Robin Houghton’s new chapbook reminds Martin Noutch of the excitement and the challenge of moving into a new home


The Great Vowel Shifthoughton
Robin Houghton
Telltale Press, March 2014
ISBN 978-09928555-0-5


Moving house is never going to be a simple matter.  Even with the pride of Pickford’s carefullest removal men in the smartest overalls, with the most accommodating and punctual estate agent, with the most absolutely absent previous tenant, who having removed all his possessions and wall-marks leaves nothing more than the scent of his laundry powder beneath the sink, even if you were fortunate to enjoy all of these blessings, you would still have your emotions to deal with.  And maybe the redecorating.

Robin Houghton’s poem ‘Left’ puts the hope and the waiting and the expectation of moving into a neat, momentary parcel which captures just a few seconds of an imagined future and so creates a whole lifetime in the background. The very first words cry ‘possibility!’ while betraying that realistic readiness to put the dream down and try again.  There is a voice of experience in here.

If this flat were the one and the chain held
and if we fell for ‘String’ by Farrow & Ball –
or ‘Cat’s Paw’, ‘Joa’s White’ or whatever it’s called –
would we strip the ceiling rose and walls…

As the conditions pile on – ‘if’ this and ‘if’ that – the hope to find that special place – ‘the one’ flat – becomes more and more poignant.  How long, we ask, must this waiting continue?

If there is a shared tone between the thirteen short poems in this collection, it is surely to be found in the author’s tight-rope walk between weary resignation and hope.  In some pieces, one dominates; but elsewhere we are shown show characters finding their own way of resolving these extremes. ‘East from Seahouses’ presents a rather disappointing boat-ride to the Farne Islands, but a sense of the ridiculous embodied by the grey birds above the grey sea and their similarity to monochrome footballers, taken together with the whole idea of taking a ride out in the drizzle, fills the lines with laughter. Then in ‘Ellipsis’, describing a game of scrabble with a family member suffering memory loss, the writer has to be realistic in waiting for her partner to take the next move, however long it should be. And does reminding her of the value of the blank tile frustrate or tickle?  It’s hard to tell, and this leaves the reader some space to reflect.

Like moving into a new flat, then, without the furnishings ready yet, where the stains and the unfortunate decisions of the previous owner are all bare and exposed, but with the windows open and the chance to make something of it all – that’s what this collection is like.  The hidden reference in ‘The Last’ is not so difficult to deduce; and it can set all the poems in a context of time and personal experience.  Placing this poem first, of course, achieves some of this, but the unspoken events have a greater significance than the author was willing to accept, the first-time round, and now the tinge of regret – but a gentle, chuckling one – seems to bring the world into focus.

There is cleverness in here, playfulness and personality.  The relationships within ‘Closure’ and ‘The Great Vowel Shift’ ring true and both poems hang on final lines with a puzzle within them.  There is certainly work for a reader to do in order to fully understand all Houghton’s references, but the situations in which she writes are broad enough, personal enough, to share her own experience and also bring the reader’s mind to that tricky place of the first day in the new flat: what next?