This Love Like A Rage Without Anger Bill Lewis: poems 1975 – 2005
Colony Press 242 pages £16.00.
This is the first volume of Bill Lewis’ Collected Works, which makes you wonder how big the entire project will prove to be. Suffice to say these poems include a wide range of the material produced during the period 1975 – 2005 which surprisingly includes a fair few poems which I haven’t come across before. They are not laid out in chronological order but largely pertaining to ‘some kind of pattern’, according to the author.
Originally one of the Medway Poets, Lewis was appointed Writer-in-Residence for the Brighton Festival in 1985 and was a founder member of the Stuckist Art Movement. He is also a painter, a practice which feeds into his poetry in various ways.
Lewis’s poetry has a spiritual as well as a political aspect but he ranges across mythologies and his largely left-leaning material includes a lot of work which relates to artistic endeavour (particularly painting and film) as well as a wide geographical exploration. Travel, culture, class, identity (belonging and not belonging) are key aspects of his work, as is a love of words and wordplay. I wouldn’t describe Lewis as a particularly experimental poet but he embraces much of the modernist project in his writing and a zest for language is certainly a part of the package. In ‘Paperback City’, for example, we have the following lines: ‘No, I haven’t got Laughter and Forgetting but / I do have An Unbearable Lightness of Being’ (1985). This follows through in a number of scenarios, often where misunderstandings are a cause of humour, as in the following poem:
den ‘e fighted him
No Johnny, he didn’t.
yes, ‘e did miss
‘e fighted him
No Johnny, he fought him.
‘e didn’t fink nothing miss
‘e hit im wiv an ‘ammer.
There’s a whole section of ‘dialect’ poems which as well as revelling in sound and potential areas of confusion underline the slippery nature of language and its rhetorical use, particularly in the colloquial and demotic. Lewis is a great ‘listener in’ and overheard conversations are also a good source of poetry. Take this extract from ‘Greasy Spoon’ (from 1985):
The two men laugh as if they have
Just outdone Noel Coward
For witty repartee and
Go back to the conversation:
I blame those lefty bloody teachers
Bloody teachers, says one of them.
The perfect father replies:
I told you to cut this violence out
Or I’ll kick the living shit out of you!
They eat until their egg and
Brown sauce smeared plates
Look like edible Jackson Pollocks.
Out of the corner of their eye
They see my pen move
Over the page and go schtum.
There’s also a rich lyrical element to his poetry which can be traced back through the early work such as ‘Childhood’, where we get: ‘An apple, crisp / As Christmas day. / A massacre of stinging nettles. / Face tear webbed / In the playground. / Knowing the meaning of freedom / But not being / Able to spell it.’ In ‘Fig’, a hinting towards D.H. Lawrence, perhaps, we have a mixing of the erotic with mythology and a more colloquial or ‘down to earth’ conversation – ‘Does that remind you of anything?’ ….. ‘The man had been a very / Strong and muscular / Piece of prose but / The serpent had been poetry.’
In ‘Trains of Thought’ we have a series of fragmented narratives based around train journeys in the Medway towns. Lewis, although a frequent traveller both in ‘reality’ and in his imagination, has a strong connection to his Kentish homeland and these are touched upon in these short pieces:
We hurtle across Rochester Bridge
Steel girders strobe the moon, and below us
A green starboard light turns the Medway
to the river Styx.
None of us know or want to know
the engine driver’s name.
This mixing of mythology with the everyday, aided by humour, is something which is common to Lewis’ poetry, as is a notion of wordplay allied to an historical sense and a ludic etymological approach:
There are those of us of course who believe
In the purity of our language
But the fact is that each wave of immigrants
Gave us new and useful words
Making English the only language that
Needs a thesaurus.
I use shampoo. I drink tea.
My wife’s aunt lives in a bungalow
I wear pyjamas in the winter
I wear clobber. Eat Nosh.
I sometimes eat a curry
I never eat schmatta.
I can be ill via the Vikings, sick from the Saxons
and even have a Malady
courtesy of the Normans.
So nice to feel impure.
(from ‘Trains of Thought’)
You could argue that there’s a didactic, political element to Lewis’s poetry but it always has a light touch and on first encounter may appear over simple. Take his work in the round however and the humour and something like wisdom always shines through. The collection is illustrated by both photos and drawings and I particularly like the lino-cut/scraperboard piece of a fox on page 131which prefaces ’10 Fox Poems 1975-2005’. The first of these, a favourite, combines brevity with memory in an evocative encapsulation:
The first time I ever saw a fox
It was nailed to a barn door
I don’t remember the fox too well
But the door was dark green.
In ‘A Chilean Trinity’ Lewis ponders the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile and compares this with the destruction of the twin towers, a poem which was originally written in Spain in 1982 and revised after 9/11/2001.
‘Cathode Ray Seahorse’ is an early prose piece which mixes the highly imaginative with a more dour description, a recollection of his parents which is a celebration of a working class childhood as well as expressing a sense of loss. ‘Poem for Billy Childish’ made me smile as in part it could almost have been written by Childish himself – ‘And in the clear blue sky / The big yellow sun shines like an / Illustration in a child’s picture book.’
‘Desire’, a poem from 1984, has an hypnotic quality which mixes myth with lyricism and a hint of secret knowledge. It’s a powerful piece which also works well read out loud and concludes with the following lines:
Most of all, I
Want to visit the
Where the moon
Is kept, some night
When it’s dark and
Judaic and scented
With ink and lemons.
This book is a cornucopia of material, easy to dip into and well worth engaging with on a deeper level. If you’ve not come across Bill Lewis’ work yet this is a good place to start.
Steve Spence for Litter Magazine 2020