Hannah Lowe’s latest collection of poetry Chan (Bloodaxe, 2016) revisits the characters and stories from her first collection, Chick (Bloodaxe, 2013), which won the Michaels Murphy memorial Award for Best First Collection, and was short-listed for the Forward, Aldeburgh and Seamus Heaney Best First Collection Prizes. Named one of the 20 Next Generation poets, the bar variably has been set for her second collection. With remarkable ease Chan surpasses all expectations. Dealing directly with the issues of poverty, (im)migration and marginalisation, Lowe braids the experiences of famous jazz musicians, her own family and newly arrived British immigrants of the 1950s throughout this musically accomplished narrative that spans continents and generations.
The collection is divided into three parts. The first, What I Play is Out the Window, pays homage to the lives of jazz musicians Joe Harriott, Charles Mingus, Shake Keane and Phil Seamen. Lowe opens the book with the personification of her mother, who had once been Joe Harriott’s girlfriend. By introducing the connection between her family and the world of jazz in this way, Lowe achieves a subtle tone of nostalgia while also painting the backdrop against which the life of Joe Harriott, and his cousin, nick-named ‘Chan’, plays:
Those days decades in history
when men like Joe and my father were shadows
on English streets…
Yet, instead of simply imagining the part of her mother or father in events that predate her, Lowe also introduces her own, lived experience in ‘Partita, 1968’, not only exploring the relationship between music and memory, but also excavating the layers of family narrative left behind by each generation—material that features predominantly in her work.
With the help of Alan Robertson’s biography, Fire in His Soul: The Joe Harriott Story, Lowe re-imagines, the conditions of both Harriot’s life:
…Joe, eyes closed, [his] throat wide open,
walking alone, the gold road to heaven.
and his painful death, during which time ‘he couldn’t even stand up straight to play,/…his broken body shuffling down the streets/…those last morphine days’.
However, Lowe doesn’t let the tragedy of Harriott’s early death overwhelm her depiction of his character, or more accurately his music. The accomplished Shakespearean sonnet ‘Alpha Boys’, depicts the birthplace of this musician’s love for music, the Alpha Boy’s Orphanage in Kingston, Jamaica, using language that remains faithful to the music it inspired. Guided by slant-rhyme and embedded consonantal sounds, she writes:
to below-blow, or cuddled low to make
the brass cry, sweet-sad din that made you good
at something. Lying in the cloistered cells
the Sisters knew their Alpha boy could swing.
However, the real gem in this first section, without doubt, is the final poem ‘If You Believe: One Pale Eye’, which is written from the perspective, we assume, of Lowe’s father, and recreates the moment he meets the Polish émigré television magician, Chan Canasta, who inspired his nick name:
Chan pulling his cards from his pocket
and holding each one up to his lighter
until the flame spread and the symbols
and faces cindered, and he flung them out
across the dark still water, like firebirds.
The final image offers a visually arresting segue into the second section, Ormonde. In its original chapbook form, published by Hercules Editions, 2014, Ormonde incorporated visual archival material of the troopship by the same name, built in 1917, that served the UK-Suez-Australia line between the wars. After returning to commercial service in 1947 the ship transported people from Kingston Town and Port of Spain to Liverpool. With stunning lyricism, Lowe recounts its voyage:
Rewind, rewind the Windrush! Raise the anchor
and sail her back, three weeks across the water
let the travellers disembark, return them
to their silent beds at dawn, before the mayhem
of the docks at Kingston Town and Port of Spain—
they’ll wake to see their islands’ sun again.
In these poems Lowe explores her father’s experience as a passenger on the Ormonde, and conjectures about the lives of his fellow travellers. She characterises these individuals according to their declared occupation in the ship’s log. With arresting specificity of detail, the voices of the ‘Boxer’, ‘Dressmaker’, ‘Schoolboy’ and ‘Stowaway’ emerge, painting the historical context in which these poems are set.
Lowe’s talent for capturing drama is highlighted by her monologic poems. The speaker in ‘What I Know’ stands out in this section for the honesty and lyricism with which he or she regards the conditions of his or her life:
…I pass dead horses
in the field, dead mules. Men sag like suits
in the square. Talk of leaving starts like rain,
slow and spare, a rattle in a can. My tears
aren’t for the ship, new places, strange people,
but the loss of my always faces—I mean,
my people, who I know, my places.
Here Lowe employs musical techniques such as repetition and internal rhyme to assuage the reader of the character’s precarious and uncertain future. At the end of each stanza, Lowe mimics the famous words of Theodore Roethke in ‘The Waking’:
I guess I’m learning what I need to know
I learn by going where I have to go.
In this way, the characters come to express the greater themes at work within the collection. However, Lowe is too skilled a writer to allow these unique voices to become simple tools of representation. Rather, her characters perform.
‘Mishra’s Blues’, exemplifies this technique. Echoing the form of a stage play, this poem recalls a game of cards between Chan, and his companion, Mishra. Written in a parabolic tone, Lowe reveals a rare moment when two men from different backgrounds, both living in an alien country, bond over the nostalgia for their homeland:
We are all sad men, with our one-pan meals—
my turmeric-sardines, your scotch-bonnet sardines!
Even the saffron stains on my counter
are a gasp for home. Chan do you ever—
think to go back?
During their dialogue, Chan, Lowe’s father, identifies the narrative heart of these characters’ stories: ‘…the big ship [that] sail in all directions/dragging poor folk from one place to another’. This comment leads him to question the effects of (im)migration on his own life: ‘how we end up here man?//me thinking your chai taste/like the sweet tea my own granny made me’.
Another element at play within the collection is Lowe’s experimentation with form. Each poem seems to have its own unique fingerprint: all the ‘ins’ in the poem ‘In’ are left-justified, for example, and the whole width of the page is used in poems such as ‘Ethology’ and ‘Mishra’s Blues’. However, the experimentation that interests me most is Lowe’s treatment of found poetry.
The found poem, ‘My Father’s Notebook’, arguably the strongest poem in this collection, derives from ‘a derogatory term for someone from a mixed-race background’. Since Lowe’s father was of Chinese-Jamaican descent, naturally this part of the book is punctuated by personal reflections on her family history. In particular, the above poem offers the reader insight into Chan’s childhood and upbringing. With searing precision, Lowe recounts the details lifted from her father’s notebook:
He lost all his money three times, burnt down
our shop, the dogs trapped
below the galvanised roof.
He gave me an orange, and we drove off.
In addition, Lowe demonstrates remarkable ingenuity with form in the eight interlocking poems, ‘Borderliner’, ‘Scott Joplin Rag’, ‘Mitchell/Mingus’, ‘Genealogy’, ‘High Yellow’, ‘Honey,’ ‘Brown Eyes Blue’, and ‘Yellow River, Milk River’ which populate the books final section. Comprised of two independent poems, they are designed in such a way that when the lines of these two poems are read together, they complete the sense of the entire poem. Formally, they seem to represent the duality of the lived experience of a ‘Borderliner’, which perhaps directly relates to the multifaceted character of the man her father once was, along with Lowe’s own complicated relationship with the inheritance of his legacy.
Indeed, her story forms a strong undercurrent to this section. As a child, Lowe ‘was never half of anything /just running the asphalt with [her] friends’. However, the issue of race and the condition of intolerance were never far from her consciousness, particularly when she discovered that what her grandfather used to call Chan, ‘ship yit tiam/ eleven o’clock child//…[was] another way/ to say unclean’. Indeed, at a certain point in Lowe’s development she became aware of the fact that ‘some faces have no borders/[and] There were times when these borders had no fixed abode’.
As an artefact of not only a specific historical framework, but also its own contemporary context, Lowe’s work makes an important observation about (im)migration as a long standing—sometimes elected, sometimes compulsory—and culturally enriching exchange. While life at the border is not always easy, Lowe celebrates the importance of cultural diversity in her poems, challenging ‘What Charlie Said’ about ‘different species, different civilisations,…not [being] meant to mate’, by demonstrating that diversity is natural to the development of all societies, and indeed, a beautiful thing. As a woman with a diverse heritage herself, this message occupies a crucial role in the undercurrent of Lowe’s poetry, specifically in the face of the world’s current, culturally protectionist attitudes. Indeed, what is most compelling about Chan is that through the personal Lowe’s work reaches the universal by inviting us ‘to look both ways’.
By Amanda Merritt
Chan by Hannah Lowe, Bloodaxe Books, 2016