Hotel, Ali Lewis

Verve Poetry Press, 2020   £7.50

Experiments in simile

Ali Lewis’s Hotel is a vivid, compelling collection. I loved its directness and seeming truthfulness. Its probing attempts to make meaning, and its willingness to share those experiments with its reader. And I like its variety. The poem ‘Test Scenario’, for instance, which starts ‘Subject A wanted the Object. // So did Subject B’ comes as a fascinating surprise — each poem enriched by its broader context.

One thing that also really struck me was the collection’s experiments with simile and metaphor. The second poem in the sequence, ‘Carpet’, has as its first stanza:

She hated the way he repeated himself
along long corridors like a bad hotel carpet,
and how, like a bad hotel carpet, he’d wait,
impatient, at the bathroom door
so he could start up again when she emerged.

The feeling of that thing — ‘a bad hotel carpet' — is strong to me: I have a visceral response to it. Throughout the five stanzas of this poem that simile is sustained, including four further repetitions of the phrase ‘like a bad hotel carpet’, which does its work appropriately relentlessly.

‘Free Will’ offers itself as a brilliant metaphor for (I think) damaged instincts. ‘Humulus lupulus / or common hop’, it tells us grows, as it needs to, upwards — even if there’s a potentially distracting light positioned below. ‘But if it breaches, / breathes / above damp loam’, it can then ‘be sealed, / collared, in a dark box / and there trained’ to seek false, moving light sources, mistaking them for what it needs. The ending’s sad and vivid:

to twist itself
in dying nests,
to tie itself in knots.

And the final poem I’ll touch on (space constraints — I could go on!) is ‘The Best Thing About Falling’. It’s a short poem leading to a strong close — where an attempt to communicate (through a simile) has, it seems, failed. (Is this what makes a thing eventually unbearable?) The poem details how a human body falls,

in a kind of bowl shape
as if you were being crushed
beneath a vast invisible boulder
which is what you’d been trying
to tell people all along

Charlotte Gann