Melissa Lee-Houghton, Sunshine (Penned in the Margins, 2016), 88pp, £9.99.
An oft-repeated cliché in screenwriting is that a writer ought to hook an audience with its opening, so the punters don’t lose interest. The opening line of Melissa Lee-Houghton’s third full-length collection, Sunshine, is ‘If Disney made porn they would pay us well for our trouble.’ Yes, well. Start as you mean to go on.
A danger for writers, especially those who receive a great deal of praise for a certain aspect of their style, is the trap of self-imitation, or even accidental self-parody. For years now, Lee-Houghton has been lauded as being not for the faint-hearted, unflinching, unforgiving (certainly words I wouldn’t hesitate to ascribe to her earlier books, Patterns of Mourning and Beautiful Girls). Whilst Sunshine is absolutely all of these things and then some, there is no sense that the poet is settling comfortably into her style or subject matter. The poems here are brutal, furious, sexual, and step far beyond anything she has written before. ‘I write like I masturbate’ she says in ‘Z’, ‘A million living things in the city and only one has to take / a deep breath to say my name. Take a deep fucking breath.’ The fire in this book – the fire of a history of manic depression, sex, drugs, and time spent on a psych ward – is not one of destruction, but of purification. There is intense detail into private life that feels close to being something we should not be overhearing, and simultaneously something we cannot tear ourselves from, going beyond the bounds of confessionalism without resorting to exhibitionism. Nothing is just for shock, yet simultaneously nothing is hidden; she doesn’t spare us or herself.
Despite the sobriety of its personal confession, there is much to say about the humour in this book. It is self-conscious and wily, frequently addressing its own poetic nature. Michael Donaghy once said that when he considers writing a poem about poetry he takes a cold shower, but Lee-Houghton handles the topic with such deftness and humour that it’s nearly impossible not to smile. The book is full of tricks and wry nudges; in ‘Elm Street’ she directly addresses ‘the publisher who won’t want to take this poem’; or, in ‘Hella’, ‘My work / is bereft of all ownership now. I refuse to take responsibility’; or in the middle of ‘i am very precious’ (recently nominated for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem) where there comes the sudden explosion of ‘This is no longer the poem I expected.’ The lowercase of the title of this latter poem is deceptive, displaying itself as something timid before delivering a poem where every line is a punch to the gut. Lee-Houghton is anything but precious in this poem, which fills up most of the pages it goes across, and takes almost 15 minutes to read aloud.
A word of praise is also due to Penned in the Margins for making this the stunning release this is. The book as an object is beautifully designed, as are other recent titles from them (Simon Barraclough’s Sunspots and especially Luke Kennard’s Cain come to mind), and one can only hope that this is a part of the rise of independent poetry publishers – along with Nine Arches Press, The Emma Press, and many others – since, lord knows, certain established publishers will not keep modern poetry afloat on their own for much longer.
I am hesitant to sound like I am trying to advertise a horror film, stating how harsh and unforgiving a piece of work this is – people should not to come to this book for quick thrills. The poems in here are long, brash and difficult, and some prose poems – ‘A Good Home’, ‘Elm Street’, ‘Woodlea’ – are too crushing to even quote from, but love, sadness, wit, the frenzy of sex and the darkness in life are all illuminated in such clarity that it leaves you stunned long after the last poem has ended. The last time I was this blown back by a book of poetry was by Vahni Capildeo’s Forward Prize-winning ‘Measures of Expatriation’ when it was released back in January – such a combination of dexterity, skill, power and complete commitment to subject is rare to come by. I can’t stop thinking about Sunshine. Buy it, read it, realise you haven’t been breathing for the last couple of hours, and read it again. ‘This book is gonna be a killer.’ Lee-Houghton states in the first poem, ‘It’s gonna suck me dry’. It certainly is, and there’s no doubt that it did.