Isabelle Thompson reviews Temporary Stasis by Lucy Holme (Broken Sleep Books, 2022)
Lucy Holme’s debut pamphlet, Temporary Stasis, is a carefully crafted collection which examines how people – particularly women – are contained and confined. Alongside this, Holme uses the metaphor of water to offer a defiant alternative; there are ways in which the women in Holme’s poetry cannot be held back or made smaller.
Many of the poems in this pamphlet involve a paring back, a sharpening or subtracting. This is nowhere more evident than in the four erasure poems which Holme has created from the book A Hundred Things a Girl Can Make (published by W. Foulsham & Co., Ltd in 1900). One of these poems, ‘A Girl’, opens the collection. The poem lifts its words entirely from the original text’s instructions on how to make “loose covers for easy chairs”. However, arranged by Holme, the instructions seem instead to lay out rules by which a girl should conduct herself:
Act kind, sufficient. Give support.
Another of these erasure poems, ‘first day nerves’, appears to instruct an imagined female reader to “take up / very little space”. This quartet of erasures works through both content and form to mirror the ways in which society whittles away at women – the poems take on a rigid, instructional voice, but more to the point actually embody this process of erosion. They are literally created through subtraction.
Water trickles through this pamphlet, offering an alternative mode of being, suggesting the possibility of expansion rather than contraction
‘Pruning for Beginners’ is another poem which preoccupies itself with the constraints placed upon women. The poem details the speaker’s relationship with her “first boyfriend” who “had a bonsai tree”. The miniature tree is given female pronouns, as we are told that the boyfriend used “dainty secateurs to tend her glossy leaves”. Throughout the work, the bonsai tree and the relationship between the speaker and her boyfriend become ever-more closely aligned:
I read the book his mother gave him
on the ancient art, underlined points
in the chapter on fertilisation,
on allowing sufficient room
for her roots to spread and grow.
The speaker tells us that she worried that the tree “might starve to death”, “[p]inned into a rigid cage, ambition dwarfed”. The couple play Jenga, a game of subtraction: “I removed / each wooden brick, piece by piece.” Nevertheless, this is not a hopeless poem. We get the feeling that this is a relationship which the speaker has escaped, and the poem ends on a note which is at once unsettling and promising – the bonsai becomes fully grown as a “shadow […] cast across his bedroom wall”.
Other poems deal more explicitly with the ways in which women are made uncomfortable or subjugated. ‘Working Titles for this Poem Include …’ describes “idyllic, painful, naïve teenage years”. Amongst other memories, it recalls an encounter with a “Greek waiter” “at fifteen” which came “[m]uch too soon”. Tellingly, the poem dedicates several stanzas to describing “a papier mâché / motte-and-bailey castle […] made at junior school.” The model castle seems to become a symbol of containment and repression, shrunken as it is:
A castle is a room in which to hoard
where you pack relics into tea chests, along with expectations.
Poems such as ‘Late Shift’, ‘Housekeeping’ and ‘Secret Closet’ describe the narrator’s encounters with sexism in work. The first of these poems begins by outlining the casual harassment the speaker endures as a waitress on a luxury boat:
Today may be the day I make it through.
By that, I mean, survive a dinner service
Without him stroking the back of my arm
Every chance he gets.
‘Housekeeping’ tells the story of how the speaker “twice a day” “emptied condoms / from an Alpine chalet bin”. “We are expendable”, she says, “elastic”, “[f]lexible as latex”. ‘Secret Closet’, meanwhile, is a long prose poem detailing the experience of cleaning for a man whose yacht contained a secret closet full of role-play outfits: “[t]he clothes were one size fits all. The women were one size fits all.” Again, the pamphlet concerns itself with women being compressed into the smallest version of themselves.
These are hopeful, intelligent poems, at once taut and freeing
However, halfway through Temporary Stasis comes the title poem. Like a volta in a sonnet, this poem is a pivot upon which the collection turns. Suddenly, we are given room to breathe. The poem acts as a kind of pause, describing a holiday in “coastal towns”. The speaker has
The chance to stay here forever
under cloudless blue.
To stay, take root.
Remain for a person, a place,
a shingle beach.
The coastal setting is significant. Water trickles through this pamphlet, offering an alternative mode of being, suggesting the possibility of expansion rather than contraction. In ‘Lane Swimming in the Club Natació’, the act of swimming lengths allows the speaker to meditate on her life:
I go to Son Hugo to count lengths
and exercise regret with a forward crawl.
To let grief fade — an aural rush, then the silent
contemplation which pervades. […]
Elsewhere, watery settings allow poems to expand beyond the personal, or to contextualise personal experiences in something larger. ‘Cities from the Sea’ contrasts the personal freedoms of the speaker with the limited options of migrants in “rubber boats”. These boats contain “[h]uman cargo with capsized dreams”. In ‘Wilderness’ the loss of a baby is mirrored on an epic scale by hermit crabs releasing their eggs:
I did not understand their dance;
Unaware that in later years,
a million miles from Cossies beach,
I would beg doctors to slice me open,
to take her out, rather
than I go on without her.
Temporary Stasis is a perfectly poised work of art. It balances an investigation of the ways in which we might find ourselves stunted and pruned, with an olive branch in the form of watery expansion. As Grace Wells writes, quoted at the start of this book, Holme has a “rare gift for holding impossible tensions and singing them into lucid, invaluable poems”. These are hopeful, intelligent poems, at once taut and freeing.
Isabelle Thompson holds an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University. She has been published or has work forthcoming in a range of magazines including The Interpreter’s House, Stand and The New Welsh Review. She was the winner of the 2022 Poets and Players Competition and a runner up in the 2021 Mslexia Poetry Competition. She tweets @IzzyWithTheCats.