grieving process, creates poems that cut deeply. Like MoE, it’s painful, it pulls no punches, it is generous beyond understanding. As above, read it and tell me about it.

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

This is the first of Oswald’s collections I’ve really sat down with, and more fool me for leaving it so long. Falling Awake is the best nature poetry I’ve read in years, capturing a heartfelt love of the living world without quite romanticising it, keeping a healthy realism about the effect of an observing consciousness on what’s being observed. The book also has an attitude to time and mortality, the long distance and the big picture, that I find deeply heartening, if only for a moment or two. Falling Awake’s near-complete non-engagement with contemporary poetic trends is also very calming, if only, again, for a moment or two.

Melissa Lee-Houghton – Sunshine

I first read Sunshine in one sitting, in Glasgow, on a rainy day trip where I had too much caffeine and felt basically inconsolable for days after. I’m not well-versed on confessional poetry (if that’s the best way of thinking about Sunshine, and I’m not convinced it is), so I feel a bit underqualified to talk about it, not least in experiential terms. What’s clear is that the concentrated urgency of the work is damn near unrivalled, there’s zero fluff, cover to cover. I know several readers who find Lee-Houghton’s work deeply empowering in its clear-eyed discussion of mental illness, the basic message that this is something that happens to humans, that it can be survived. I’d just as readily give fair warning that it’s emotionally taxing; while it absolutely needs to be read, it needs to be approached with respect. Hope to write something a bit more substantial in the near future, but for now this is an exceptional book, one that’ll be on my mind for a long time.

Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos

If poetry!facebook is anything to go by, many people have pretty firm opinions about Tempest. I’d bet that Let Them Eat Chaos is unlikely to radically change those stances. It is, partly, an explicit condemnation of the country’s dominant political narratives, but it’s worth noting that the poem has seven speaking parts (eight if you include the narrator), and the outspoken doomsayer is only one of them. Even if we presume this particular character to be closest to our readerly understanding of Tempest Prime (there are strong textual arguments for it, after all), they remain a fictional construct as much as the rest of the cast, and are probably best read in that light. The fact I’m pre-empting criticism here, mind, is probably indicative of what I assume the general response is/will be. But aiming the most common critiques at the book (preaching to choir/simplistic ideology/general ubiquity) would miss the trees for the wood. Let Them Eat Chaos is occasionally stunning, not least for the realisation that no other poet published by one of the big houses is saying these things so plainly. There are vital questions to be asked of poetry’s political efficacy, now more than ever, but suffice, for now, to say my year of reading would be much poorer without this book.

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Some Other Rad Books That Would Reward The Time You Spent With Them, With Briefer Notes Than Those Above, In The Order I Found Them On My Desk

Chloe Stopa-Hunt – White Hills

The pamphlet from clinic is weirdly beautiful, with its old-timey wallpaper design, and the lack of page numbers leaving the words on the page as the only focus. The poems are tiny, airy curiosities with disconcerting undercurrents. One of the purest lyric works I’ve read in ages, one that keeps unfolding and unfolding each time I pick it up.

Padraig Regan – Delicious

Speaking of lyric, Regan’s pamphlet from new press Lifeboat is a real cracker. The poems are warm, tactile, sharp-witted, with a handful of real masterpieces. It’s a book to get you through winter, a hopeful and beautifully crafted collection.

Choman Hardi – Considering the Women

Hardi’s book was rightly recognised by the Forward Prizes, a collection that is on occasion difficult to read. Her long sequence, ‘Anfal’, marking women survivors of genocide in Kurdistan, is a massively important contribution to poetry in these islands, and deserves attention.

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky With Exit Wounds

An urgent and beautiful book. Vuong is almost impossibly candid, and his poems ask to be read with the openness and vulnerability by which they are given. One to save for a time you can run the risk of getting a bit weepy.

Modern Poets One – If I’m Scared We Can’t Win

Sometimes a book comes along that reminds you how much you still have to learn. The generous selection of Anne Carson’s was weird and unsettling; Berry and Collins both have collections out in the coming year, and this book is a brilliant taster. On a side note, the series almost unfairly exploits my completionist tendencies.

If A Leaf Falls Press – Sam Riviere

Pick one and treat yourself, they’re beautiful objects, the poets are amazing, I’m delighted they exist. This year’s highlights Kathryn Maris’ 2008 and AK Blakemore’s pro ana. (NB I lost track of this for a while and missed a few.)

Tiphanie Yanique – Wife

A powerful collection and deserved prizewinner. Yanique’s poems are like sitting down with someone who knows exactly what she’s talking about and is keen to enlighten you. Wife is angry, brilliant and completely uncompromising.

Luke Kennard – Cain

Cain asks some rudimentary questions about how readers construct the poet of their imagination, pressing back against the reader’s presumption of intimacy. I found the anagram section technically dazzling but kinda tough going, though flashbacks to Infinite Jest might be colouring my opinion. A rare blend of emotional intelligence and formal critique.

The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop – eds. Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall

This anthology covers decades of a nation-wide poetry scene (if somewhat focused on the editors’ home of Chicago) and provides the necessary context and criticism for outsider readers. It’s been a long time since I read an anthology with such a density of exciting, challenging, and various work.

Currently and Emotion: Translations – ed. Sophie Collins

I’m still only partway through this, so can really only give honourable mention to a beautifully laid out and thus far fascinating anthology which, like BreakBeat, gives a generous welcome to the uninitiated.

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Hope this has been enlightening! There’s been a hell of a lot of great poetry published this year, so if I’ve missed something obvious I apologise. I also apologise for being less productive than I’d like this year; there’s been times when other work commitments have made writing here difficult, times when writing anything felt simultaneously superfluous and nowhere near enough. I intend to be on here far more often in 2017.

I hope you’re well, I hope you have good people around you. Thanks for reading.

Some (But Not All) Of The Good Books I Read In 2015, According To Ill-Defined And Highly Subjective Criteria

Full Disclosure: I, too, dislike end of year lists. They’re usually either confusingly partisan or uselessly inclusive, have as much potential to upset as to enlighten, and given that I literally spent the year talking about what books I like, this might well be a waste of time. HOWEVER, I do think there’s something to be said for taking stock of the year, doing a bit of memorialising before pushing off into a big bright shiny new one, and maybe underlining a few things that you might have missed first time round.

So this piece is less about which books I thought were Best Poetry Books 2015™, which would rely on a largely arbitrary and probably deeply compromised set of aesthetic norms and value systems (specifically, my reading history as an academically-trained white bro), and more about which books changed how I read, shed light on the (often unconscious) assumptions I bring to this or that poem. Maybe that’s not the kind of recommendation you’re really after; maybe you’ve already crossed these bridges; maybe this all misses the point in ways I can’t imagine.

Whatever the case, thanks for reading.

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Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe)

In October, the poet and critic Sandeep Parmar wrote in The Guardian about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, praising its formal innovation and timely examination of racism both daily and structural, concluding that ‘In Britain, we don’t talk about race and poetry enough’. In December Parmar published the essay ‘Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK’ in the LA Review of Books. It’s a clear-eyed, intensely well-researched and damning appraisal of how monolithic British and Irish poetry remains; it demands that white readers work harder to make space for BAME poets that doesn’t insist on a kind of self-exoticising that leaves the white-as-central/normal, BAME-as-other binary untarnished.

Ten: The New Wave, with its generous selections of, among noteworthy others, Jay Bernard, Kayo Chingonyi and Warsan Shire, is not only a great example of how to anthologize (relatively few poets, a large enough selection to allow the reader to inhabit the poet’s idiosyncracies), but provides concrete ballast for Parmar’s argument: the dominance of white poets in the UK is not for want of talented BAME poets. What is it for?

Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric

A poetry book that reached a huge readership, and a powerful response to the question of whether poetry needs an active social conscience.  Citizen is a beautifully, intricately composed piece of poetic work; every word is purposeful, each tableau masterfully pitched and weighted. If Citizen isn’t poetry, we all need to get new hobbies.

Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade

Loop of Jade is a curious, angry and humane collection that makes lyric poetry carry an uncommon amount of emotional and philosophical freight. A book that does that lovely thing of slowly releasing its deeper arguments as you pay closer attention. Incidentally, Howe’s critical prose is also staggeringly good.

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Okay so turns out writing these blurby things is causing me borderline physical pain. The above three books are the ones I would happily and without reserve recommend to just about anyone. Here, in alphabetical order and by no means authoritatively, are some other really good books I read for the first time this year, which I’d also happily lend to people that I like and who like reading poems. NB: my memory sucks, and I’m not necessarily as up to date as I’d like to be. If you’ve recommendations please leave them in the comments; BAME, LGBT and women poets are preferred.

AK Blakemore – Humbert Summer [sharp, dramatic, making alt lit/post-internet tropes FUN]
Harry Giles – Tonguit [probably the best politically-minded poetry I’ve ever read, also funny af]
John Glenday – The Golden Mean [humane, elegiac, heartbreakingly graceful]
Melissa Lee Houghton – Beautiful Girls (2013) [stark, clear-eyed, narrative poetry at its best]
Kathleen Jamie – The Bonniest Companie [mindful, deep time-y, bolshy as fuck]
Rebecca Perry – Beauty/Beauty [generous, earnest, far stranger than I think I gave credit for first time round]
Warsan Shire – Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2011) [can’t believe yous let me go this far without reading this book, get your shit together]

Tl;dr: next year I’m keeping a spreadsheet. Thanks to everyone who reads this thing, and particularly to the folk contributing to my work via Patreon – it not only makes it so much easier for me to keep doing the work I’m already doing, it’s also the best motivator I’ve ever had. See you all in 2016, and from the bottom of my heart, thank you.