Polyseme: A Review of Alice Hill Woods’ Shimmering HOTHOUSE

Polyseme: A Review of Alice Hill Woods’ Shimmering HOTHOUSE

Naomi Maeve (she/her)

Alice Hill-Woods’ luxurious HOTHOUSE is perhaps better understood as a sensory experience than as words on a page. Her work is transportive, buoying the reader on a gentle tide towards the stifling South African summertime, sexual awakenings, and seductive ecology. With a well-versed tongue of loose and languid language, she blends the ambiguity of time and memory with tangible bodies, sensations, and botanical symbols to create poetry which is at once concrete and slippery.

Occasionally she turns the placid tide into electrifying tropical storms, with feelings of displacement or dismay echoed in her surroundings; the dejected bleakness of a medical waiting room, the secrecy of the shower cubicle, that shameful singularity one feels when standing alone in a large hall. The collection is a dreamy mirage on a sultry afternoon; you can see those quivering warps in the air but cannot pick out specific figures. Her poetry is a sensation to be felt, not read.

The work recounts her personal experiences coming-of-age in South Africa; fearing and embracing bisexuality, the womanhood it beckoned, how planting her own roots in the landscape’s dusty velds occurred symbiotically with her self-identification. She weaves an almost Bildungsroman-esque journey which starts in media res, painting a picture, not of creation, but of rebirth; temporalities interweaving and melting, the past discarded. It’s a fine example of mastering the rules to break them.

HOTHOUSE’s lucid imagery often deals with duality; a volume split open at the middle, its ‘silk seam’ exposed and waiting to be unravelled. Aeroplanes ‘bisect the view’, cleaving the past and present in two. The collection is woven with wry double entendres, metaphorical insight and merciless ambiguity that lightens the stifling linguistic heat of the hothouse with a playful and almost mischievous air. Twosomes are thus used to beautifully balance light and heavy topics, like two dishes on a set of scales.

Juxtaposing ambiguity with a tangible focus on the senses, Hill-Woods’ literary world is full of enigmas that flit around the reader’s head only to disappear from view; prayers, dreams, memories, ‘heavy meaningful glances’, ‘arborescent truths’ whose branches we are not at liberty to climb. Swimming pool ripples hide held hands and become a synthetic shroud for secrets. The nebulous swirl of timescapes and medical/ botanical/ astrological language is relieved by the sudden arrival of very distinct sensations. A celestial analogy seems fitting – in an infinite universe, her recollections emulate the microscopic singularity that preceded the Big Bang. 

The language assumes a physical and visual presence; florid and brimming, contrasting with the gauzy fluidity of the temporal heat-haze. Her skill is doubtless; it’s one thing to construct a reality with words, quite another to unpick it. The lines traipse, sway and break across the page, sentences often beginning halfway across a page or interrupted by strips of negative space between seemingly connected words. The reader is forced to take pauses, breaths, to experience hesitancy and tentativeness, temptation and refusal alongside our narrator. 

Poems are overlaid by architectural floor plans, the text obscured by the room’s composition (and vice versa), as though the reader is lost in a familiar place. It underscores the relevance of Hill-Woods’ position – both in her country and contemporary society – to her growth as a bisexual woman. She etherizes reality, disassembles the body, and dissects the plant on her blueprint operating table, illustrating her belief that the human being is connected to places, genomes and plants, to words on a page. For Hill-Woods, identity is a biological and physical amalgamation of all things ‘contingent on humanless patterns’.

She draws tirelessly on an endless bank of metaphor to trace her maturity backwards, handling moments of retrospective importance with delicacy and vibrant detail. Witnessing both the birth of a lamb and the culling of a lynx in her youth are conspicuous (yet tender) analogies for a loss of naivety. HOTHOUSE is not a story of sacrifice, but one of trial and error, of old wounds reopened so that they may heal over.

As Hill-Woods ‘opens her windows’ in the concluding poems, she ‘bloodlets’, exceeding her physical boundaries and spilling into the universe. She sleeps under night-time’s canopy. She dives into rivers.  She steeps herself in South Africa, and in truthful selfhood, an utter immersion of identity.Where water was once a chlorinated veil for shameful secrets, it becomes natural, exposing the overt rainbow trout and relief from a penetrating sun. In opening her storybook to the middle, she ‘slackens into fiction’, ending her narrative on another ambiguous question. I left HOTHOUSE in a brain fog, almost forgetting my place in Scotland for one in South Africa. But who is surprised? It couldn’t be any other way. It’s almost reassuring; a certainty that all will end up in uncertainty.

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