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Steve Spence

“The Long Ago And Eternal Now” by  Bill Lewis, pub. Greenheart Press. £12.00

Bill Lewis’s poetry remains the most interesting work from the group of writers who originally came into prominence as The Medway Poets. He is also an accomplished painter, was involved with the Stuckist project, edited the magazine Paradigm Shift and has published a number of high-profile poetry collections over the years. His poetry is a blend of mythology, politics, playfulness and seriousness. I would dare venture the term ‘post-modern’ in terms of its skilful mixing of genre, eclecticism  and a desire to ‘upset the applecart’ but I doubt it’s a term Bill himself would appreciate and in any case there’s an intensity in his approach which is rare among practitioners of the ‘post-modern’. The cover art for this collection comprises a colourful painting by Bill – The Dream in the Orchard – magic realist in execution, though I don’t want to start attributing ‘isms’ to his work which also has a strong internationalist feel (travel is certainly a fuel for his material)  and is wide-ranging in its scope.

The poems here constitute some of Lewis’s best writing and move from being  gently assertive and humorous – ‘Erudite? / Ain’t that some / Special kind of glue?’(from ‘Autodidact Poem’) to the longer sequence ‘Mare Nostrum’ where we get the following:

          While we waited for the
                    Chagall museum to open
          We watched the floor show,
          Across the street under
                    The shade of a lime tree,
          Some rich brat had locked
                    Himself, on purpose, inside
          Maman and Papa’s
                    Chocolate brown Rolls Royce.
          His grey uniformed nanny
          Hammered on the car window
          With her fists as he sat
                    Arms folded, poking out
          His tongue in defiance.
          Then he began to lean on the
                    Horn as she yelled, red faced,
          Things that I am sure were not in my
                    French/English phrasebook.
          She’s no Gallic Mary Poppins.
                    (from ‘ Mare Nostrum VI: Nice 1981)

I love the way that these poems embrace both aspects of popular art – the tribute to Ray Harryhausen in both the illustration – ‘Jason’ – on page 65 and the poems – and a wider awareness of cultural heritage, without remotely seeing this as being an issue or ‘a problem’, while at the same time having an obvious political perspective. Class is a subject here but not one which beats you about the head.

‘A Short Walk in the Interior’ is a sequence of aphorisms which combine humour with wisdom, interrupted at times by an unanticipated intensity:

          A  book  told  me that if I met  Buddha  on  the  road  I
          should kill him. I did this and worried that I might be a
          psychopath. A psychiatrist told me that if I was worried
          about it then I wasn’t one. I thanked him and then killed

          I spent some time in a  psychiatric  ward as a patient. I
          also worked in a warehouse and was at Art College for
          one year. I met a lot of mad people….  but then , that’s
          warehouses and art schools for you.


There are lots of animals in Bill’s poems and I particularly like ‘Crows are the
Anarchist Flags of Nature’ where we get this – ‘Crows are the / Anarchist flags of
nature, / Last in the line when / the Voices were handed out; / But to this poet / Their caws and croaks / sound as sweet as any robin.’ I think the late Heathcote Williams would have loved this poem too. The lyrical qualities of these poems shouldn’t be underestimated either as in ‘The Blackbird is the Author of My Day’, where we get this:

     The blackbird sings my day into being.
          A day so strange and full of
                    love and sadness and
                              frustrated desires that worry the
                    tender flesh beneath my clothes,
                              that dry like sweat on my body.

     Because what does a blackbird know
                              Of the terrible needs of man?

 In ‘Sharkheart’ the political commentary is immediate and topical – ‘Behold this man, / He looks in every / Outward aspect / A human being.   …… Soon his steely / Gaze will turn to / Politics and that / Inner shark will want / Launch codes / On the menu.’, whereas ‘Broken Journey’ has a more oblique way of coming at things even though it is rooted in the concrete reality of ‘Chatham High street’.  By contrast, in ‘Expletive’ the play is on the word which begins with C and ends with T but finishes with the surprising ‘I also / Believe in / Calling a /Capitalist / A capitalist’. Lewis has a knack for these brief encapsulations which are always witty as well as having a point, even where, at times, the point is puzzling and provocative.

‘I Think Therefore I Might Not Be’ is a poem which has a dream logic which plays with received truisms (Descarte’s ‘philosophical aphorism’ here) and is a celebration of the imagination and literary intuitiveness:

     The cold wind on my shoulder
                    an icy draft caused by the door of
          Memory being left open,
                    Or perhaps by the shifting of stage scenery.
          Behind us the past rewrites itself,
                    Becoming myth,
                              Becoming poetry.

     I am the sum total of things
                    That may never have happened.
                              (from ‘I Think Therefore I Might Not Be’)

As democratic as ever Lewis writes poems in a similar vein which express aspects of popular culture, as in ‘You Are Always Never On My Mind’, where memories of a past relationship (probably, as it’s a slightly puzzling piece) intervene in a manner which upends the received wisdom and has an ending which makes you want to ‘rethink’ what you’ve just read. In ‘Chinese New Year in Chatham’ he sees the extraordinary in the ordinary while embracing cultural diversity – ‘Today, if the map said: / Here be dragons, / It would be true.’ And finishes on the downbeat with a more mundane denouement:

          A woman standing
          Behind me in
          The crowd says,
          I don’t know why
          They don’t do it
          When the weather
          Is warmer.

There’s a short sequence entitled ‘Managua Notebook (1989)’ based around a visit Bill and his wife Ann made to Nicaragua which combines the serious with the delightful where politics and art are in tandem for once and where culture is everywhere being celebrated. In ‘The Many Deaths of a Surrealist’, by contrast, the puns come thick and fast – ‘Perished in a fire / caused by trying / To smoke a painting / That he had mistaken / for his pipe’. ‘You Abstract Expressionists / Don’t know how easy you have it.’

Lewis’ work overall can appear at first reading deceptively simple. His liking for aphorisms and for an almost fable-like manner of storytelling can appear almost naïve or childlike but there’s also a sophistication here which becomes apparent on re-reading and thinking about what you’ve read. I’ve been an admirer of his poetry for a long time now and he’s still ‘got it’ – a Blakean combination of ‘Innocence and Experience’ which is as entertaining to read as it is thought provoking. The black and white woodblock illustrations add to the feel of the book and complement the glorious cover artwork. The book is dedicated to Leonard Cohen, an appropriate recipient even though he’s no longer with us. This is Bill’s second collection with Greenheart Press – the first being ‘In the House of Ladders’ in 2012 – and represents the resurfacing of a serious talent who combines the high literary with popular culture in a manner which is as delightful as it is approachable. Great stuff.               


Copyright © Steve Spence, 2017