D A Prince is very happy to find that Hannah Lowe‘s first full collection confirms the promise of her earlier work.

Hadfield Nigh 64Chick
Hannah Lowe
Bloodaxe Books, 2013
ISBN 978-1-85224-960-1
72 pp.  £8.95 

 

It’s a good sign when you can remember the first time you encountered a new poet – which poem, which magazine, how you reacted, who you told.  In Hannah Lowe’s case my answers are: ‘Fist’; The Rialto; amazement at her fluent dexterity and immediacy; all my local poetry group. When The Rialto published a pamphlet, The Hitcher, I pounced on it. Now that Bloodaxe have published her first full-length collection it’s time to consider how more recent work stands up to my early enthusiasm.

This collection has grown out of the pamphlet, with eleven of the pamphlet’s twenty-three poems appearing, including the title poem, ‘Chick’.  This opening poem contains the collection in miniature:  her father, the daughter’s fascination with the otherness of his life, money and gambling, his death, his friends.  It’s also an introduction to Lowe’s style: her simple vocabulary, sparing use of adjectives, the end-stopped lines that can mimic the child’s learning piece by piece, her supple handling of verb-driven movement. It has immediacy and intensity; the poem commands attention from the first line, and sets up in six quatrains the mystery that surrounded Chick.

We talked about you all the time.
Dan said he saw you ironing cellophane.
I said you’d let me hold a thousand pounds.
We found a hollow-soled shoe.

The pronouns shape it: ‘we/you’ (Chick, from the title) in the first line; then the split between ‘he’ (= Dan) and ‘I’ sharing lines 2 and 3, always discussing ‘you’; the return to the unity of ‘we’ in the fourth line.  Natural speech, shaped to show how children explore the strangeness of parents.  And Chick’s life would be strange to most readers: Lowe lets it emerge slowly, details building up through the poems.  There’s gambling at night, the feel of money, ways to load dice and mark cards and his family background.  This slides in, apparently casually – ‘your father in the rattling alleys/ of Shanghai…’ (‘Five Ways to Load a Dice’).

Her mother told her
not to marry a foreigner. You always wanted
to be different she hissed. Now this. He’s black
and old enough to be your father.
.                                             [ from   ‘Sausages’]

Chick was half Chinese, half black Jamaican: ‘He left Jamaica way before the reggae/ rocked all night in backstreet studios.’  (‘Reggae Story’).  We – the readers, and Lowe herself – collect the information piecemeal, as children do: by overhearing chance remarks or watching through keyholes, again from ‘Five Ways to Load a Dice’  –

There were rooms we didn’t go in
.           but I saw you once,
the door ajar, the curtains drawn against the sun.
.            You were huddled like a scholar
in the lamplight – goggles and a dentist’s drill,
.           a pan of smoking lead, that smell.

Chick frames the collection, slipping out of focus as the central poems celebrate the rich comradeship of Lowe’s London streets but mentioned just enough to keep him in our minds.  Lowe names friends and people (here, in ‘Barley Lane’) who have been a part of her life; she has  a relish for their variety –

and Mina, flower-clips and tiny furry wrists I gripped
.         to swing you on the grass
and Nirpal of my street who taught me hindi ek do tin
    and Lloyd McClean of number 53
who wore electric green, who smelt of coconuts,
.       who smelt so good

The opening poem has already indicated Chick’s death:

At the wake, a ring of phlegmy men
with yellow eyes and meaty skin

placed the ace of hearts
across your coffin …

The closing poems look at how he dies – ‘split and stitched but still the crow/ that’s picking through your guts/ is fattening up.’ (from ‘Smoke’).  We meet the ‘phlegmy men’, get to know their names, see the camaraderie of professional gamblers.  The single prose poem is ‘Manchester George’, in the voice of a fellow gambler, pulling together the circumstantial details we’ve assembled from the earlier poems. This shift of viewpoint underlines the working life a daughter can’t know.  Is George the same man in ‘Grief Was the Flash Bloke’ –  ‘with bleached teeth and a tan. He stood at the grave/ in suede coat, gold chain, head low.’?

Even the poems about death reach back to the opening poems, holding memories like the spices Chick cooked with. I n the sonnet ‘A Man Can Cook’ Chick is remembered

You at the stove, the air spiced up with ginger,
nutmeg, clove.
[…]
You can’t turn round,
too busy with your strange colonial mixtures,
mango roly poly, cocoa bread.
My aunty said ‘Now there’s a man can cook!’
I should have let you teach me, long before
you couldn’t eat, before they sliced a moon
of flesh away from you.

It’s an admission not only of regret but admiration and love, going a long way towards expunging the adolescent guilt shown in ‘Dance Class’, an early poem, where the poet disowns him when he collects her from a ballet class  –

He’d shake his keys
and scan the bloom of dancers where I hid
and whispered to another ballerina
he’s the cab my mother sends for me.

Sometimes a collection of poems that is personal, located –  real places, named people, dates –   reads like a weighty biography, the accumulation of facts excluding the reader; it’s like being invited to view another life from the outside, at a distance.  But Chick isn’t like that: this poetry leaves space around the factual detail, and that’s down to Lowe’s skill at placing us alongside her, watching her father as she watches him.  Isn’t this how we pieced together the uniqueness of our own parents:  watching, discussing with siblings, puzzling at their otherness, learning the family map, learning to love?  We may even remember feeling ashamed, pretending they aren’t ours. In showing herself, Lowe also holds up a mirror. These urban, densely populated poems with their intense, sometimes violent, lives draw us in; we are not outsiders.

This isn’t a collection for dipping:  it’s for reading in sequence, letting the names and locations create the picture of overlapping communities centred on Chick.  Lowe has placed them perfectly.  Even when she’s writing ostensibly about a new life, away from London, it’s the pull of home and  her father that compels her back.

Enthusiasm? –  yes: I feel as enthused by Lowe’s energy, clarity, drive, control of language and narrative, and generosity as when I first read ‘Fist’.  It’s a good poem to return to, showing again how Lowe can take a specific event – a New Year’s Eve party, Ilford, 1993, her brother’s severed artery, the friends (Gary, Darren), fragments of direct speech, the blood, the ambulance – and write it in long urgent sentences that still has me holding my breath for the ending.  Her precision in the telling, her control of events that rings true, take me there.  In the pamphlet her brother was disguised as ‘Billy’;  now the name is Dan  –  as in ‘Chick’. It’s a small edit that underlines truth.  The poem ends –

Somewhere in the street,
there was a siren, there was a girl inside
who blamed herself, there were men with blankets
and a tourniquet, they stopped my brother bleeding,
as the New Year turned, they saved him,
snow was falling hard, they saved us all.

Lowe deserves all the praise other reviewers have given her for this collection. Try to read it in one sitting.

.

D A Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her full-length collection, Nearly the Happy Hour, was published by HappenStance Press in 2008, and a second collection is due later in 2014.