A White Year by Anna Lewis and The Promise Boat by Mike Barlow

Reviewed by Penny Boxall

Anna Lewis’ elegant pamphlet, A White Year, opens with the keen intelligence of a blackbird. It is rebuilding its nest and the unremarkable ruins of its former life, ‘shor[ing] up the wattle / with beakfuls of bark and moss’. The speaker – a young boy, it transpires, in an Iron Age landscape, a Britain before the clock began but where time is short for this particular community – put his family from his mind to concentrate on the little drama.

Again and again she returns:
her blades and her hinges, the sparks of her eyes
which see me and fix me, each of my angles
and corners measured and matched.

The bird will appear again at the end of the collection, but with a whole year, with its expansion and loss, behind it. For now, Lewis shifts our eyes down to the speaker’s feet: ‘two bowls brimming with liquid peat’. The speaker will suffer the loss of his sister and the hard months of winter, but for now, we are firmly grounded.

Lewis well knows how to balance. She tips a phrase, weighting it precisely so that it is secure and, somehow, weightless; she lays a heavy layer of mud under our feet. A research archaeologist, she wears her learning lightly, so that the narrative of these poems is airy, rather than bogged down in scholarship. This is evident in the form, too: each poem is traditionally delineated, capitalised and punctuated, lacking only a closing full-stop, so that we never quite get the full picture, and the poems stack onto each other like soil. Reading them is an act of archaeology, a well-informed reconstruction. My copy, carried in my rucksack, has (pleasingly) started to transfer ink from one page to another, leaving words slightly indistinct and making an artefact of itself.

The speaker knows the landscape as intimately as a sibling: ‘By now’, he thinks, ‘the grass should be dry to the root, // ants raising forts beside the paths’; elsewhere ‘butterflies / double and fumble apart’. Lewis is clear and precise, with the narrative impulse of the short story writer. She evokes the physical world with an exact palette, by measuring degrees of dampness. In the third section, there is a deft and surprising conflation of a sister and a star:

For months, the brightest stars had trembled
thinly through the cloud […]
cloud gathered weight inside her lungs

and as the brushwood shifted on the mere,
she sank from us.

Both sibling and star are clouded; it is not clear who’s fading fastest. What does love look like in a context which changes constantly, but by tiny increments? ‘[W]e keep at the long, tilting masts of our shadows, / my mother, my father and me: / our home, what remains of our family’ ends one poem; that play on ‘remains’ is a nod to the poetry to be found in archaeology, under our ‘black-clagged toes’.

The Promise Boat, by Mike Barlow, similarly deals with memory and identity in a world which tilts and shifts – though at a more frenetic contemporary pace than A White Year. The title poem opens the collection with a strange sort of Charon on the pier:

Beneath the flotsam of memory
we seem to know him, tall caller of names, his
one-tongue-for-all accent – Esperanto? Eurospeak?

He calls the speaker’s friends and neighbours forward onto his ‘promise boat’, in search of something better: ‘To each head now / its own horizon, private and particular’. But the boat can’t manage under all that weight, and ‘night’s chill has us hunched like gulls’ (note the bridges Barlow constructs in assonance and half-rhyme: ‘chill’, ‘hunched’ and ‘gulls’ share threads between them) – the boat dies in the ocean, ‘engine terminal, / landfall a lost language away’. The characters are trapped in Nowheresville, rootless and aimless and, it seems, having shed their identity.

Barlow has a gift for endings: like the master balloonist, he knows exactly when to add fire, when to discard ballast, and how to bring us safely back to land, often miles from where we started. ‘Fata Morgana’, a poem referencing a curious trick-of-the-light which transposes solid objects into the air, sees the mirage popped like a bubble by the no-nonsense speaker:

Already, it occurs to me I’m drunk, for out on the horizon
land appears where I know there should be nothing.

Barlow delights in leading us down the garden path in order to reveal that we weren’t even in a garden after all, but far out to sea.

‘Land on the Port Bow’, similarly, deals with shimmers in perception, longing making solidity seem to appear. ‘Nobody mistook the grey smudge / for paradise’, it begins,

but as we tacked in
the colour changed, purpled, greened,
a bright tear of sand and surf
brought an ache to land-starved bodies.

The sailors hurry ashore, hopeful that they might find something of what they crave – fresh water from a fall or lake. But they cast their eyes back, at the same time, to the ‘ship out there, dark-sparred insect // …triggering the thirst for home – an idea / pure as water we can see through, // tasting of nothing but ourselves’. As much as the sailors yearn for water, for home, they strive for a sense of identity – to move away from the collective pronoun and to regain the first person singular. It is a masterful poem.

The collection zings with the splash of the sea, with voices borrowed and adopted, and landscapes rich with the vocabulary Barlow bestows upon them. Reading the titles alone feels transformative.

‘The Isle of Discussion’ sees two people landing in ‘the island’s brokered air’ and squaring up for an argument: ‘me / resentful, old heart choked with judgement… we’re armed to the teeth with grievance’. But the pair, you can’t help but notice, delight in their incompatibility because each gives the other meaning:

Let us grow thin on our differences, discover
the knack of wearning one another’s skin.
Let the clamour of the mainland swallow itself
in the wind. When dusk arrives we’ll ponder
the lights going on back there, where no one listens.

Isolated and marooned, the two argue each other into being.

The penultimate poem, ‘in the land between borders’, there is no punctuation, no capitalisation – only the line holds the poem together in a landscape where ‘there is a road but you never seem to be on it… // the ground’s criss-crossed by the tracks of travellers / coming and going insearch of their souls’. It rests on the image of an old woman who ‘sleeps alone now beneath the hazard of stars’. The word ‘hazard’ is magnetic: calling to mind ‘haphazard’, like the fortunes these stars portend, but also the danger of being unmoored, Barlow packs much into its two syllables. Like a sailor, he packs tidily, rolling his words neatly so that this sea-chest contains more than you could guess.