In March, when people had started self-consciously bumping elbows, my pal Sarah Barnsley and I trained up to London, to see our friend Robin Houghton launch her new Live Canon pamphlet, WHY? AND OTHER QUESTIONS. It was an excellent afternoon, and Robin read with fellow pamphleteers Tania Hershman, Miranda Peake and Katie Griffiths at the Boulevard Theatre Bar, London.
I thought sharing something about these poems is well overdue.
What is suggested, in a horror movie for example, is invariably more unnerving than the monster when you get to see it. The terrors and sublime pleasures in Robin Houghton’s poems are always suggested, and the bathos of wobbly latex is carefully avoided.
The poem Was it the Diet Coke? is perhaps the most straightforward example of her potent command of suggestion.
drunk by the can-full
my dose of phenylalanine
my be-my-baby ringpull
Here we have dipped into a relentless anxious inner monologue; a chatter in the void like some lost soul in Dante’s Inferno.
what it my fault or God’s
did I do wrong break a law
was it bad timing was it
me fuck was it me or
In The Retelling the story, a memory of war, the incident being related is barely sketched, but there is a horrific glimpse of the blur and confusion of war.
some throat opened and the long night’s breath
tumbled through the lift shaft of his lungs, threw
up knives, a scything freak show in his brain.
The flapping mask, the call to brace, the prayers.
But the focus of the poem is on what it is to be able to tell such a story, on the storyteller.
This void sits at the edge of several of Robin Houghton’s poems. In ‘His hope was a waking dream’ the note of the poem refers to a man falling into an Anish Kapoor art installation. Again without capitals, and this time completely unpunctuated, the poem lists reasons for falling, and again there is that sense of the unresting interior monologue unable to reach a firm conclusion.
he wanted to step quickly
he absented the light and his body gave way
into nothing in it
he fell in love with nothing
he fell into lies and he wanted to go in
out of the outside in
We see in Drowning the Doves, 1916 what may be T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, co-creator of the Doves typeface, casting the metal typeface into the Thames,
… By spring, handfuls of ‘a’s
and ‘m’s he starts to cast as seed, or throw–with hope,
like confetti–the pebbled water laughing up at him.
With each piece of type, a piece of himself also–the moon
as witness–bequeathed in bits to the river, rag and bone:
four parts sacrifice, six parts revenge.
It’s twinned poem Under Hammersmith Bridge, 2016, sees the letters salvaged. I love this metaphor of strewing language into the water, which felt to me like a metaphor for writing itself.
There is a beautiful, Samuel Beckett bleakness in some of Robin’s work. The setting for the final poem of the collection, Ladies’ Hour features a terrifying scenario: the swimming bath on one of the middle decks of The Titanic.
between me and the sea
just the smell of steerage,
the low belly of a boat, the swell.
While a disturbing void haunts these poems, in this collection. There is also an enigmatic beauty about many of the poems. I find the exquisite poem ‘I ask what colour is the sea’ to be heartbreakingly beautiful.
I find it greyscale of gull belly caught in a squint, a hint of gravestone.
Some days a sick greenish grey. But I ask the world and it says blue.
WHY? AND OTHER QUESTIONS is a profoundly moving pamphlet, with quiet moments of dark and painful beauty. It’s just wonderful.