Fragile Houses by Nina Lewis

-Reviewed by Rachel Stirling- 

Fragile Houses, Nina Lewis’ debut pamphlet from V. Press, explores the subject of memory. She describes how we build our world piece by piece, from internal and external experience, in the hope that the container of our memories is robust enough, never faltering, never confused, always clear. She plays with the acknowledgement that an extremely frail thread supports our existence and our perception of self; the houses that contain us are fragile, and the delicate nature of memory can be terrifying if we truly think about it. Nina Lewis confronts this truth.

In this slim pamphlet, Lewis investigates all aspects of memory, its deficiencies and its glories. The tremendous warmth and descriptive power of the poet gathers us up and makes us complicit, allowing an exploration of joy, loss and sadness, without ever being overbearing. The writing is clear, precise and evocative, not given to exuberant flourishes. The poet has a beautiful intuition for the controlled breath down to the final beat of each poem, and she uses this tension to deliver some of her most poignant thoughts. It’s delicately handled, as can be seen in ‘Fortiori’

Our family is her. Down to her,
our worth remains in immaculate condition.
One careful owner.

Lewis is adept at using capitalisation to full advantage. I’ve seldom seen it used so expressly as a device. There are delightful repetitions and the occasional game with pronouns. In ‘Lake Glaze’ she uses multiple repetitions of ‘I’ to bring the focus from external to internal experience, moving from the zoomorphic beginning to the personal ending. And in ‘From Here On’ tightly packed repetition is used to emphasise distress:

My citric throat tightens,
I can barely breathe.
I wonder if I want to.

Fabricious Avenue’a neologism and apparent conflation of fabric and delicious – delivers an ‘I’ in each stanza until the last where it is absent, serving to emphasise the line ‘The power of colour alone.’ Elsewhere, poems bereft of the ‘I’ pronoun are heavy with poignancy, expressing a loss of self. We can see this to full effect in ‘Not Yet Home’, where she explores the aftermath of a broken relationship

Distant strains of triumph silenced in deep mouths.
There’s loneliness and then there’s this.

The themes in this collection are both intensely personal and universal. We are witness to her family life, jumping from major event to major event, seeing memories like brightly coloured scraps fluttering down from a magpie nest. Colour is an important thread running throughout the work and the purity of remembered colour an interesting and touching idea. ‘My Great Grandmother Rediscovers Princess Juliana’ explores a patchwork form of remembering to convey an unsettling uncertainty, and the whole collection is littered with the language of division and separation. To be divided from people and then divided from memory seems an intensely cruel fate and we see the replaying and repetition of memories, a constant rehearsal. There seems to be no reason for this other than it being our nature. We are not made of dreams, we are made of something altogether sharper and metallic tasting. Memory can cut and bite or squirm then hover, just beyond our grasp. We try to create the concrete from the insubstantial and the insubstantial from the concrete, and we are always trying to discern the real. This is something that will speak to many readers.

Fragile Houses is a deft and thought-provoking debut. Memories are evoked simply and without fanfare and in my opinion there is much here to enjoy. I found myself feeling slightly disappointed when I reached the end of the pamphlet. I could have read more. I suppose that as Nina Lewis writes in ‘Understanding Nature’

The heart is as fragile as the mind.
Permanently exposed to risk
Of fracture.

My feeling is that this is a developing poet and the next steps, whenever they come, will be glorious.