Hannah Lowe | Versopolis Poetry (2024)

Hannah Lowe’s first poetry collection Chick (Bloodaxe, 2013) won the Michael Murphy Memorial Award for Best First Collection and was short-listed for the Forward, Aldeburgh and Seamus Heaney Best First Collection Prizes. In September 2014, she was named as one of 20 Next Generation poets.

She has also published three chapbooks: The Hitcher (Rialto 2012) R x (sine wave peak 2013) and Ormonde (Hercules Editions 2014).

In each of her two brilliant collections for Bloodaxe Books, Chick and Chan Hannah Lowe’s poems have a cohesive quality that creates a strong impression for the reader. Her work is also timely as the UK wrestles with its attitude to immigration, to the rest of the world; whether to build walls or celebrate freedom of movement and the possibilities that brings. Hannah Lowe is not writing political poetry - but her heritage, the lives of her characters and their experiences have something vital to say about multicultural Britain.

Hannah Lowe's poems team with vivid characters and equally vividly her work portrays London, a place where many cultures and nationalities jostle together. Hannah Lowe also writes brilliantly about music. In her poems the rhythm and intimate sense of the music creates a physicality in her writing is astounding,

Now breathe, now drink.
Now lick the reed. Now flick it.

The repetition of the short word ‘now’ and the staccato sounds in ‘lick’ and ‘flick’, which can also be seen as sensual, show real craft. Another pleasure in Hannah Lowe's collections are the mouth-watering and evocative ways she writes about food, steaming bowls of wonton soup on Brewer Street; eating pastries and drinking bitter coffee in Shoreditch or Borough Market.

Key themes are immigration and prejudice. In High Yellow the poem can be read down each column written in different shades of black type - or across both columns - and the meanings change and merge accordingly in a way that is powerful and creatively explores and reflects upon or highlights what happens when two cultures meet. Slavery, illegitimacy, relationships and prejudice are all explored in these poems. The language and metaphors are fresh, perhaps in part because of the different heritages Hannah Lowe can draw on with integrity, in lines about 'notes that race like fire ants across the page'. Metaphors gain an almost mythic quality - perhaps because the poets heard about these ‘fire ants’ in stories handed to her by her father or his friends? Neighbours argue over the garden fence 'about who owns the ‘breadfruit tree' - mythical things from faraway places seep into suburban reality.

Another example is the line, 'they licked these notes with something of the islands'; A brilliantly evocative phrase about personal experience and the power of music to convey this. Always in these poems is a desire to capture, record and understand; a tenderness towards the subjects and their flaws. There is a lot of love in these poems, a huge capacity on the part of the poet to place herself in other people's shoes. In this sense I would say that these two collections represent significant imaginative breadth and empathy

These poems desire to communicate, to tell stories, to speak about characters and their lives in a way that matters to all of us, as seen in the poem Thunder Snakes

Darling, that gambling was in my blood,
was always there like thunder snakes
that slide in through an open door...

There is real toughness here and an unflinching gaze through poems that deal with alcoholism, gambling, addiction, failure, loneliness such as in this brilliant concise image describing a time

when men like Joe and my father were shadows
on English streets...

The poems also portray random violence and the tragedy of it:

Whichever fellow slammed his face into the fire door one evening on Pulaski,
maybe didn't mean to wreck his embouchure. Old snow-beard giant...

These poems mourn lives that were forged out of challenging conditions and at the same time they celebrate the glory and wonder of them and the immense journeys they represent. Hannah Lowe cleverly and effectively uses snatches of dialogue in her poems; the interactions in her poems are a finely drawn balance of humour and sadness, as when she recalls her how she felt about her dad, the only black man among the Essex mothers, coming to collect her from her ballet class,

and whispered to another ballerina
he’s the cab my mother sends for me.

Hannah Lowe’s gaze is crystal clear and she addresses the challenge of writing about people or memories in If You Believe: On Salmon Lane. There is a transparency and rigour here:

but surely this poem

shows its seams enough to let me wish

that Joe didn't start dying so young

The poem works on many levels – as memory, elegy, and as it questions the poetic art - its limits and responsibilities.

Hannah Lowe is a brilliant reader. She speaks well about her poems and reads them with clarity, passion and intention. Her work and her presentation display a glittering intelligence. She says she came to poetry late – she clearly has something definite to say that demands to be written and that is reflected in the emotion she allows herself to reveal,

and just start crying
and can't stop crying, don't even know
what I'm crying for

The emotion is there but her work is always carefully controlled and crafted nonetheless. Hannah Lowe’s poetry feels necessary and therefore has a strong impact, which is an asset and a definite strength in her two acclaimed collections.

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Hannah Lowe | Versopolis Poetry (2024)
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