Hannah Lowe’s new poetry chapbook is a powerful blend of information and imagination, says Thomas Ovans
This is the third time I have been asked to review one of the attractively designed pocket books from Hercules Editions. While they all have an unmistakable house style with their well-integrated combination of poems and images, each one still manages to have its own distinctive identity. Hannah Lowe’s evocative mini-history, Ormonde, is a rich mix of poems, pictures and facsimile documents cleverly made to seem stuck in with sellotape. It could be seen as – but is in fact much more than – an afterthought to her recent and very well-received full collection Chick (Bloodaxe, 2013) which tells the story of Lowe’s Jamaican-born father. Ormonde is the ship that brought him to England, along with a hundred or so other hopeful young West Indian immigrants in 1947 – about a year before the arrival of the much better-known immigrant ship Empire Windrush. Lowe would like to tell the stories of the other passengers on Ormonde’s earlier and almost forgotten journey; but since none of them can now be traced she has to resort to imagination to augment the bare facts of the passenger manifest.
The book begins with short essays from Mike Phillips and Hannah Lowe herself which lay a good foundation for the twelve-poem sequence with its teasing glimpses of hopeful travellers: a tailor, a carpenter, a dressmaker, two boxers, and a schoolboy (travelling alone). But the sequence, very appropriately, begins and ends with the ship itself. The first poem imagines turning Ormonde back to the start of her voyage if she can only swing her bow through half a century; and in the final piece ‘Shipbreaking’ we see her being scrapped in 1952 by men in goggles wielding fire /…/ a rusted funnel toppling in slow motion. That ‘wielding’, echoing the ‘welding’ that would have put the ship together, is just one example of Lowe’s clever word use. Elsewhere, ‘white’ becomes a skilfully loaded adjective when an immigrant’s first sight of English snow prompts the reaction god knows how the world went white like this. Lowe’s verbal dexterity is on display from the very first lines of the first poem:
Rewind, rewind the Windrush! Raise the anchor
and sail her back three weeks across the water
Wind back the hours, the days and months, a year –
and out of fog, Ormonde sails like a rumour.
Not only are there the delightful sound-games of rewind/Windrush and Ormonde/rumour but there are also the jaunty calypso-like rhymes and half-rhymes which continue through the book. And, as any good story teller knows, the pace, once set, must be maintained. Subsequent poems crackle with an electric energy that captures the tenuous optimism of the emigrants – the radio fizzes news across the tenement yard; the ship in port is a dazzling arc; my mind replays / a fizzing cine film. Yet at the same time dejection and defeat are never far away. In economically depressed Jamaica Men sag like slack suits; but arrival in England brings no guarantees of better times:
In the labour queue, ten men ahead the same as you – you’re in, your
In , no, no, some other fellow’s in …
After repeated disappointments a desperate recourse to prize-fighting may find you
in that gloomy room, a single bulb above the ring where you are sinking like a puppet.
As well as such deftness with words and phrases, Lowe also manages in this short book to show off plenty of formal inventiveness. Particularly impressive is the glosa ‘What I Know’ based on a quatrain by Theodore Roethke.
Not all the Ormonde passengers are immigrants. There are also six ‘distressed British seamen’ – i.e. those who had missed, or been dismissed from, some other ship for reasons such as sickness or drunkenness. Each gets to tell his side of the story. One, lured by a pretty woman, spent
days bedridden sweetest frangipani.
Oh sail me home, I’ve not a penny left
I am a seaman and distressed.
Another was proud to boast less romantically
I knocked the policeman out, I slugged the jailor
I’m the best o’ British, I’m a brawler,
I’m a seaman and distressed.
After five such wry hard-luck stories, Lowe artfully changes register, switching to a deeper level of distress for the final speaker
Let the sea gulp down this ship
. There is nothing
. to go back to.
A final unexpected group of travellers are eleven stowaways who jump overboard when they see the docks on England’s rim and then have to climb the slimy timber of a jetty. All in vain, it seems, for there policemen wait / to haul them off before the magistrate. And yet we learn from the book’s facsimile press cuttings that the magistrate had every sympathy with their difficult journey in search of work and imposed no penalty, releasing them immediately to go and seek their fortunes.
The stowaways’ story presents somewhat of a contrast with present day attitudes to immigration – and, indeed, matters were less free and easy only one year later when the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury. I am indebted to my editor for pointing out a recent feature on the BBC website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-29566275) describing how some Windrush passengers were lodged for up to six months in the rather restricted accommodation offered by the Clapham South deep level shelter (part of an abandoned railway project that had been fitted out with bunk beds, toilets and a canteen during World war 2).
The small digression in the preceding paragraph illustrates how curiosity can be stimulated and new connections can be made on the basis of a poetic treatment of history which shows as much understanding of human hopes and vulnerabilities as Ormonde does. Chris Beckett has written elsewhere in London Grip about the value of poetry for explaining and exploring family and cultural history (see http://londongrip.co.uk/2014/01/using-poetry-to-open-up-the-past/) and this book also demonstrates that turning a poet’s imagination loose on a few fragments of real life can have heady and powerful consequences.