Carl Tomlinson reviews Hotel Anonymous by Mike Barlow (Pindrop, 2021)
Mike Barlow’s fourth collection is, at first encounter, a self-contained book. The cover art is by the author. There is no dedication and not a single acknowledgement. It feels like an attempt to pass through the world untouched, unhindered perhaps, by anything or anyone else. The book’s major themes reinforce this initial impression. Reading the poems in sequence is to build up layers of a painting – some opaque, some translucent. The result is a work preoccupied with being at a distance from, and with losing touch with, places, others and indeed self.
“There must have been a way in because here we are”. This line, the first of ‘Corridor’, gets to the heart of an idea that recurs throughout Hotel Anonymous. The first poem in the book, ‘A town like this’, finds the writer in a seaside town, “a nodal point for everyone else’s elsewhere”, and the closing poem ‘Elsewhere’ leaves the writer and his unidentified companion “miles from where we’d planned to be”. Later in the opening poem, we are in a “rented cottage”, before heading, in ‘The heart at ten to six’, to a “borrowed house”. In the title poem, ‘Hotel Anonymous’, Barlow addresses directly the impossibility of any place being ours when, even in “this city of ultimate freedom / where you can be whatever you want”, spaces are already spoken for as “unmarked crime scenes” or the site of “random acts of charity”.
Insight comes from walking down side passages, cul-de-sacs and mazes. Homes are places you leave (in ‘Unslammed doors’) or don’t recognise (in ‘On the run’) or struggle to sleep in (in ‘Somnambulists’). Even when the narrator did know his place it was defined by where he couldn’t go. In ‘Working for my father’ his status confines him to one side of the pub, while his workmates occupy the other. Another pub, this one in ‘Parish’, offers a meditation on space and place. With its councils and priests, parish is both a temporal and a spiritual definition of an area of land. At this latter-day parish pump we see, in the building and breaking of fences, how we create and escape place. These poems suggest a tension between wanting somewhere to stand and needing to move away.
Hotel Anonymous is preoccupied with being at a distance from, and with losing touch with, places, others and indeed self
“If I were on the run, they’d never find me” closes ‘On the run’, the book’s seventh poem. We can read the line in two ways; as a v-flicking celebration of the narrator’s own elusiveness, and as a rueful description of his distance from those around him. By the time we find him heading back “to the town maze” he’s ready to tell us “I come here to find someone’”. But some of the people he’s looking for don’t exist:
the brother I wished I’d had, my wife
before she knew before I did I’d leave her
If you didn’t read any further you’d still have the gist of much of what’s to come, though this is not to dismiss the rest of the book, which develops its themes in satisfying depth and breadth. Near the end of the book the poem ‘The surreptitious life’ speaks back to ‘On the run’ in its closing line: “Together let us lead ourselves astray.”
In ‘Escapees’, the closing poem of the book’s first section, Barlow synthesises much of what he has to say about this distance between the individual and the rest of the world. People are half remembered partly because of the passage of the time and partly because the narrator, “ever eager for the quiet life”, has allowed them to fade away, and has faded away from them:
… they come to terms with what it means
to be let go, to ride an inarticulate wind,
to not mind, after all, if you don’t mind
when your name, in turn, escapes them.
Barlow constantly distances himself from intimates. In ‘A town like this’ he says “it’s years now since we’ve been in touch”; in ‘Cheating at cards’ he says “my uncle who was not my real uncle’”. Conversely he’s fascinated by, and fascinating about, a supporting cast of occasionally grotesque characters. I got the impression that Barlow sees these characters as having cracked whatever it is he’s grasping towards. There’s a hint of dangerous romanticism in his admiration of outsiders and loners but there’s also some fine observation and crisp writing. ‘The race’, with its assertion that the “most undistinguished scholar” has found a satisfying place in “the corner of an underfunded lab”, confers mildly patronising approval on the school misfit. Barlow’s juggling of admiration and horror as “Boudicca’s charioteer” careers past him in “a beaten-up Land Rover” in ‘Charioteer’ is convincing – like him I took a moment to breathe as the poem closed. ‘Mulvaney’, ‘Father Floris’, and the charmer who sold him useless nails in ‘Nails’ all challenge Barlow to define them and to emulate them by being “[a] man with a mission / and a place in the world, here among us” (in ‘Sourdough’).
There’s a hint of dangerous romanticism in his admiration of outsiders and loners but there’s also some fine observation and crisp writing
In ‘The painter in the barn’ we meet the artist at work between two worlds – the agricultural and the creative. Here, slap bang in the middle, between the two worlds and the poem, “[h]e’s at his best”. The poem ends with “Whichever life we live, it’s the other calls”. If place is unreliable and people are remote all you’ve got is yourself. Except when you haven’t. Barlow finds himself “without a word to account for myself” in ‘The Lost Name’; he’s nothing “more than a roughcast shape’” in ‘Old daughter of Zeus’ and in ‘On the run’ he begins
… as I often do
to imagine a different life, furnished
otherwise than mine
Even when rooted, for a moment, in the physical world of the “bits and pieces” in his pockets while he’s rooting for a key in ‘The Barn Key’, Barlow “hardly recognises myself” in the old letter he finds. “I’m reading someone else’s mail”, he says. This detachment from the self is generally presented as a matter of fact and not as something to lament. In ‘Someone else’ it allows him to be “emptied of the luxury of fear” when rock climbing. So it is that when you stay at Hotel Anonymous
… [y]ou can shut it all out
and believe in your own non-existence
or you can lean over the balustrade
and imagine you’re something greater
than the sum of your imperfect parts.
(from ‘Second Guessing’)
Barlow walks a fine line in these poems between building an impressionistic sense of a character wandering among half-grasped versions of the world, and suggesting a tiresome outsider who needs get over himself. Over the collection he’s ends up on the right side of that line, not least because his craft is always on show without being showy. Poems sidle up to us, brushing us with “the intimate touch / [of] a stranger you’ll never make a friend” rather than haranguing us like ‘The god of brief enthusiasms.’ References to windows, doors, mirrors and steamed up glasses reinforce the themes of distance and separation. Carefully measured stanzas show us this is not mere rambling. Occasionally a poem about something unexpected pops up and leavens the mix, the surrealism of ‘Flash mob’ for example, or a poem about ‘Building a Church with Maddy and Lewis’, two children with whom the narrator has an entirely uncomplicated relationship. A certain darkish humour has its place:
A cold shower every morning finally did
for my ninety-six-year-old godfather
… the settee, hostile
with antimacassers, inviting nonetheless
(from ‘On the run’)
The book is well put together, with the closing poems looping back to the opening ones, leaving their questions and concerns not patly resolved but fully explored.
Carl Tomlinson lives on a smallholding in Oxfordshire. He works as a business coach and virtual finance director. His work been published online, in anthologies, and in Orbis, South, The Hope Valley Journal and The Alchemy Spoon. Carl Tomlinson’s debut pamphlet Changing Places was published in 2021 by Fair Acre Press