The title of Anna Lewis’s poetry collection In Passing encapsulates Lewis’s fascination with snatched moments. Much of the work in this collection feels like a conjuration, or recollection of moments that are not present, but which are approximated in the instance of the poem. ‘Bluestone’ reads ‘if the birds brought news, they’d talk/of a slow train rolling thirty miles north’. In Coleridgean manner, Lewis’s images hover like disembodied visions, which could or would be, or which break the constraints of space and time, whilst at the same time attending in great detail to the pastoral, to the vivid painting of a picture.
Many of Lewis’s poems attend to the history of places, concerned with the transportation from one time to another via the gateway of a single place. Lewis seems deeply concerned with ‘place’ as a concept. Distinctively, in ‘Late Thaw’ she writes ‘Knowing you as I did, at your home/I always found it hard/to place you in St Petersburg’. Placing, here, is an action, a way of seeing and conceptualising. Lewis wrestles with the injunction that our eyes and bodies are constrained to one time and place, but our experience is not. The constant collision of the other time, the other place, with the present moment, seems to be an attempt to realise the disordered workings of our minds.
The poem ‘Release’ is a particularly strong example of these elusive visions: ‘Another tour chalked up. /Dulled by cloud, the sun unwinds/the last hours of his contract.’ Time and space are assimilated, the sun in the cloud being the present scene, but also an hour hand that ‘winds’ around the sky like a clock face. Instantaneously ‘At this moment, somewhere in Rome, /a girl is washing her face/or shouldering an amphora of wine’. A parallel scene, transporting the reader to Rome, still ‘At this moment’, so that Rome is perceived from the perspective of the touring soldier. Double vision, shifting and unsteady, is achieved but then is undermined by that word ‘or’. A window within a window that is only half-real. The implication that the ‘girl’ is not known, steeps her in further haziness, wherein she flits between mundane tasks, set against the backdrop of the man under the cloudy sun. ‘[W]aiting – although she doesn’t know it yet – to hear his stories of this place:/the hard stars, the air like bared teeth.’ Another window: the place is described indirectly as the description for which she is waiting. Moreover, she is not waiting if she does not know she is waiting. Yet from this bird’s eye perspective, knowing past and future and conflating them both as present, she is ‘waiting’ in the sense that stories await her.
The summoning of ‘stories’ is always distancing, and combined with ‘this place’, the proximal deixis again, affirms that this reality of her waiting is a fantasy. At the same time, ‘this place’ is described from the retrospective narrative of the stories he brings home: ‘air bared like teeth’. Layer upon layer of conditionality, of suspended moments which are neither here nor there, engender this poem quite a complicated play with chronology, affirming that from one angle a girl is waiting for a man, but on another, neither of them exist to each other. Only in this warp of time can this narrative exist. Indeed, as the soldier remembers, he ‘feels the years collapse’. ‘Collapse’ is the right word, itself a spatial metaphor that implies some physical collision, that memory relies on physical space. The past is made present both by this depiction as a whole, and Lewis’s mixed tenses; the final lines ‘Her fingers tick his scalp,/his eyes half close’ is a satisfying image but does not quite scan with the first lines, confusing whether the starting point of this poem was this lover’s embrace or the external perspective of the man under the sky. The word ‘tick’ does not make much sense in English, but is there, we presume, to suggest both ‘tickle’ and the ‘tick’ of a clock. That her fingers tick like a clock against his head, I find somewhat ominous, implying a continuation of the poem’s restlessness, time ticking on, moving around the sky. In this sense, there is no respite, no release.
The collection feels personal and sentimental, and idealistic. Lewis’s writing could be criticised as obscurist, relying too much on her choice of words to do the explaining for her. I am partial to a pleasing turn of phrase, or particularly surprising but apt adjective, and so I enjoyed it. I did not mind the occasional absence of a clear object, and the slight fluffiness of letting a description constitute a meaning. An example would be ‘Home Again’, of which the last words are ‘wholly understood’ but I suspect anyone except the poet would struggle to tell you what the poem was about. Nonetheless, I liked this poem, and generally Lewis’s acknowledgement and evocation of the multi-storey nature of thought. Throughout the collection, I felt that Lewis understands human conception of time as both wonderful and impossible.
Yvette Dell 28th January 2020