REVIEW by Peter Naumann NWR Issue 100
by Anna Lewis
‘“This is a town for old men’” is the first line of Anna Lewis’ poem, ‘Resistance’. It is also the first in her collection Other Harbours
, and it opens the door on a landscape across which a mythology will unfold. But opens it just a crack. As the simultaneous invocation and inversion of Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ suggests, this mythology will reveal itself in glimpses, in glancing and fugitive colours. As Lewis writes in ‘The First Emperor’:
are but a little beyond the horizon –
Yeats once described his own poetic craft as a form of tailoring, stitching ‘a coat / Covered with embroideries / Out of old mythologies / From heel to throat.’ Yeats, in a gesture of renunciation which reveals both the visionary’s self-imposed isolation and the patrician’s scorn for the multitude, discards this garment in favour of ‘walking naked’, free from association with ‘fools’ who would wear his coat ‘in the world’s eyes / As though they’d wrought it’. Yet the cloth which Anna Lewis has cut from the fabric of myth has clearly been worn
This wear, an habituation and a fraying, is exhibited by the jackets of the ‘old men’ of ‘Resistance’, which are ‘rubbing thin against the walls’, marked by the abrasions of history, as is the limestone cathedral in ‘North’, or the path described in ‘Seed’, sown above a pit where, in time of plague ‘the healthy slung the dead’. To walk this path becomes at once an act of memorial and a means of forgetting, wearing away the visible reminder of collective horror and establishing a passage to new normalities.
Evidence of trauma, of wounds and their scars which can never quite be translated into a milder register of erosion and sedimentation, recurs throughout Other Harbours
. Even where sites of disturbance – such as the ‘private geometry’ exposed in the course of the excavation which provides the title for the collection’s closing poem – have been smoothed over by time, they nevertheless leave ‘new and tender contours’. A similar ambivalence towards the healing qualities of time can be seen in ‘Last Light’, a series of episodes in which Lewis gives voice to female characters from the Mabinogion, allowing them to offer their versions of events, challenging the canonical stories told and redacted by men. In the first poem of this sequence, the bewilderment of Arawn’s wife at the unresponsive stranger in her bed is cozened but not dispelled by the succession of hours, weeks and months. If, by the third stanza of the poem, ‘Moonlight is usual now’, and ‘soothes her’ it nevertheless imparts only ‘a distant music’, so that henceforth:
the nights are shallower,
young waves in a retreating tide.
When, in the poem’s final lines, Arawn – or Pwyll, with whom he has traded ‘place and form’, and who had earlier turned a deaf ear and an unyielding back to his wife’s entreaties, ignoring her demands for explanation of his changed state – ‘tells her his dreams in the / mornings’ and ‘she tells him hers’, this can be read as a moment of redress, the dawn of a relationship of reciprocal transparency and mutual enlightenment, where fears and desires are narrated and answered. Alternatively, though, it could be a perpetuation of the cryptic games of night, with both protagonists tacitly acknowledging that the waking hours remain under a spell which can only be reiterated, not lifted.
This motif of reiteration, as both the wearing away of solidities and the insistent recurrence of discomfiting truths, occupies a prominent place in ‘Penelope’, a poem which begins an internal exegesis of the book as a whole, isolating crumbs of personal history and cultural tradition which have stuck in the poet’s imagination, accruing rhythm, words, and structure as their potency demands elucidation. Lewis imagines the eponymous heroine ‘baring herself, day after day, / to the scrape of each empty incoming tide’ while her husband ‘flounders’ with Circe, far from Ithaca, which has become – for Penelope as much, perhaps, as for Odysseus – ‘some other harbour’, a place of estrangement, of alienation only deepened by the compulsion to return to its disappointments.
The returns which are contemplated in Other Harbours
, – by which it is haunted
– are not all pitched in a disconsolate or disquieting key, however, even when they occur at the boundaries of dream or the edges of sentience, where the logic of the uncanny holds sway. The residual ‘torso of water’, lying dormant below the cathedral in ‘North’ may be restless in its sleep, ‘burrowing up to the light’ in answer to a submerged impulsion, but the meticulous inventory of minerals by which an ancient body is mapped in ‘A Museum Education’ gives way to an untrammelled flood of summer light, wherein erstwhile particulars seep and find new levels,
gold pooling softly,
still living, warm
In ‘Paternoster’ a quizzical rapture attends the movement of ‘riders’ on the lift’s ‘doorless cars’, faced with a precarious passage to terra firma from the realm of a dizzying, inscrutable machinery, and ‘leaping the threshold without hesitation’, an act of blithe daring which, as a description of Anna Lewis’ deft handling of dark matter, could hardly be more apt.
was born in New York in 1984, grew up in Oxfordshire, and is currently working toward a PhD at Bristol University. His first collection of poetry, Winter Count
, was published by Starborn Books in June.
Buy this book at gwales.com
previous review: This is How You Lose Her
next review: The Crawshay Portraits exhibition at the National Museum of Wales