Leaf Arbuthnot reviews Ali Lewis

Hotel is published by Verve Poetry Press (2020)

If you allow Ali Lewis’ debut pamphlet, Hotel, to open on its own, it’s likely to unfold on the double-spread poem, ‘Fractal Date’. That’s just as well: the poem, by my reading at least, is a successful model of what Lewis captures so well in the pamphlet: communication between individuals that has worn so thin it barely constitutes exchange at all. The poem is set on a date at a restaurant. A man is snapping at a woman; soon he will turn plaintive. So far so familiar. His aggression doesn’t provoke her to emote in a comparable way, but seems to free her from the claustrophobia of his presence and the drab tangle in which they have wound themselves. To use a cliche Lewis thankfully goes without, the woman at the table zones out, inverts the perspective, sees the universal in the microscopic. When her partner asks the usual lover’s questions (if he’s the one, if the relationship is over), she refuses to become caught up in anything so grubbing or pedestrian. “She answered that coastlines get longer / the more closely you measure them,” and that “the edge of a snowflake looks / like the zoomed-in edge of a snowflake”. You get the feeling her lover wants to give her a good shake. It’s a rueful poem, a lyrical wince by a male writer who is astute enough to recognise patterns in socialisation that lead to dates as crappy as this one.

Lewis is interested in damaged and damaging masculinity: he’s doing a PhD on the ways in which male writers code ideas of masculinity into their poetry. A number of the best poems in the pamphlet ruminate on dissatisfactory men and male behaviour, some memorably. In “Carpet”, a woman is unable to rid herself of a man omnipresent and repetitious as “a bad hotel carpet”. When she stays out “too late”, like the carpet of the poem’s title, the man would “wait at the doorstep / or roll, bright red, / out into the street”. ‘The Englishman’ offers a portrait of a Faragist pub-dweller so unchallenging and familiar I’m not sure anyone needed a reminder of the type. The Englishman is “a charmer and a ladies’ man”, he “barbecues and cooks proper English breakfasts” and hesitates on forms “between White and Prefer not to say” (he’s white, obviously). He “kisses ladies on the hand or cheek”, splashes “joyously” when he takes a piss, and, hells bells, “doesn’t signal when he changes / lanes on roundabouts or the ring road”. The poem is an enjoyable canter through gammon characteristics, but ends up feeling a little easy. In the final stanza, the Englishman is unveiled as lecherous – “he didn’t realise / you were in here, getting changed” – and the reveal is so thunderously unsurprising that the poem deflates.

‘S & M’ probes masculinity with more power and nuance. In the poem, Simone and Mark are locked together in a hall of distorted mirrors, in which both are making assumptions about the other’s feelings, and screwing with one another in subtly cruel ways. Simone, alert to Mark’s possessiveness, leaves her diary lying around as it is full of tales of “fictitious affairs” she has excitedly composed. Mark is too preoccupied to notice: he is busy feeding his fears that Simone is on dating apps, which he frantically joins in order “to find / not find” her. The poem is a very human study of how narcissism can corrode a relationship from the inside out; soon the couple are imagining each other at one another’s funerals. Mark pictures Simone’s self-absorbed devastation (“feeling sad watching herself feeling sad”) while Simone thinks “about the pain her death wouldn’t cause / Mark”. It’s a relief, when the poem ends, to be released from the couple’s clasp.

Love as connivance and threat also energises the pamphlet’s opening poem, ‘Pressure’. Right from the off, the poem has a sensual, motored sort of restlessness; it has no interest in stopping to allow the reader to find their bearings. A couple are driving on a road, “the day once-in-a-summer / hot the car light with just the two of us / shirts slung around our necks seatbelts off”. Then a collision – “we hit / the pheasant so clean and hard it pops”. In the second stanza: the clean-up job, which winds the two into a complicity that feels voracious (and slightly Bonnie and Clyde). As the speaker pressure-washes the pheasant’s blood from the car, his partner in crime keeps watch, “telling me shaking i would do this with you / i would do this with you if we killed a man”.

Love, and the eerie retreat of love, dominates the pamphlet, but poems on the margins, that dance to a different beat, are among the strongest. Towards the end is a miraculous little poem called ‘Putting the World Away’, in which the world’s contents are imagined in the process of being tidied up. Seagulls caught mid-flap are stacked “like white plastic lawn chairs”; pine forests are “folded in half / & velcroed together”; petals are “packed like parachutes back into buds”; clouds are “skimmed off” and towers are “dropped into wells”.

If a number of Lewis’ poems admit the insufficiencies and dishonesties embedded in relationships, a verdant kind of hope comes into flower at the end of the pamphlet. In ‘Love Poem To Your Self Sufficiency’, two people are enclosed in a small space, possibly in separate rooms. The speaker sits quietly enough for the second figure to forget the speaker’s presence. As the feeling of being witnessed diminishes, the second figure is released into a private kind of liberty, which is observed and appreciated by the speaker next door. The second figure hums, potters, talks aloud, by turns “cajoling, motivating, praising”. Meanwhile the speaker works to preserve the illusion that the second figure is indeed alone. “I say nothing – enjoy / the sound of you, without me, / happy”. If entwinement in others risks self-abnegation and the loss of the self in another, it is possible to reclaim the self back. As Lewis writes, “Stand in a field long enough, and the sounds / start up again”.

Leaf Arbuthnot is a freelance journalist, editor and author based in south London. Her first novel, Looking For Eliza, was published in 2020 by Orion.

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