I sometimes recollect my final visit to a nightclub, where I now hear the passing bells of time’s Technics decks, not the vigorous immortality of youth. And this moment doesn’t feel like a maudlin indulgence. Those thunderous spaces once had the potential to inspire (although I was always more attracted to them than belonged). But then my needle skipped to where the light of the summer promised the timelessness of a library reading room, and not the Balearic beats of Café del Mar. I don’t look back with regret, but I can remember a cobalt August day, Bournemouth’s beach exhaling a day’s warmth, and a night atypically unshackled from awkwardness and inhibition by the magic of music and people. Gone.
The Great Vowel Shift, a short pamphlet by Robin Houghton and published by Telltale Press, a poets’ publishing collective, is a masterclass in memory. It opens with ‘The Last’: ‘They’ve been coming since posters were invented: / sometimes in dreams, to the tipping of cowboy hats // or dressed in Liverpool shirts. Each one appeared / in my diary, in code. My mother wouldn’t explain, // I couldn’t ask.’ The temptation to see one’s consciousness as the pre-Copernican centre of the universe is a fallacy we all commit but the fact that the arrival supposedly coincides with the invention of posters links them to pubescent sexuality, as does the secrecy of the code and the maternal silence. Shiny and new, each was worthy of documentation but, in the fullness of time, even the remarkable, the miraculous, tends towards the mundane and the diarizing disposition of the child makes way for adult indifference: ‘It’s been a while since / I wrote a diary. I don’t know how many there were, // I wasn’t counting. Too busy getting on with / the business of getting on. For the last, though, // I would have thrown a party, marked the occasion / in some way, worn something red, if I had known’. Ambiguity is controlled right until the poem’s end: would the party have mourned or celebrated this physical transition? Is life something that passes us by as we get on with the ‘business of getting on’, or does our focus on what truly matters anaesthetize us (thank God) to the irksome rhythms of physical functions?
In ‘Closure’, Houghton continues to challenge us to evaluate what we think we know. Here, each couplet maintains an initial frisson of distance: ‘Red glows the Door Locked sign they connect / by the lightest touch of knees let’s take a cab // was all he’d said’. Perhaps red evokes heat, danger and lust but Houghton’s antagonist possesses a cold ‘smooth face stainless / as a knife’. That initial crackle of excited distance soon becomes a savage severance and the ‘stainless’ qualities of the faithless father only serve to highlight his culpability before Houghton serves up a final closure as, unbuttoning his shirt, he exposes ‘the white / zipper mark from belly to breastbone still shocking // slightly crooked under the business wear (as he / checks his watch folds his arms) it is beauty // it is a beautiful thing like a line between time zones / it begins today and ends in yesterday’.
In the pamphlet’s thirteen poems, Houghton’s presentation of loss is often contextualized by a wider sweep of history: the mutation of vowel sounds, the London rivers that ‘drag their feet under Georgian terraces / below grates’ and, viewed from this perspective, Houghton interrogates feeling with dispassion and bravery. Perhaps less is lost than we first feared.