Learning to Read #2
This isn’t a review, I’m not clever enough in the theory and practice of poetry criticism to write a review. This is a response.
The cover of this book is a dropped ice cream, a symbol of a day in the Sunshine gone wrong. A symbol of tears and upset, and dashed expectations. That’s a good place to start with this book. Melissa Lee Houghton hits you from the first line “If Disney made porn they would pay us well for our trouble” and proceeds to explode her thoughts and words in a way that took my breath away. This is Game of Thrones poetry – raw, earthy, blatant, painful, real, sometimes hard to look at, sometimes hard to tear your eyes away from. “This is no longer the poem I expected” she tells you towards the end of “i am very precious” and you come away from the piece feeling almost brutalised by the rawness of her emotion.
These are poems about self harm, drug abuse, mental health, about the author finding poetry in her own experiences of darkness and desperation. I can entirely see why it is too honest for some. The imagery for all of these things is very graphic and very stark. The language is explicit. This is firmly at the latest stop in the journey of popular culture from the repressed emotions of the 1950’s, through the survival self help cup of tea groups of the 90’s and into the arena of Me that you can see playing out on the Button YouTube Poetry Slam videos. I could argue the case to you that this collection lacks the subtle grace and craft needed to really engage at an intellectual level, or to allow many middle age, middle class, pastel shaded readers like myself to connect, but that’s the choice you have when you reach for this rather than an Armitage or a Cope. “… I’d be happy if I never had sex again/ /as long as I could keep my fingers. Yes,/ I’m a slut for you. I write like I masturbate” Those are not lines that you would find in polite company. Those are not lines that I would or could ever write, those are not lines that fit neatly into my life, but that’s a big part of why I find them so compelling. I’m not sure – they create insight either by throwing my own life into contrast, or by exposing something that I have buried somewhere deep within. Unexpectedly, I found myself singing the chorus to Living a Boys Adventure Tale by A-Ha. On the surface, that’s a Carry On Poetry smutty laugh, but perhaps some of the themes that Melissa presents are aspects of my teenage adventure tale, verses that I don’t even recognise as being part of myself.
Sometimes the flow of words and emotions does slow, and stumble almost to a halt. I found myself slightly nervous about this new place and what would be there. “We are all capable of silence, holiness/ like that time when I said nothing at all/ because I was no longer there/ and you called the ambulance/ though I had to wait/ elsewhere.” For a few moments, the storm clears, and you have an insight, a view across another landscape. “I was the house on fire./ I was the much lauded play./ I was the world’s only fat junkie.”
There are a couple of pieces written as prose that didn’t speak to me as clearly, and I didn’t connect with them, but overall I was fascinated, and thrilled, and slightly exhausted by this work.
Further conversations about the poet and specifically about this collection can be found at: