Review: From Angry to Personal - Two Different, But Powerful Poetry Collections

A pinewood fire crackles and pops in the grate a little too whitely but I can’t work out how to alter the contrast on the remote and I don’t have time to faff; this episode of ‘Fireplace for Your Home’ is only an hour long so I have to get my hygge in quick.

I’m settling down to read the latest collections from two young, award-winning, female poets that couldn’t be more different; Trammel by Charlotte Newman, and Sunshine the third book from Melissa Lee-Houghton, both published by Penned in the Margins.

Charlotte Newman’s Trammel ‘is a radical book of poetry for an uncertain future’ and is described by Jack Underwood as ‘Expansive, punny, and feminist’. This is a collection of work which explores contemporary culture, everything from Brexit to body shaming.

Newman read English at Selwyn College, Cambridge, has an MA (distinction) in Modern and Contemporary Literature from Birkbeck, and won the inaugural Saboteur Award for her debut pamphlet, Selected Poems. She is described as an ‘avid lover of all things literary’ and her expansive knowledge and passion for literature bursts out of the pages of Trammel, her first full-length collection.

At first glance, this mad assortment of words feels as though it has tumbled from Newman’s psyche in a frantic game of word disassociation. Discombobulating and difficult, Charlotte Newman, like the White Rabbit, challenges the reader to keep up with her. Darting ahead, she seduces with her alluring alliteration: ‘meaning moribund meat’, ‘Salt-rimmed sisters less Spanish, the spendrift second;’ this is not an easy ride but, expertly, she has laid a careful path for the reader to follow.

Newman has created a collection to muse over, linger upon

Newman is not afraid to take a risk and there is no talking down to the reader here. Her references are vast and varied; from the 90s video game Doom, to Greek myth via Oscar Wilde ('I have nothing to declare but my genius'), and Shakespeare ('Ill met by Fleet Street'). She dances through contemporary culture with dizzying light-footed dexterity. Newman is challenging to keep up with but when the reader catches her the reward is deeply satisfying, akin to unlocking a Japanese puzzle-box and discovering the secrets within.

Each of her deftly-crafted poems is like unravelling the prophecies of Nostradamus. Newman’s characters are veiled in their own rich iconography, and vivid metaphors bleed into the pages. The gaudy and vibrant balladesque tapestry of Rapier Wit contains suggestions of something altogether more modern in its ‘cross-hatched camaraderie’ and all her work rides along with puns (hair peace) and unexpected rhyme (‘utopia’ with ‘beholder’) that reveal the author’s humour and the sheer joy she has with language as both tool and toy.

This is not a book you read once and cast aside. Charlotte Newman has created a collection to muse over, linger upon, and return to for multiple readings each time discovering something you missed before.

Lee-Houghton’s twisted humour punches through

The second book of my evening is Sunshine, the third book from Next Generation Poet, Melissa Lee-Houghton. Described as a collection that ‘combines acute social observation with a dark, surreal humour born of first-hand experience.’ Melissa Lee-Houghton’s poetry ‘shines a light on human ecstasy and sadness with blinding precision.’

On her blog, Melissa explains that she has ‘been in the system for over two decades’ and talks openly about her mental health problems, her suicide attempts, and the help (or lack of it) she has received. Her deeply confessional writing has received recognition from the Poetry Book Society and earlier this year she won a New Writing North Award for Fiction. Her poem 'i am very precious' was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem and is included in this newest collection.

Brilliant, alarming, and as funny as it is sad, Sunshine is a powerful, personal, and elegant tirade. Melissa Lee-Houghton is simultaneously world-weary and endearingly immature; in ‘i am very precious’ her ‘toy museum heart’ seems to be mourning both for her lost childhood and her lost child.

Lee-Houghton tells stories in vivid poetic-prose such as Hangings which is woven with lurid imagery: ‘her hands dripping with the golden light of pain eradicated’ and fantastic dream sequences ‘the Sandman would chase me through a desert’, until it is difficult for the reader to know where the fantasy ends and the reality begins. But distinguishing between fact and fiction is irrelevant as throughout all of her work there is a vibrant chord of blistering, heartbreaking truth.

Even in her darkest moments Lee-Houghton’s twisted humour punches through; in one sequence she describes herself at her most fragile ‘disabled, visibly’ and queuing in a bank when someone remarks ‘‘she’s not fit for purpose’’, Lee-Houghton vows to ‘remember their face in the afterlife, so I know whose tea to piss in.’ 

From the succulent bounciness of Mouth; ‘I get giddy on the asphyxiating radiance of imaginary inculpability’ through the unsteady stream of consciousness of 'i am very precious'; ‘This is no longer the poem I expected’ Melissa Lee-Houghton lyrically captures her own tumultuous fragility and expresses it with delicately haunting confessional whisperings.

The angry contempt and playful, experimental lyricism of Newman’s work is in stark contrast to the deeply personal mind wanderings spilled onto the page by Lee-Houghton but both collections are powerful and enraged reactions to contemporary Britain from two formidable female voices.

Sunshine by Melissa Lee-Houghton and Trammel by Charlotte Newman are published by Penned in the Margin and are available now.

More about the author

About the author

As well as contributing to Disclaimer, Holly has published several comic short stories with Black Coffey, and has been known to write and perform stand-up comedy at festivals and charity gigs. Her first play for the radio is in production with Frequency Theatre, and she is currently working on a full-length play for the stage.

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