“A Body Made of You” Melissa Lee-Houghton (Penned in the Margins) – poetry review

A Body Made of You Melissa Lee Houghton book cover

A Body Made of You” is a series of poems written for other writers, artists and strangers working from interviews and photos or paintings. However, they do not require any foreknowledge on the part of the reader as each successfully captures the personality of their subject. In “Dog-mask” from a series about a man called Stephen,

“or a mask with dog teeth
to put on a face that women won’t want then
to sit on your lap and be rocked like back when

you were king of tides and waves of orgasms.
I will ask you to wear your mask, like me,
and I’ll keep my dress on and my sensible shoes.

But I imagine first that you will catch your real face
in one of those mirrors I should’ve smashed –
and then I just know that you’d cut off your nose.”

The poem captures the essence of a passionate, troubled man with the last stanza hinted at the humanity beneath the womaniser. It touches on the fact that portraits can only capture one facet of a person and can be manipulated to keep a public image that may be different to the private image. This issue is explored in other poems along with the relationship between artist and sitter, in “Clowns”, about Nate,

“We’re going to have to do
something drastic. I just can’t see you
in spandex, riding the trapeze anymore.
Why, when I say take off your clothes, why do you insist
on wearing clown shoes. We’re not playmates:
I am an artist. You ask, so why can’t artists laugh.

I am lonely and infuriated for not
finding ways of making art of you and I
You do not love what can’t be made light of –
but I’m a cold mirror; you are afraid;
and when I sit still, like I did in class
you come towards, quiet, get braver, closer;
I am the kind of animal that could never be tamed –
you would like to pull my hair but instead you mark
two thick black crosses on my eyelids.”

There’s a reluctance in the sitter to be stripped bare what he feels makes him himself, he needs to keep his clown shoes on. He needs to know others will see him as he sees himself and a desire to imprint on the artist his own vision. He is fearful of what the artist will show of him, defensively insisting he can’t be tamed. That relationship between sitter and artist is also explored in “Still” about Annie

“when winding a hand to manipulate the brush, the paint
to fit your shadow, that does not show
pounds and ounces, greying hairs, or a terrified pubis.
Trust me, Annie, I am not a man, and my art will not seduce you.”

There’s a sense of protectiveness, the soft “s” assonances and feminine endings on the last three lines quoted echo that sense. “Broken Poem”, about Alexandra, has a sense of exuberance.

“her daddy gave her
the big red heart of a painter
and it makes mine less blue,
her brother bought me
a sari covered with
empires of stars

when i was broken
yes, love flayed our nerves,
made us sensitive –

i like it when she
wears crimson
no padding in her bra
no eyeliner just
her flame-red daughters
flopping in her lap like puppies
in the low chair.”

The passion and energy suggested by the repeated use of shades of red have an energy and it’s no surprise that the painter likes her subject best when she stops being all things to everyone – daughter, sister, wife, mother – and takes time out to momentarily be herself.

What’s striking about “A Body Made of You” is the depth of exploration of subject. The poems do not become formulaic, but start from their subject whose personality guides the tone and style of the poem, from the enjambment and energy in “Broken Poem” to the gentle protectiveness in “Still” and the intricate showing in “Clowns”.

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One Response to ““A Body Made of You” Melissa Lee-Houghton (Penned in the Margins) – poetry review”

  1. Melissa Lee-Houghton's Blog Says:

    […] released and I’ve had some wonderful reaction to it. It was just recently reviewed by Emma Lee on her blog and by Amy McCauley on Ink, Sweat and Tears. I was absolutely thrilled by both […]


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