Prac Crit

I’ll Find You

by Melissa Lee-Houghton

Essay

by John Clegg

First Pass

‘I’ll Find You’ consists of twenty-seven sentences, all of which but one begin ‘You could be’ and sketch, in varying levels of detail, imagined lives or scenarios for the narrator’s absent father. (Never named as such, though the fourth line – ‘the apple not falling far from the tree’ – makes it almost explicit, and there’s further extratextual evidence. More on this later.) The lines mostly have six or seven stresses, falling unforcedly into a rough vernacular iambic metre, although two of them, the seventh and the last, are shorter.

The imagined scenarios are a mixture of hopeful (‘You could be reclining on a beach in Italy’) and abject (‘You could be on the psych ward – hallucinating, / refusing the pills’). The progression between them is not immediately obvious, and what gives the poem its energy is how subtly one develops out of the last: as, for instance, ‘You could be lying / in some back street, long hair knotted with ash and puke. / You could be stealing from under their noses,’ where the line-break’s emphasis on ‘lying’ gives ‘stealing’ a quiet inevitability. There are also single-word linkages: ‘the smell of old wood’ in a confessional (I would have thought it was the smell of the polish) slides naturally into ‘You could be reciting poems, the apple not falling far from the tree’. Or the relations between the scenarios are causal: ‘You could be / waiting for a bus that’s an hour late and you’re wet through. / You could be in bed with man flu.’ (This pair joined also by a rhyme, as with the pair a couple before, with their ‘hospital bed’ and ‘skinny woman in red’.) Or one’s a clever redescription of the other: ‘You could be holding a knife / in one hand, a glass of beer in the other. You could be / walking a tightrope’. (In the next scenario, he is ‘dic[ing] an onion’ – still holding the knife!) Or they’re the same scenario but developed further, valence shifted from positive to negative: ‘You could be making dinner for four… / […] You could be arguing / with your mistress about calling your phone during dinner.’ Or the juxtaposition in itself suggests an alternative reading: perhaps ‘reclining on a beach in Italy’ is just a hallucination from ‘on the psych ward’.

In fact, the poem progresses in the way thought does, one thing suggested by the last, refusing to settle. The final line (‘or sleeping. You could just be sleeping’) gently offers an occasion for the whole poem (if ‘he’ might be sleeping, the narrator might as well, but she can’t sleep because of the possibilities running through her mind) without insisting on it. Themes emerge – unhappy family life, hospitalisation, and finally, most inescapably, death – but there is no argument or superstructure. Instead, there’s a shifting mood: a rising panic broken by a sudden cry (‘You could be thinking about me, tell me you’ve been thinking / about me’), another rising panic this time facing the possibility the poem has been looking away from – ‘You could be dead’ – reaching a crescendo with the hammer-blow single-word sentence ‘Dead’, then rising back subdued, as the scenarios modulate into domesticities: pouring tea, smoking a cigarette, listening to the radio and finally falling asleep.

This shifting mood is controlled by sentence length and sentence structure. In general, the main clause of the sentence gives the scenario, subsequent clauses develop small details: ‘You could be ballroom dancing with a skinny woman in red, / your heart waltzing. You could be lying / in some back street, long hair knotted with ash and puke.’ Once this expectation is set up, Lee-Houghton can vary it for effect, most pertinently in the ‘thinking / about me’ sentence quoted above, where in the second clause the absent father is addressed directly for the first time. Instead of dispatching us on a tangent, the comma propels us into the emotional centre of the poem. Similarly, ‘You could be dead’, made powerful by plainness and brevity, is preceded by a particularly long, detail-heavy sentence: ‘You could be talking on your phone about starting from scratch, / tapping figures into a computer in an office on the sixth floor.’ A monotonous string of prepositions starts to accumulate – ‘on…from…into…in…on…’ – as if the narrator is trying to extend the scenario as long as she can before facing the inevitable.

I have quoted enough already, I think, to give the reader a sense of Lee-Houghton’s language. In general, it is close to standard conversational English, unaustere and unafraid of vernacular (‘man-flu’, ‘half-cut’) and cliché (‘the apple not falling far from the tree’). (I mean close to conversation only in terms of vocabulary: the syntactical device mentioned above, where the opening clause gives the plain statement and the subsequent clause gives the detail, seems to me quite unusual in spoken English. As far as it goes, I think the technique is also characteristic of Carol Ann Duffy.)

  

Second Pass

‘I’ll Find You’ appears in Lee-Houghton’s second collection, Beautiful Girls (Penned in the Margins, 2013). Read in context, it changes substantially. The fact that the person addressed is the narrator’s absent father, for instance, is obvious when the poem is read alongside ‘Town Show ‘82’ and ‘Bringing You Home’, the poems immediately before and after in the volume. The ‘crumpled photo of us from the eighties’ in ‘I’ll Find You’ is central to all three – ‘Town Show ‘82’ is entirely a study of the photograph, ‘every last centimetre…as though it holds a clue’, and in ‘Bringing You Home’, when the father turns out to be dead, ‘The photograph is all I’ve got’. The title of ‘I’ll Find You’ bridges all three poems: it is the decision arrived at in ‘Town Show ‘82’, the activity imaginatively pursued in ‘I’ll Find You’, the unwelcome conclusion of ‘Bringing You Home’ (‘I’ve come this far to find you’). A title which, if the poem were read out of context, might seem clunky and inapt, is contextually charged.

These linkages work on the level of words as well as themes. When I first read ‘I’ll Find You’, I found the image of the ‘skinny woman in red’ ineffective – both too obvious (mysterious woman in red, c.f. The Matrix etc.) and tonally askew (‘skinny’ an oddly judgemental choice for someone who exists, after all, only in the narrator’s imagination). Rereading, I notice how the adjective serves to recall one of Lee-Houghton’s most startling and achieved openings, in ‘Hunger Pangs’: ‘Skinny girls try to cut into their arms with blunt knives. / Sunita is eating out of the food disposal.’ (The second line isn’t at all important for my point, but I thought it was worth showing off how intense and woozy Lee-Houghton’s verbal music is at its best.) The word binds the imagined woman – there for a moment, then gone – into Lee-Houghton’s sisterhood of the mentally ill, the ‘beautiful girls’ of her title. (This sort of connection-making can obviously be pursued too far, but I wonder now about the narrator’s choice of ‘half-cut’ as a synonym for drunk, in connection with those opening lines of ‘Hunger Pangs’ and several other poems.)

These connections are a way of imbuing plain language with significance, of allowing every poem in the book to stand behind every other poem. Sometimes – as with other poets about whom the same could be said, like Ted Hughes – this technique is used to licence structural echoes between poems, which I find less successful. Take the diminuendo which concludes ‘I’ll Find You’: ‘or sleeping. You could just be sleeping’. Closing with a construction of this sort, especially using ‘just’ to shift the reader back from poetic intensity into reality, is characteristic of many poems in Beautiful Girls: ‘the silk / just rippling under his coin-sized fingertips’ (‘Unfastened’); ‘if we were religious, and not just manic depressives’ (‘Group Therapy’); ‘hanging on, no plan or daydream, just nothing’ (‘Hanging On’); ‘Just to feel something healing over’ (‘Belly’). (All these are last lines of their respective poems.)

  

Third Pass

MEPHISTOPHELES: I feel I’ve got to interrupt. This sort of criticism doesn’t work on this sort of poem at all.

JC: What do you mean? Close reading works on everything.

M: Don’t be silly. By pulling apart the individual elements – music, syntax, what have you – you do damage to the poem as a whole. There’s poetry where it’s valuable to look at these things in exclusion, certainly! But for a poem like ‘I’ll Find You’, which is dependent to such an extent on an empathic response…all I’m saying is that criticism should be made for poetry, not poetry for criticism.

JC: I see what you mean – but close reading’s just a formalisation of how we read normally, isn’t it? It’s more guidelines for paying attention than any fancy technique. To say close reading doesn’t work on something is to say that it’s not worth paying close attention to.

M: But there’s a difference between paying attention to your lover and paying attention to someone who’s picking your pocket! You seem to want to read as if the poet’s trying to sneak something past you. With a poem like this (and, now I think of it, much more so with other poems in the collection, like ‘Codeine’ and ‘Belly’), that’s a guaranteed way to miss the point – the human connection, the suffering body, the communication.

JC: I like ‘Codeine’ too – isn’t that a wonderful poem! – but surely part of our response to it has to involve siting it in the rhapsodic tradition it’s writing into and out of.

M: How can you write into and out of something at the same time? Don’t answer that. We’re getting distracted from ‘I’ll Find You’. My point is that you’re interrogating the poem when you ought to be listening to it.

JC: Just metaphors, and surely not very helpful ones. Point out where you have a specific problem.

M: In the first paragraph, say, where you talk about the metre. What does that add to anything? Isn’t it just a distraction – either you distracting yourself, or distracting the rest of us, showing off how clever you are that you can count beats and syllables?

JC: [long pause for thought] I was going to expand the point about the metre later on. With six or seven stress lines, because they always go on one beat longer than you’re expecting, they’ve got a sort of lulling, overflowing rhythm to them, which fits with what I was saying about it being a poem singing itself to sleep. It allows that sense of overflowing even in a poem where the line-breaks tend to follow the sense units quite rigidly.

M: You’re still talking about it as though it’s playing a trick on you! You can give an account of the poem, but you can’t pin down why it’s worth reading. You’ve got no room for what’s raw and real and brutal in there. No-one’s reading ‘I’ll Find You’ for its six-stress lines. People are reading it because it’s honest, because it speaks to them and they’re open enough to listen.

JC: But reading like that’s all in or nothing; there’s no sensitivity of response. ‘A testament to poetry’s force in overcoming’, which is what Chris McCabe calls Beautiful Girls, would be all well and good if poetry was going round trying to collect consumer testimonials like a vacuum cleaner salesman – but you can’t justify the work of a particular poet by making it stand testament to something else. Or at least, you can’t do it without betraying the work itself.

M: Isn’t the real problem that this poetry scares you, because what it describes is so far out of your field of experience? You don’t have any authority over it, so you’re trying to abrogate authority through criticism.

  

Fourth Pass

‘I’ll Find You’, like much of Beautiful Girls, negotiates a difficult balance between accessibility and privacy. It takes seriously its responsibility to communicate, and to bring across situations which may be outside the life experience of many readers (hospitalisation, addiction, self-harm). A plain diction and style allows what is actually shocking to register as such, and what might come across as flatness (‘You could be swimming in a lake’) emphasises by contrast the moments of high emotion (‘tell me you’ve been thinking / about me’). There is, perhaps, an attempt to make as many of the scenarios as possible familiar to as many readers as possible: who hasn’t cried when dicing an onion, or reclined on a beach, or put figures into a spreadsheet?

Still, sometimes the plainness seems to me too plain, the universal experience too universal or generic. ‘…arguing / with your mistress about calling your phone during dinner’ is a trope from TV or literature, surely, not real life. (Of course it must be from some real lives; but it’s familiar because it’s second-hand.) Particular details seem to be chosen to make the scenarios more specific without making them less universal: it doesn’t change our mental image of ‘reclining on a beach’ to be told it’s in Italy, or our mental image of an office to be told it’s on the sixth floor. These details don’t convince, in the way that ‘Sunita is eating out of the food disposal’ immediately does – partially because they’re arbitrary (it might equally be the seventh floor), partially because they don’t appeal to any sense impression. The narrator isn’t imagining her father on a beach; she’s thinking, in words, ‘You could be reclining on a beach in Italy’.

This is the reason, of course, why many contemporary poets habitually add little details in sub-clauses (‘You could be making your confession, the smell of old wood’) despite the practice being very far from the way anyone speaks or thinks in real life. The detail is a guarantee, not that the experience is authentic but that we are tuned into the poet’s wavelength. The detail registers as genuine, so what is unfamiliar in the poem, the parts we have to take on trust, register as genuine also.

Some of the details in ‘I’ll Find You’ achieve this, particularly in the description of the father as a collapsed addict in an alleyway, ‘long hair knotted with ash and puke’. The ‘puke’ by itself would be enough to provoke the visceral response the image is aiming at; the ash (from a cigarette? from the ‘world of woods where kids make fires and get wasted’ in ‘Bringing You Home’?) is assured, unexplained and unexpected but absolutely authentic-seeming. ‘The poet wouldn’t mention it if it wasn’t true’: that’s the response which the best of these details provoke. (There are poets – Bishop, say – who seem to construct their poems entirely out of these details.) I am not sure this is the response provoked by ‘the smell of old wood’, ‘your heart waltzing’ (while ballroom dancing) or ‘crying as you dice an onion’.

By now I am going back through what I’ve written, trying to decide how true what I’ve said feels to my experience of reading the poem, and I’m not completely satisfied. There is probably something in my interlocutor’s point above – that teasing out the strands is more damaging to some species of poetry than others. (If you keep your eye on just one ball at a time, juggling looks a lot more easy and tedious than it really is.) The emergent quality I respond to in ‘I’ll Find You’, and in Beautiful Girls as a whole, is not something I could put my finger on; if I was to make a fifth pass at the poem, it would involve my private associations and personal connections. There is something uncanny at the root of it, anyway. That’s the point.

I’ll Find You

by Melissa Lee-Houghton

You could be writing a journal, all the days of our absence
accounted for. You could be swimming in a lake.
You could be making your confession, the smell of old wood.
You could be reciting poems, the apple not falling far from the tree.
You could be in a hospital bed pumped full of morphine.
You could be ballroom dancing with a skinny woman in red,
your heart waltzing. You could be lying
in some back street, long hair knotted with ash and puke.
You could be stealing from under their noses. You could be
waiting for a bus that’s an hour late and you’re wet through.
You could be in bed with man flu. You could be laughing
with your other, younger children. You could be swimming
with sharks, somewhere in the world where you won’t find us
though you never stopped looking. You could be holding a knife
in one hand, a glass of beer in the other. You could be
walking a tightrope. You could be making dinner for four,
crying as you dice an onion. You could be arguing
with your mistress about calling your phone during dinner.
You could be on the psych ward – hallucinating,
refusing the pills. You could be reclining on a beach in Italy.
You could be thinking about me, tell me you’ve been thinking
about me. You could be half cut, you could be broke. You
could be charged with assault, you could be imprisoned,
staring at that crumpled photo of us from the eighties.
You could be talking on your phone about starting from scratch,
tapping figures into a computer in an office on the sixth floor.
You could be dead. You could be dead in a hospital bed,
dead indoors, dead through misadventure, or pneumonia,
or drinking your own weight, or falling in front of a train.
Dead. You could be being resuscitated, could be fighting
for your life. You could be thinking about pouring yourself
a cup of tea to go with your cigarette, listening to the radio;
or sleeping. You could just be sleeping.

From Beautiful Girls (Penned in the Margins, 2013). Reproduced with permission of the author.