Friday, 8 June 2018

Hitting her stride, Robin Houghton's All the Relevant Gods

Becoming a poet isn’t just about learning the craft and art, about producing work of a high technical and aesthetic standard. It’s also about finding the aspects of life where you can cast unusual, idiosyncratic and insightful light, where you can simultaneously surprise, jolt and gratify your reader. On reading Robin Houghton’s new pamphlet, All the Relevant Gods (Cinnamon Press, 2018), I felt like the witness to the culmination of one such process.

In other words, while I might have enjoyed and appreciated the examples of Houghton’s work that I’ve previously read in journals and on the internet, I feel it’s now, in this pamphlet, that she’s really starting to hit her stride. The most outstanding poems have acquired the confidence to riff on the corporate world and play on inner-city life, highlighting paradoxes, absurdities, rewards and difficulties that are inherent in both. Here are some relevant quotes:

“Between the red meeting room and the blue meeting room
I stopped believing in sock liners and moulded footbeds…”
(from “She discovered the internet”)

“…In half an hour all this will be my history.
These sheets will be stripped, the last traces of me wheeled
to the service lift, like all the other cells I’ve shed
in all the four-star beds...”
(from “Four Star”)

“Shoot up in the fast lift,
Poke the faux grass with toothpick heels.
Late lunch at the Coq d’Argent –
accept a drink, plan your exit…”
(from “1 Poultry”)

There’s a confident authority running through these poems that enables Houghton to undermine herself on purpose without risk of falling flat, thus providing her words with extra implicit layers of complexity. Their grounded specifics and authentic bite are qualities that allow the reader to compare and contrast attitudes to London and many other cities around the world, while reflecting on the nature of work and so-called success.

Of course, all this isn’t to say that Houghton is a one-trick pony who’s found her niche. In fact, mastering one subject matter becomes a point of departure for poets to reach beyond it with far more sure-footed ambition, as she shows here in pieces that reflect on the acting-out of roles in other facets of life such as foreign travel and gender-based behaviour.

All the Relevant Gods is an excellent calling card. It’s also an indication that Robin Houghton’s first full collection can’t be far away. I look forward to reading it.

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