Nicola Healey


Ali Lewis, (Cheerio, 2024), 72 pages, £11


Absence, Ali Lewis’s debut collection, is intriguingly set around ‘nothing’ – or ‘nothings’: ‘Losses, vacua, gaps’ – the negative life force and void that surrounds us, and is even within us, much as we try to deny it, ward it off or think we have filled it. Like an artist who draws the negative space (or ‘air space’) around and between objects rather than the objects themselves – and through doing so makes us requestion what constitutes the ‘real’ subject – Lewis fixes his gaze on demarcating the nothing that surrounds our somethings, a space we move closer to when we lose what holds us together, and which has a strange, unnerving weight and influence of its own.

The epigraph to the collection is taken from ‘Etching of a Line of Trees’ by John Glenday (a poet who is especially interested in both probing and respecting silences, absences and the limits of speech and knowledge, though in a more spiritual way): ‘I carved out the careful absence of a hill and a hill grew.’ The line is indicative of both illusion and its opposite: tangible presence; the ex nihilo surprise of creation out of seemingly nothing (like a poem, or love: ‘love that gnawed its own shape from the burnished air’, Glenday writes).

The shadow (or light) of Glenday’s poem seems to touch Lewis’s ‘Living Without Moon’, a poem I first came across in The London Magazine in 2021. It is hard to create a good, original poem on this much poetised celestial object; this one stood out with its memorable stark imagery, taut lines and wistful yet serious tone. It doesn’t actually feature the moon but its absence, felt as a ghostly presence. The speaker ‘looked at the moon but there was no moon / only a telescopic circle of black’, suggesting a permanent eclipse. Given that the moon’s gravitational pull keeps Earth at the right axis, controls the sea’s tides, and makes our planet a more liveable place, there is a sense that the speaker has lost an analogous subtle yet magnetic force. This absence is ‘like a wall where a picture doesn’t hang’, conjuring the ‘memory’ an empty space can keep of its previous occupant – a bare, almost forlorn shadow, invisible ‘proof’ of what was once there. The poem is about looking at what we expect to be there and it not being there – the tricks this plays on the mind.

This negative moon is ‘strange as a friend without glasses’ – an enviably good, instantly recognisable simile that evokes a whole world of strangeness. Lewis is particularly skilled at creating unusual similes and metaphors, yoking together ordinary, domestic images and ideas in surprising and satisfying ways. (Sometimes I feel the power of a poet is assured by not one good book, or even one good poem, but by just one great simile.) This object loss makes the highly familiar become suddenly entirely unfamiliar, uncannily so – it is this tension that Lewis’s collection probes, asking to what extent do we even know what we think we do; how much do we ‘create’ and how much do we ‘perceive’ what we take in, to paraphrase Wordsworth on the imagination.

What this technique does is make the reader think – indeed, it is a book that engages thought and ideas more than feeling; this is poetry as extreme metaphysical sport. Caroline Bird has remarked that Lewis’s poems leave the reader ‘giddy, tranquil and troubled all at once’ – I did feel quite perturbed by their rarefied air, emotional rigour and the way you are pushed to take a thought almost beyond thinking, until it dissolves into nothing. It’s an unsettling, high-altitude reading experience – more troubling than tranquil – though a cool tranquillity pervades Lewis’s clinically precise lines. It is not a book that can be read swiftly, as most of the poems demand steady interpretation and reflection. The reader almost has to decompress between poems.

Another great, idiosyncratic simile appears in ‘Hotel’, an ingeniously crafted poem: ‘She hated the way he repeated himself / along long corridors like a bad hotel carpet’ – a striking image which, again, instantly resonates. I like its strange combination of overlooked mundanity, emotional frankness and subdued, dark humour. A bad hotel carpet, its uniform presence, can trigger dismay and forced tolerance in people, which is what is left in the air with these lines.

There are lighter, less pressured poems, too, indicative of the possibility of happiness: ‘Vacation’ is sunlit from the first vivid couplet to the last, with wonderfully evocative, sensory lines, and easy syntax: ‘I can sense my clothes I am so sun-glowed. / I feel like an olive in every single way.’ I don’t know how many ways there are you can feel like an olive, but it works, and it’s gently funny. And the simple intimacy in this spare couplet: ‘And this week, let’s share a soap, / and be familied by smelling both the same.’ The unusual verb ‘familied’ is lovely in this context.

‘Like Words’ also has a light touch, though its subject is more tense: on rain, the speaker states that he ‘was taught each drop / is flattened underneath by the air’s resistance / to its falling, as if what looked like nothing // cared’. It deftly shows how voids influence and shape what passes through them. The poem exemplifies Lewis’s scientific approach to his subjects; this won’t be to everyone’s taste, as it can mean that a poem becomes dispassionate to the point of not moving a reader.

What did move me was ‘The Best Thing About Falling’, which, the poem says, ‘is that the body’s / centre finally / asserts itself’. This reminded me of an aphorism by Antonio Porchia (via Don Paterson, who uses it as the epigraph to his 2009 collection Rain) – which links, too, with that raindrop in ‘Like Words’: ‘Man is air in the air and in order to become a point in the air he has to fall.’ In Lewis’s fall, the speaker says it’s ‘as if you were being crushed / beneath a vast / invisible boulder’ – a good description of the heavy force of indescribable grief. The poem concretises the burden of mental distress: a note to the poem states that it is ‘in memory of the too-many young people I know who have taken their own lives.’

One of the most striking accounts of grief I’ve read is Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (2014), in which Macdonald writes:

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are (p. 171).

Grief due to death is different to romantic grief, but this passage, especially that phrase ‘tense, shining dullness’ – evocative of Lewis’s ‘no moon’ – stands as a good summary of Absence, which unflinchingly reckons with ‘a no-shape no-thing: the unthinkable / after-imagining’ (‘Living Without Moon’).


I’m wary of overly themed collections (unless there is a particular purpose for the unifying theme) – they seem to disallow the natural and random miscellanea of real life, but Lewis does a good job of injecting true-to-life variety, and he has a distinctive, robust voice. I particularly liked this nuanced insight in ‘Love Poem to Your Self-Sufficiency’ (on the speaker not wanting to interrupt his partner humming and talking to herself in another room): ‘to call attention to a thing / is as often to kill / as to save it’. It highlights the importance of restraint, autonomy, the absence of speech or interjection, and the delicate balance this involves. I started to feel the same about calling attention to certain poems, or over-analysing them, and what purpose this serves, which made me think of Wordsworth again: ‘We murder to dissect’ (‘The Tables Turned’).

In a book about emptiness, the most tangible poem is the final one, ‘Last Meal’, whose title has death-row undertones. The poem is on the end of a relationship – ‘the end of ten years of love’ – and the final meal, ‘demob food’, shared by the couple. There is ‘no real / conversation beyond vague logistics. / We’d said everything else the night before’. I like the human pragmatism of the moment, devoid of high emotion, and reduced to a basic daily need – ‘we still needed to eat’. For the speaker, ‘at the last’, every moment is sensorily heightened: he finally ‘give[s] way / to attentiveness’ – another word for presence – ‘allowed [him]self to savour’ what he had previously ‘treated as mere fuel’: ‘each subdivided morsel, each / sip, in my mouth like the rarest wine’. He looks at his companion’s face (with a slightly discomfiting, magnifying gaze), absorbing ‘that light-brown mole / between your brows, the few faint lines, / the capillaries around your nose’. The speaker ultimately feels ‘a sort of crazed satisfaction’. The poem ends: ‘It had been rich. I had loved my companion.’ The poem’s epigraph is by Christina Rossetti (from ‘In an Artist’s Studio’):

He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him, …
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

The hovering absence in ‘Last Meal’, boldly conveyed, is not only the lost love, but the silent space beyond the frontier of speech, the expanding distance between two people, and the looming region beyond the meal, pointing to how much we construct visions of each other, and what is left when these break apart.

Absence made me think of Larkin’s ‘Absences’, a poem which transcends the self and ends: ‘Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!’ Lewis’s inventive Absence similarly feels ‘cleared’ of a dominating self: he observes the self – which could be anyone’s self – in a steely, detached way as if it were any other object, any other presence or absence..
Nicola Healey’s poems, essays and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Poetry Review, Poetry London, Magma, Poetry Ireland Review, Wild Court and elsewhere. She is the author of Dorothy Wordsworth and Hartley Coleridge: The Poetics of Relationship (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Her first pamphlet, A Newer Wilderness, was published by Dare-Gale Press in April 2024.

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