Melissa Lee-Houghton’s poetry is brave and brutal. In the Confessional tradition, she draws upon her own experience to create an art that explores difficult and painful areas, often in ways that propose no easy or comforting answers. It’s no surprise that in other interviews she has cited one of her main modern influences as Sharon Olds, since Lee-Houghton offers the same uncompromising emotional honesty filtered through meticulous attention to her craft. She is able to fuse the personal with the political and there is a clear and passionate social conscience at work in much of her writing. She also does dark humour extremely well – not only to provide moments of levity when exploring horror and tragedy, but also, in fine surrealist tradition, to underscore the fundamental absurdity of life even in its most serious moments. Her first two collections are A Body Made of You and Beautiful Girls, a PBS Recommendation.
Melissa and I were introduced via email through a mutual poet friend, and had corresponded and discussed poetry before we met in ‘real life’. In fact, this interview also represents our first ever face-to-face meeting, which was on a cold, dark Thursday evening in January 2015, at a bar in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester. I can confirm that what Melissa says about herself (and other poets) in the interview is true: that, despite the subject matter of her work, she was warm, funny and very easy to talk to, a model interviewee. Aside from the poem ‘i am very precious’, we discussed mutual acquaintances, the merits of being northern, creative writing courses, poetry magazines, and the pressures of her recent nomination to the ranks of the Next Generation Poets.
I wanted to start by talking about the length of this poem, and the energy that is sustained throughout. How difficult was it to sustain that energy over such a long poem?
I sat down and I just started writing. I wrote consistently for about half an hour, maybe longer, from the beginning of the poem to the end. I’ve barely edited any of it; it just arrived. And that doesn’t happen to me very often.
At the time, I was going through a lot. I was building up to what became quite a sustained manic period – I’m a manic depressive. I could feel myself moving into it – I got up one morning feeling absolutely wired and I was like that for the entire day that I wrote this. At the time, I had a friend living with me who was trying to come off Valium, and he’s a writer too, so all day we were passing each other on the stairs. We were both really inspired by each other’s energy but both going through some intense suffering too.
When I was younger, I think the writer that most inspired me was Elizabeth Smart, with ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept’. I remember reading it at the age of about nineteen, thinking to myself, ‘I need to write something that’s consistently ecstatic.’ I’ve always wanted to do that. She starts and ends that book at the same pitch. All the way through, it’s wild and it doesn’t go any quieter.
So this is a poem I feel very passionate about, and very excited about, because when I finished I knew I’d done something I wanted to do for years and years.
You said that it’s not normal for you to write in this way, and that it wasn’t really edited. How do you deal with the anxiety over whether something like this is finished?
Well, I did make some changes, but not many. I think you know it’s finished when you can’t bear to go near it ever again. If I gave this poem to a good editor, they’d probably go to town on it. This may not be its final form, should it ever appear in a book. But with this poem, I think it was my job to just express what I needed to express and put the words in the right order. I feel like it’s alive, somehow. For now, I’m happy with it.
Do you think part of the poem’s energy comes from the idea of it being less polished and edited?
I think that poetry should get its hands dirty more often. There’s a lot of emphasis on things being perfect and channelled and I don’t always want to do that.
Having said that, the poem is very intricate too – the occasional end rhymes, the clear rhythms. How did you reconcile this with the idea of ‘imperfection’?
Well of course, it’s an art form too. And a performance. It isn’t just me voicing my experience like a journalist or an autobiography. I’m shaping something so that it’s powerful and makes sense. I want the poem to make sense. I want people to come away from reading it having had an experience that makes sense.
So is this the sort of poem you could only have written as an experienced poet?
Yes. It takes a lot of practice to be able to sit for half an hour and write non-stop. I also feel a natural sense of rhythm and rhyme, a love of music, and I practise writing.
I was brought up in a house full of music, with very limited access to poetry, so my writing does come a lot from that tradition. So I grew up listening to grunge, and with bands like Nirvana you have lyrics that tackle some of the difficult issues I’m interested in.
But I’m not writing songs either. I need the level of complexity and depth that poetry requires, and those thoughts do have to be structured. It’s got to be defined and disciplined. I write every day and I’m very hard on myself and on my own writing. I motivate myself by tearing my work apart and telling myself I have to do better. That’s why this poem’s slightly unusual – normally I will really struggle over a long period of time.
I’ve never written a poem of this length, and I’ve never written a poem like this which flowers and blooms out of a single line of thought.
I liked the line somewhere in the middle, ‘This is no longer the poem I expected’. It felt like the writer throwing a grenade into the middle of the poem – why did you do that?
That line is me as the writer going, ‘Oh shit, what have I just written,’ but thinking no, I’ve got to keep going. It was finding a hook back to reality, telling myself I was still here, but to keep going.
So you did feel that lack of control as you were writing it?
Yes, it’s incredibly difficult when you’re writing a poem, especially one of this length. I do that with a lot of poems – just bring myself back to reality, which also keeps things together.
At the beginning of the poem, I talk about hallucinations. I’m making a statement that the poem isn’t ‘real’, it is a fantasy. But I suffer hallucinations so I have a sense of unreality in my life – I feel very dissociative when I’m stressed and I fall away into psychosis. I’m a high-functioning manic depressive. My poetry and my writing gives me a freedom and a context and a physical outlet for that pain.
There’s a line near the beginning, ‘My darling, my love / reach into the glove compartment and pass me my map’. Is that what writing poetry is to you? It reminded me of Adrienne Rich’s ‘Diving into the Wreck’. Is her metaphor of exploration apt for your writing?
It’s an apt metaphor for my mind. In my early twenties I had a period of deep psychotic depression where I had no idea what was real and what wasn’t. I tried to kill myself, and came round after a coma in a psychiatric ward. I thought I was in hell. I didn’t believe that I was alive. I can’t even begin to explain how that feels – that your own mind can do that to you. I’m always conscious now that I need to have touchstones to keep me sane, safe and in control. The whole act of my writing is about claiming control. It’s a place where I’ve imposed my own parameters and it’s important to me that I can do that.
Writing poetry for me is a vocation. Without it, I wouldn’t cope, wouldn’t survive. Everything I feel, experience, desire – everything is in my poems. It can exist in a safe zone.
I believe, after writing consistently for ten years, and after working hard at the craft, that I have the authority to exert that control. I feel I do know what I’m doing now – I didn’t a few years ago.
I was interested in your use of the word ‘precious’ in the title. If you use that word to describe someone, you’re either saying they’re very valuable or that they’re vulnerable and over-sensitive. Which connotation of that was at the forefront for you?
The particular day that this was written, I had an email from a friend, and he signed off telling me that I was very precious. I found it a very strange and disconcerting thing – nobody had ever said that to me in my entire life. I felt like a child, and that he was making me childlike.
The poem was a reaction against being called ‘precious’. To me, the poem is about men and women and the tensions between them and men being dominant. I felt that when my friend called me ‘precious’, he had gone beyond the boundaries of what I felt was acceptable. We’re still friends though!
So the title is about reclaiming agency from someone who has taken that away from you?
My initial reaction was: Yes, actually, I am precious, but I’m not going to let somebody patronise me, so I’ll make it the title of a poem so that it becomes my statement.
As you’ve hinted, there are lots of difficult and taboo subjects in this poem – pornography, graphic sexual descriptions, the idea of losing a baby. You acknowledge taboos in the line ‘you told me not to talk about it’. Is poetry a place for you to say the unsayable?
Constantly, throughout my career, I’ve always followed my instincts – I could’ve acknowledged to myself as I was writing this poem that a lot of the things I’ve included are not pleasant to read, or I could have worried about giving too much of myself away. But I didn’t do that. I felt it was right and I do believe that there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to say the things I’ve written in there.
I am aware that there is something masochistic in writing these things about myself. It’s masochistic but it’s safe – I’ve created this space where it’s okay to talk about these things. In real life, these things are hard to put into words, but when I do it in poetry I build and create a safe haven for it to exist.
Are you mainly saying these unsayable things to yourself then? Is it a personal, cathartic experience for you or do you envisage a particular audience too?
I know from experience of having been published and from giving readings that a lot of women do respond to my poetry because they recognise their own experiences. Women go through things that are often not okay to talk about in society. I know a lot of women who have suffered horrifically in their lives. It sometimes feels like women are supposed to have pain, suffer it and then not talk about it. Or if we do talk about it, we’re supposed to make light of it and say it’s all okay. But the experience of women should be talked about more, and that’s central to my writing. Women have awful sexual experiences. I could talk to any of my female friends and I can guarantee there’s not one of them who wouldn’t say, ‘Yes, this happened with a man, I didn’t like it but I didn’t say anything.’
I have the benefit of never having been told what to do as a poet. Or what not to do. I’ve never been in academic situations where I’ve been asked to tone things down. I realise that there are lot of people who wouldn’t be interested in my work, or would even be opposed to it. But I want to feel I’m creating an environment, even if it’s within literature, where I’ve liberated people. I know I’ve liberated myself.
So saying the unsayable is a feminist statement? Is this a poem about the female body being a battleground? I felt a sense that you were saying relationships between men and women are a constant negotiation.
Recently I got The Ballad Of Sexual Dependency, Nan Goldin’s book, and the pictures in there inform what I’m talking about in this poem. There are massive, irreconcilable tensions between men and women in relationships. But that’s also part of why relationships between men and women work, too. I’ve had relationships with women and they work in a very different way. As much as I’ve enjoyed those relationships, I’ve always erred towards being dominated by men, which disturbs me. Relationships with men have been a massive issue in my life – I’ve had therapy about it and it didn’t work. What works is writing poetry.
The ‘you’ of this poem is quite fluid – at times it seems like it’s a lover, at other times it’s men in general.
It’s a number of things. We talked about influences earlier. Another poet I used to read when I was younger was Rumi. When he writes ‘you’ and ‘my beloved’, he’s often talking about God, but I always preferred to imagine that it was my poem and that I was saying it to another person. One of my biggest passions is love songs – so this ‘you’ can be elusive in the poem and in general, but it can also apply to specific people. I’m a romantic person. I’m married and I have serious, affectionate friendships.
When the ‘you’ is personal, it is addressed to a specific friend. It’s about how I was close to him but the boundaries of our friendship had been blurred and I needed to exorcise how I felt. I’d had intense feelings towards him and the only thing I could do to make that real was to put it into the context of this poem.
I’m referring to a specific person but at times I’m also referring to all the men who have been in my life. There’s a sort of quiet rage at times too – I’m also referring to people who have seriously hurt, tormented and abused me.
There is a sense of the “I” being overwhelmed by the power of her own body and her own sexuality – ‘I’m so wet I can’t do nothing about it and it hurts.’
Women who have been sexually abused and assaulted can still enjoy sex. That’s a really important idea that I wanted to discuss publicly. It’s another thing that just doesn’t get talked about. When I’m manic, I need constant stimulation – it’s the same as a narcotic. When you’re manic, you realise that if you don’t keep it going, you’ll go downhill fast. So often I feel very sexual when I’m like that. But I’ve also suffered sexual abuse in my life, so that comes with a sense of guilt too. It needs to be brought out, but it’s difficult. It needs to be done in a controlled way.
I went to see James Rhodes, the concert pianist. He uses his fame to talk about abuse. I was impressed that he stood up on the stage and was very open about the abuse he suffered as a child. And I thought, if he’s going to do that, I’ll do it too.
A lot of the time with the graphic sexual imagery in the poem, it does come with a sort of ‘cuteness’ – the porn actors are like ‘puppies’, the narrator is like a ‘little snail’. I found that quite disturbing.
I was first manipulated when I was six years old. That affects you for the rest of your life. When you’ve suffered a trauma like that at that age, the child that you were stays with you, in a sense. I draw back into myself regularly – I become childlike, petulant, I sulk all the time. That’s me going back into myself and being safe – even the title, ‘I am very precious’, suggests don’t hurt me. I honestly believe that the man who manipulated me thought it was an acceptable way to behave, and feels no remorse, because when you look at people like Saville and Rolf Harris, and the way they’ve dealt with it, there’s no remorse there.
We’re all shaped by our early experiences, and the same can be said about our early sexual experiences. We go through life and we’re told to just leave everything behind – time passes, we move forward. But it doesn’t work like that. We’re shaped by everything that goes on, and we don’t all go ‘forward’. Sometimes we get stuck.
I will never move on from what happened to me. This particular man would tell me how beautiful I was. That’s hard because now, if any man ever says something similar to me or compliments me in that way, I don’t react well to it.
But also, I want to be able to say it about myself: I look all right today. And I want to be able to accept it when other people say it to me, but it is hard.
Again, this is not just me. This happens to people. It upsets me that it’s not just me. You only have to look at what’s been going on the media over the last year. At some points last year you couldn’t turn the news on without seeing it. And every time I put the TV on I was in tears. And I thought about all those women throughout all those years feeling the same way as me.
I suppose the media saturation of these abuse cases goes back to what you were saying earlier about breaking taboos and saying things out loud. Do you feel a sense of optimism that at least now these things are out in the open, hard though it might be to hear them?
Maybe a few years ago there might have been more opposition to me writing about things like this. I do think things are changing – the amount of women coming forward was heartening. It’s important and I do want it to stay in the public eye. That’s why I chose this poem for this medium – the fact that it’s on the internet rather than a paper magazine, and the fact that I had the opportunity to talk about it and explain it – it feels like that’s a political statement too. I don’t believe you can separate the personal and the political.
What about the motif of pornography that runs through? It feels like it’s one of the ways in which the ‘you’ character betrays the ‘I’ character. Words like ‘dumb’, ‘ugly’ ‘insincerity’, the ‘stinging salt’, the ‘bruised’ uteruses. Is that about what you feel pornography does to women?
Pornography is a big part of this poem. I’ve got a teenage daughter, she’s fifteen, and she’ll say to me, ‘This boy wants to get nude pictures of my friend,’ and when I question her she’ll say, ‘Oh, they all do it.’ The other day I was talking to a friend of mine whose teenage daughter’s friends are going to parties and having anal sex so they don’t get pregnant. I am concerned about young men trying to do what they see in porn films. I worry that what’s lost is the sense that your partner in a romantic relationship has complex emotional needs. So if one person in a partnership just wants sexual gratification, that can cause suffering. Especially with women who have been abused – the sense of shame and guilt is with you from that.
I remember when I was fifteen, when the internet was very new. I didn’t even have a PC, but my boyfriend at the time did. I remember going to his house and he showed me these images – I was quite innocent, but I remember being shocked by it, and it was things I’d never even thought of before. I can almost remember the exact content even now. I remember realising that boys must be seeing this, taking on board what was going on and applying it to their lives. But nobody talks about it openly.
It’s things like sado-masochism becoming part of the mainstream. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with individual people doing what they want to do, but on a wider level, this feels like an unspoken acceptance as a society that it’s okay to link sex to violence. Now it’s a part of what sex is and nobody actually discusses it in any real depth. I find that confusing and disturbing. Obviously, it’s not just men who look at porn. And I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with anyone doing what they want to do. At all. But I do feel that sincerity is important.
That line, ‘they don’t mean it, you know’: pornography is one of the things that can damage sincerity and authenticity?
It isn’t real. It’s about fantasy. When you see images of pornography, you don’t see human beings, you see acts of gratification. One of my male friends said to me that he wonders what it does to the heart. I feel for women in films who are being exploited. For a man to watch the exploitation of a woman, and be able to switch that knowledge off in his mind – I think that is a damaging thing and I find it immensely troubling. That we all have that ability to switch off emotionally.
You say we all have that ability to switch off emotionally. Towards the end you reveal these disturbing details about burying the baby and then say, ‘I have had to stop.’ Is there a link for you between the idea of men disassociating themselves from the brutality of pornography and the ‘I’ character’s ability to disassociate from her miscarriage?
When I was 16 I miscarried my daughter’s twin. At the time, it was very traumatic. I completely blanked it out, like nothing had happened, and I couldn’t cope with it. The first time I’ve ever mentioned it is in this poem.
It does have relevance to my life but I’ve never accepted it or thought about it. It’s an absence that I feel now and I never used to. That’s a consequence of sex that women have to put up with. We have to think about our bodies all the time, protect ourselves from consequences in a way that men don’t.
At this stage, I hate the idea of pregnancy. I never want to do it again. That might not be ‘normal’ but it might be a late reaction to things that have happened that I’ll probably never be able to reconcile. At the time I convinced myself it didn’t matter, but now I’m angry that I was forced into that position. I was on my own in a flat – I lived downstairs and the man upstairs just watched porn all day. I could hear it constantly, very loud – I found it disturbing. At the time I felt that there was nothing I could do about it; I just accepted it as part of the background noise of my life. It goes back to control – my poetry is my way of trying to regain control. It’s an expression of profound trauma and not just personally but with things other people have suffered.
I’ve been brought up to react to things by not making a fuss. My family won’t read this poem. Or if they did, they’d be opposed to it. I was brought up being told not to write, not to express myself. I was told, ‘Melissa, will you stop telling people how you feel? You’re not doing yourself any good.’ I’m violently opposed to that attitude! I’ve never accepted it. It’s belligerence or something. That’s how I’ve survived – by asserting that I’m allowed to exercise my will and say what I want.
Despite how serious this poem is, I also found moments of dark humour. Some of the images – ‘sexed-up cat’, ‘Northern Gods and Goddesses’, the deadpan repetition of ‘don’t you want to ravage me?’ Where does that humour come from? Is this a Northern thing, do you think?
[Laughing] Yeah, maybe it’s a Northern thing. People have this concept of me of being a deadly serious and morose woman. My friends joke that as a poet I should be wearing black and wandering around the moors. Someone once told me I’d make a good widow. But I’m not like that as a person!
Everything I write has a real air of darkness, and it can be disturbing at times. But it also has to have an element of me in it, and not just me being serious and ‘poetic’ and literary and all that. It’s still my own voice, so it’s going to have other elements, not just seriousness. But I’m glad you’ve said that – I’m really pleased! People meet me and they’re surprised I’m not getting ready to throw myself off a bridge.
Even with a poem like this, where you’re giving as much of yourself as you choose, that also means you’re keeping back as much of yourself as you choose.
Whenever my daughter has friends round, she tells them I’m a writer and they expect me to be serious and strict and stern. But then we go to the pub and have a good laugh. It’s another difficulty that writers have when work is so personal. People do think they have a sense of who you are – in a way they have, but there’s also a big fantasy element. Everybody, to different degrees, lives in a fantasy world. I just use mine in my work.
Let’s talk about the last line, ‘So please do say it again.’ The poem finishes on a note of longing, almost desperation.
We all feel longing in our lives. It’s beautiful. It’s an important part of our psychological make-up to be yearning for something. It’s what keeps us going. And I think often we don’t even want to get the thing we’re yearning for – once you’ve got the satisfaction, that period of yearning is over. That’s why so many love poems have been written about that state of not having what you want.
Not having what you want is a motivation to be a better person, to be beautiful, exist for something else. People make each other beautiful. I often have this desire with everyone I meet to try and bring something positive to that relationship. And with me I think it’s a redemption thing – if I can make things better for someone else, it might help me with some of the negative feelings I have.
When I started writing, I wrote a book-length poem about someone I couldn’t have. This man wrote these beautiful letters to me, and I was in love with his letters, his language, his poems. But when we spent time together, it didn’t work, because it was just a fantasy. Having what I wanted didn’t work. It’s important to accept that we have needs and passions that will never be met, but in that there is something vital. It’s okay to be passionately involved with people, because that’s what the human heart exists for. We shouldn’t suppress it.
Society tells us we have to suppress things in order to survive. So many people suffer from depression, but we all have to be functioning people in society. People like me who lose their minds are locked away so that society doesn’t see them, so that society continues to function. I had an experience of being completely disappeared by society so nobody could see the suffering I was going through.
Yes, you give some details about life on the psychiatric ward at the beginning of the poem. As a society, should we still be ashamed of how we treat people with mental illness?
I’ve been on so many psychiatric wards in so many different places so I’ve seen what happens. I’ve been in places where nobody was given any drugs, where people were allowed to go ‘mad’, and I’ve been in places where everybody was doped up and sedated.
In the poem I mention the ‘smackhead’. There was a man coming off heroin on a ward I was on. The palest person I’ve ever met – he was suffering severe withdrawal symptoms. I was besotted with him for months. We’d sit every day and smoke together. I was drugged up too – we couldn’t connect with each other through it. Sometimes I was so drugged up that I would just sit and watch him. He was suffering so much.
One day we were together and I was listening to a song called ‘Blue Chicago Moon’ by Songs: Ohia. It’s a beautiful song, and I gave it to him to listen to. I don’t think he really listened to music a lot, but I loved him and I wanted to share this music. He’d never showed any emotion the whole time I’d been there, but he cried when he listened to this piece of music. It goes back to my feeling about love songs – they’re so powerful.
That was a fantasy as well. I wasn’t well and I wanted somebody to love me, and I wanted to make him better and make him come off the heroin. Looking back it was silly, but having the experience of utter and complete closeness… for a four month period, we very rarely spoke to each other, but we would sit together and smoke cigarettes, and he was present and I was present and I felt a connection to him.
I find that connection easy to make but difficult to nurture. I’ve found myself often in situations where I have these intense feelings but I don’t know what to do with them. Actually I don’t think any of us do. We all have relationships and we have no idea what to do with them or how they work.
At times there, you were talking about love in the same way that you were talking about poetry earlier. It’s about finding a map; knowing what you’ve got. It’s partly pouring your heart out but also partly playing by rules. Aside from everything, is this a poem about love?
I’m obsessed at the moment with [the Romanian philosopher] Emil Cioran. I read his book On The Heights Of Despair when I was 19 and I fell in love with him. I thought he was the most brilliant man in the world. I read it again recently. He talks about the unstoppability of love, and about the irrationality of love. We have bonds and affinities with people for no rational reason. He talks about a spirituality that arrives when you feel passionate love.
I’m also reading Works Of Love by Kierkegaard. He talks about how you can’t get to the bottom of it and you shouldn’t try. Love is like a spring, which is beautiful on the surface, but you can’t see what’s going on underneath. And you shouldn’t try to dig it up. It doesn’t matter why you love someone. You’ve got the bond and that’s what life’s about.
There’s always hope. I’m not a pessimist. Emil Cioran is a pessimist. I love him because everything he writes is so dark. He must have experienced intense love to write about it like that. And even somebody that pessimistic and hardened has that child inside that says, ‘I want someone to love me.’ Everybody has that. That’s a gift. We have to experience pain because of it, but that’s part of it, and we can experience tremendous happiness too. After all the pain, I’m happy. I’m happy writing my poems. We can all be kind to each other and we can all love each other. It’s the pinnacle of human endeavour – everything that we strive for, everything that we do, is about the pursuit of love.
I see all the black marks on the page, the lines
hallucinations falling off the edge of the world – my tongue
we haven’t talked about desperation,
yet you tell me about pornography, girls with death wishes
attached to their libidos, little warm arrows
aligned to their supple bodies, inside where the parental hole gapes;
do you understand that when the day breaks
semen in the body turning over like a silk belt, slashing
the way the poetry aches like it does when fantasies
abate and leave beds turning over like guillotined heads
and my eyesight’s killing the words as they fall
into the blinking retinas and all the images burned inside
tearing the cloth on your body with wide-eyed
longing. My darling, you write, my darling, my love
reach into the glove compartment and pass me my map,
and my scissors to snip your underwear, to snip at your heart,
little buckles undone to reveal the muscle torn
and purple and ermine and the little black-leather-
buckles. When I used to wear my fuck-me boots and walk
the streets at night I could feel men looking at my melancholy curves
I felt hot and I wanted to call home and say my death
was not only imminent but simply a scar that never healed –
crying in my sleep, my chest heaving and body fastened
to every shape ever thrown in the bed in June
when Nature told me to no longer be pregnant. I’m a big girl
I said. Roomy in the hips like Buffalo Bill’s victims
in Silence Of The Lambs. I oil my skin
so the desire will slip off me and onto the floor and crawl
around and get carpet burns and I will glow
like a cigarette burn on the arm of the whitest smack-head
in town, I will glow like the face of the girl who loves him and is willing
to watch him die out, slowly, and with no flames to fan.
I was that girl. I made him listen to a song I loved
and he cried like he’d never cried in his life that this girl with cuts
on her skin would have liked to hold him, crawl into his
psychiatric ward bed and breathe all over his damp, white shoulders.
Some people don’t actually want to be wanted.
Some people actually want to be harmed. I used to fantasize
about being annihilated. About being so completely overwhelmed
the dark would rush in on me and fill me up inside
hard like whiplash in the back of a Ford Estate; stop my heart
dead on contact with the heart, the thudding heart. Wanting to be loved is not the same
as wanting to be fucked is not the same as wanting to come last
is not the same as wanting to be married. Not wanting to be married.
Wanting not to heal up inside and the tears
ruby, glowing tears in the skin just sting in the morning
and are easy to cover up. I told you last night about the baby
that died, you told me not to talk about it and I was glad
you were so on my side that talking about dead babies was bad.
Dead babies. I tried to explain how they don’t stay with you long,
and you told me how your sister went in the wrong grave –
I’m gonna have to pace myself; that’s what men tell me
they have to do when they’re with a woman;
it’s easy to get consumed and the main thing is to hold out.
Death has come out of me, before love has wound its way
to my thigh. The things I have lost fill my toy-museum heart
and when you take me all the dolls get wound up and the bears
start barking. Hand-jobs just don’t do it for me, I’m sorry –
maybe if I really like you, you can tell me about it. I like to hang on the line
and when the feeling coos in my mouth for an outlet
and I want the voice of someone with a heart that knows about hearts
that know about hearts that know and can give me their thumb
to suck and say you can’t handle the way I want you;
when I don’t know if I can; and I only do it with men
with really clean hands. When I am rubbing my heart against
the sofa like a sexed-up cat, rubbing up against the bedclothes,
rubbing up against the fictional thighs of Northern Goddesses
pull me in all directions. I want to be told.
Tell me. My sense of abandon is an alcoholic, and you’re
co-dependent. In the night I dream of Adolf and the fictional
loins of Northern Gods and the vacant lane to the abattoir
where the boys hang out looking for pussy
at five am when the girls come on their shift in their shitty jeans.
I want to hang on the line and get all torn up.
I want to stare at women in shops when they’re not even that attractive
just look expensive. And the perfume they wear isn’t so tempting
but it covers the sex they had hours before and how they
don’t want to smell of it anymore. Being ravaged is like
someone howling your name so it vibrates in
the caves of your sex. You want to ravage me don’t you
don’t you want to ravage me. You want to ravage me so much
you don’t even know where you’d start, you haven’t
figured that out, or maybe when you’re alone and no-one is there
the plan remains the same. Start from the top and work your way down.
This is no longer the poem I expected.
Being rejected has always got me hot – being turned down,
being wanted and turned down for no real reason, being desired
and being tormented, and not having what I want
gets the blood flowing to my knickers and when I’m really wet
I’m so wet I can’t do nothing about it and it hurts.
I can tell you this because nothing fazes you about me,
even my fucking regular heartbeat. In the night
I lie like a little snail stuck to the edge of a wall and get really moist.
I don’t want to do it anymore. I’d like simply to talk
about other poetic pursuits, like addictions, and walking at dusk
and making soup. Hounds call after me where I run with shaved legs
to come back and make coffee. Just try something simple and easy
and do nothing with my mouth. My red and open mouth,
my wet and pink and closed mouth, swallowing
my ordinary mouth with wet lips opening, my tongue –
fuck off, you said. I’m a big girl. I know you watch porn
and all the hairless girls with hopeless drug addictions lick each other
like stage-struck puppies. They don’t mean it, you know that.
It’s not like that when I get my tongue around someone;
it barely lasts five minutes most of the time, always has.
I don’t like it to go on for a long time. My scars itch and I get so wet
I get drowned. I’ve had boyfriends who’ve tried to get me
to watch porn with them but it’s the lack of perceived sensation,
their bodies just seem numb, like if they were enjoying it they’d
just fucking melt. Melt into the screen, with their dumb, lame, orange
skin and a sound like you’re supposed to make when a climax comes
so slow and steady you’re silk, the heart turning over
like a silk belt; the little black buckles of the heart snapping
in turn. I don’t want to take my clothes off for anyone; want to
sleep with my t-shirt on and wake in a fever, my legs closed
and my hands under my pillow. These things eat me up inside.
I want to be eaten up inside. I want to abstain.
I want to be hungry. I want to hunger for nothing want
annihilation in a pile on the floor, want annihilation to creep
along the floor to my heels, push its head between my legs and seep
into my skin. All the things I have done before
are yesterday’s sins. Skinny dipping in the reservoir. Dressing up.
You’ve got to hide the mirror, you’ve got to hide
the mirror. You can’t handle me, and I’ll only last sixty seconds.
And I’m gonna brush my hair one hundred times
and wear red satin, and sit at the dresser, and look in the mirror
and in the mirror and in the mirror I saw
a girl, a little younger than me, as vacant as a dream of a house
in which everyone you know goes to live and disappears.
And I saw a girl, so tightly spun it’d take an avalanche
of desire. And I saw a girl so sad the whole sorry affair went by
without celebration. My head is very tired now
for all my thinking about my body, how different parts
of my body feel differently. I don’t understand why anyone would go
to a swingers party. Or watch hand-job porn while their partner
wrote poetry. I don’t want to see anyone come
but you. I’m gonna brush my hair one hundred times, looking
in the fucking mirror and hope to god I don’t
only last sixty seconds or maybe just hope that I don’t die too soon.
That the leather buckles that fasten my heart to my chest
are kept down, and a silver stream of semen
goes nowhere near my abdomen. I want
everything and more besides. I want the wholeness
of my psychological make-up to stay whole and ripe. I want my wholeness
to retain its mystery and I want my breasts to get bigger,
and my ass to get smaller, and my belly to disappear.
Like the orange girls who lick each other’s pale nipples;
orange like they’ve all come from some other land
hairless like they’ve all come from some other place
where beauty gets defaced just so men can come all over
faces made ugly by insincerity. When you’re not sincere
how can you climax. The afterthoughts of all of this are
I’m not worth the heat, sweat or blood pressure. If you had sex
all day with orange fictional Northern Goddesses, you’d not need
to go to the gym. When my boyfriend made me watch porn one time
they did a lot of bouncing. I kind of thought this looked
uncomfortable and strange. I thought if I did that all day I’d get bruised
inside and I imagined their purple, ermine, ruby insides
their uteruses lined with stinging salt. The baby that died
took a small part of my heart. I buried that baby
in the toilet of a downstairs flat, where it was so cold
the window had iced up. I have had to stop.
Blood pours into all of my poems like it floods
the veins around my clitoris when someone says they like my
name. So please do say it again.
First Published by Prac Crit.