Sometimes, poetry is good for the soul. Sometimes poetry elevates a reader to great positions of excitement and joy and happiness. Sometimes poetry comes from a healthier, greener, place than the place where the reader is. Sometimes poetry evidences positive possibilities that feel alien and far from a reader; sometimes poetry gives me – a reader before all else – hope. Sometimes, however, like here, it does the opposite: it makes me feel anxious and known and overexposed and uncomfortably seen. Sunshine by Melissa Lee-Houghton is that kind of poetry: it is exquisitely and impressively written with a taut, emotive, engagement with unhappy humanity, but rather than make me feel a positive sense of camaraderie and community, Sunshine replicated so many of my unhappiest psychological experiences that reading it has made me, unfortunately, sad and scared and anxious.
Sunshine is Lee-Houghton’s third collection of poetry, and it sings, beautiful, mournful, deafening. Unlike my usual reviews of poetry collections, I’m not going to single out any individual pieces or lines here, and that is not because there weren’t any moments that stood out and hit me in the head the heart the soul the loins the face, but because it is the voice[s?] that make this book so powerful. These are poems about emotions and experiences that are familiar to me and feature in my writing, too, but here they occur at a much higher level: both in terms of the poetry and the content. Lee-Houghton’s poems are about addiction and depression and suicide and sex and drug use and shame and desire and regret and about poetry itself. There is an ability to find and locate the moments of happiness, the moments of freedom, within an otherwise negative existence, and the book speaks to speaks to speaks to me because I have spent lots of my life incredibly unhappy, and I too have flirted with suicide, I too have flirted with poor sexual choices, I too have flirted with intoxication and I too have flirted with writing as an escape. Is it an escape, though? Can writing sometimes also be a cage?
For the first time in most of my adult life, I do not hate my day to day existence. I do not wake up every day waiting for the day to be over: I am no longer willing death onto myself because the lonely routines I used to live within that filled me with nothing but shame and regret, shame and regret, are gone. Right now, I have a life I like. For the past six or seven months, I have had a life I’ve liked, a life I think I could quite happily pootle along through for a long time. I’m not going to, though, I’m going to emigrate: am I self-sabotaging? I don’t think so, but we’ll see.
Today, here, I can list multiple things in my life that are good, and many of them are things I had kinda written off as unlikely to ever become sources of joy in my life. I wept for many minutes a couple of weeks ago, confused by my existence not being shit: I have a book on its way; I have an adorable dog; I’m four and a half weeks away from moving out of the country; I’ve finally started making collaborative creative work with an old friend I’ve wanted to make something with for years; I’ve started making progress on a new text, building on the lessons of my first; my social life doesn’t make me feel lonely; I am doing a very healthy romance and I’ve even started thinking about celebrating my birthday this year, which I haven’t wanted to for aaaaaaaages. And as easy as I find it to write this list of positivity, to hold onto these known and undeniable good things, I still find myself feeling something hyper off. I’m making choices and constructing an existence that I want, which is not something I’ve ever been trained to do. “Life is meant to be shit” was an ideology I felt myself explicitly holding as gospel truth, during my childhood, my teenage years and crushingly, constantly, throughout my twenties. I would listen to the wrong people, I would follow the wrong advice, I would do things that made my body and my soul SICK because the people who told me to do them said it with such conviction and I didn’t believe in listening to myself. I’m not doing this any more, I don’t think, but I find it hard hard hard hard hard.
i hated being unhappy
but I only know how to be sad
i have normalised ignoring the feeling in my bones when decisions, behaviours, are wrong
I have silenced myself: feeling uncomfortable about myself and my societal role I fell into a life that doubled down on my insecurities, that proved my insecurities RIGHT. I put myself in positions where my most damaging thoughts were [as if] proven to be true by the world outside: I felt like I couldn’t live and listened to cruel voices (inside and out) that told me I couldn’t.
I knew i was living wrong but i didn’t didn’t didn’t change because I ABSOLUTELY FUCKING COULDNT
I know what is right and I know what is wrong for me and my body and my soul and the thing thing thing IS that I have ALWAYS known this and I hate myself for being stupid, hate myself for being bullied and hate myself for listening to classist teenage bullying and changing enough to hate myself but not changing enough to want what they want you to want, I hate myself for internalising the idea that snobbery was good and that money – not some money, which is essential, but LOADS of money, which isn’t – was important. I lived suicidal in a gilded fucking cage with an open door, but I never walked out because I didn’t believe I could cope outside of it. I can cope outside of it. But I’m so angry and injured from decades of being told what to be, then being told to ignore the the the KNOWLEDGE i had that taught me showed me proved me that being false to the self is crippling and-
I am angry and anxious and boozy atm because I hate what I allowed myself to be put thru. I am angry I didn’t have anyone teach me anything of any use until I’d spent years daydreaming about dying.
I have spent so long hating my life and I don’t any more, and I don’t think I will again, not for a while. But this is not a feeling I am used to and it keeps making me cry.
Being unhappy is sad. Being desperate and lonely is sad. This collection of poems speaks of depression and desperation with a gutwrenching truth, an out of body level of accuracy.
Sunshine was the opposite of what I needed rn, emotionally, but maybe it was what I needed in a book. All these horrible feelings have a use if they can be transmitted and turned into art. Maybe.
Sunshine is gorgeous, important, immediate verse. I’m still on a shitload of antidepressants and will be for a while. Living may be easy, but being alive – even in a life you don’t hate – is hard.
Buy Sunshine direct from Penned in the Margins via this link innit.
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