Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

"The Great Vowel Shift" by Robin Houghton (Telltale Press, 2014)

13 poems, none over a page long. The acknowledgements section is as extensive as some books', mentioning The Rialto, The North, Agenda, The Interpreter's House, and wins in 2 competitions.

A glance at the titles ("The Last", "Closure", "Ellipis", "Still here", "Fermata") reveals an interest in time and permanence. Often the more specific subject matter of the poems isn't obvious. I needed help understanding what "The Last" was about (my initial guess was 'fantasy lovers'). I found "River Ouse, Rodmell, 1941" less of a riddle, though unless one realises that it's about [Woolf's] suicide by drowning, one might be puzzled. Its symbolism of pebbles as death-wish grows stronger towards the end - "Pebbles lean into her, take us they say, take us, the floods are coming// but like Noah she must leave some behind, the unbelievers". "Geography Lessons" (about the lesson of maps - edges mattering more than things) ends well too - "Under the droop of nightfall she dreamt of borders/ between lands, some fading like horizons in a storm,/ some slicing through countries like cheesewire/ and guarded with lights, other just wide, wide rivers/ where boys watch from the opposite bank"

"East from Seahouses" proceeds at a prose pace even when using imagery. The persona's on a boat in drizzle to see puffins, etc. "I think of those football matches on TV in the seventies// when each team wore grey, the shirts had no name but we knew/ who was who". "Still here" deals with a topic (London's hidden tributaries of the Thames) that I've seen used before, bringing little that's new.

In "Midnight pickup" at least 2 people are waiting for a bus, which first appears as a distant light amongst stars. The persona wonders when the bus-driver will see them, or if they'll stop at all. I presumed that the title would become a pun, so I guessed that the bus/persona interaction is being compared to a pick-up - "will the swapping of people, backpacks, jokes amount to anything here".

"Closure" includes "last night ... while dialling room service after phoning home" - an affair? Then there's "seeing the white zipper mark from belly to breastbone ... like a line between time-zones ... but a false heart had saved him". Ah - closure of a relationship and of a ribcage. A "false heart" is transplanted but also signifies false emotions.

"Closure" is gappy, gaps (one per line) sometimes replacing commas. "Ellipsis" (which doesn't do much for me) is gappy too. Most of the other poems though tidy on the page with regular stanzas have rather spurious line-breaks. An exception is "Left" which is a sonnet. I had trouble understanding it. The title's another pun - the persona's leaving their accommodation. I'd guess that "the chain held" refers to a buyers' chain. Later, "if I asked with which hand would you hold the roller" picks up a different meaning of the title. After that, there's "changing sides, consider which was best in mirror-image before pronouncing 'left'?", which I don't get.

I'm a bit lost with the title poem too. I can understand that The Great Vowel Shift was a gradual change that led to inconsistencies of spelling, etc (as the Notes explain). I can imagine this been used as a metaphor, but the final line - "Listen, I think you said, and laughed" - made me try to work out what "you" might really have been saying had the vowels been different.

When writing about Time, it's hard not to write about Loss too. In "When my sister is old" the future is more hope than expectation - "I will wait at the door with flowers ... I ... will remind her of twenty years she thought she's never have".

Other reviews

  • Josephine Corcoran (‘The Last’ writes what was unwritten every month ... Contained and controlled, with as many lines as there are months of the year, these six couplets of poetry are assembled as neatly as discreet packages hidden in a scented drawer. The placement of the poem at the start of the collection is a declaration that this is as much a beginning as an ending.)
  • John Field (In the pamphlet’s thirteen poems, Houghton’s presentation of loss is often contextualized by a wider sweep of history)
  • Afric McGlinchey (only one poem didn’t quite work for me, and this was ‘Left’. While the images here are visual and vivid, I felt the reached-for pun was overly laboured. ... Occasional misuse of commas is mildly grating)

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