The Great Vowel Shift, Robin Houghton
Telltale Press, 2014   £4.00

Putting ‘The Last’ first

I agree with John McCullough’s comment on the inside flap that these are ‘sharp-eyed poems’, not just in terms of physical detail but also in their inspection of Western cultural attitudes. This is exemplified in ‘The Last’ which, with quiet audacity, is placed first in this 13-poem collection. And is ‘The Last’ really about a subject that successive British Chancellors of Exchequer have assumed we are all too embarrassed to talk about? (Why else would they have continued a luxury tax for products that every woman past the age of puberty needs monthly – that is, until ‘The Last’?)  

How subtly this poem reflects a culture of secrecy and shame, perhaps particularly familiar to those of us born before 1970, as it tells us – but doesn’t quite tell us – what it’s about (‘My mother wouldn’t explain, / I couldn’t ask’).

‘The Last’ writes what was unwritten every month: ‘Each one appeared / in my diary, in code.’ After all, weren’t we encouraged not to make a fuss and to be ‘Too busy getting on with / the business of getting on’? (At this point, I had a flashback to adverts involving roller-skating women, and TV commercials that seemed to suggest it wasn’t only Picasso who had a Blue Period.)

Contained and controlled, with as many lines as there are months of the year, these six couplets of poetry are assembled as neatly as discreet packages hidden in a scented drawer. The placement of the poem at the start of the collection is a declaration that this is as much a beginning as an ending. How uplifting.

A lifetime of silence about something which, in more enlightened times, is rightly considered to be a cause for celebration when it first begins, is here movingly committed to paper, and I enjoyed being at the party to celebrate ‘The Last’, even though the party was never actually thrown – I too, like the poem’s speaker, would have ‘worn something red, if I had known’.

If I thought George Osborne deserved it, I’d send him a copy of this pamphlet. No, don’t waste it on him, you buy it, instead.

Josephine Corcoran