Reading Matters: Libby Houston

The photograph which accompanied publisher Clive Allison’s recent obituary in the Guardian, showed him sitting at a pub table alongside his business partner Margaret Busby, with, on the table, a copy of one of the first Allison & Busby publications – Libby Houston’s A Stained Glass Raree Show. Houston’s first collection of poems, illustrated by her husband, Mal Dean, it opens with the first poem I ever remember hearing Libby read – “Post-War” – the same poem which begins Cover of Darkness (Selected Poems, 1961-1998), which Slow Dancer Press published in 1999.

Libby is a singular person, a singular poet, who has remained constant to her own muse, her own style, regardless of fashion and scornful of compromise. Short comic pieces mix with longer narratives, often based on ballad and fairy tale, and deeply personal poems which, as the Times Literary Supplement said, “express pain beautifully without sounding hurt.”

In the words of A. S. Byatt, “She likes to contemplate rottenness, rotting and the agents of change and decay, blowflies, maggots and mould, which she describes with a nice precision which remove them to the safe world of wit on one hand, or fairy-tale on the other. She looks at tiny details and large movements of life and time, like all good writers; a poet, a woman, not particularly a Woman Poet.”

Here’s that first poem :

In 1943
my father
dropped bombs on the continent

I remember
my mother
talking about bananas
in 1944

when it rained,
creeping alone to the windowsill,
I stared up the hill,
watching, watching,
watching without a blink
for the Mighty Bananas
to stride through the blitz

they came in paper bags
in neighbours’ hands
when they came
and took their time
over the coming

and still I don’t know
where my father
flying home
took a wrong turning