Thursday 7 April 2011

Hannah Lowe, The Hitcher

     The summer I was eighteen I stole a sheep.
     It was very late, I’d left a party,
     climbed the wet black hill behind the house.
     Hands sunk in the sheep’s wool, I dragged her through the fields,
     her eyes like small moons that looked straight at me..

These are the opening lines of ‘The Calmness of Sheep’, from Hannah Lowe’s pamphlet The Hitcher, published by The Rialto.  Before going any further I’d better say I’ve known Hannah for a while.  See here for this blog’s policy on reviewing people known to it.  She was on the Suffolk poetry seminar; while there she went for a walk wearing her leopard print coat, and all the sheep ran away. 

The sheep poem may not seem typical of Hannah’s work in some respects – it’s more surreal, and many poems have urban settings – but like most of them it tells a story in the first person that explores emotional truths.  She tends to write long, rhythmical, rolling lines which leave a distinctive music echoing in the head.  Sometimes she uses terza rima to move the narrative down the page, as in ‘Those Long Car Silences’:

        All those long car silences, the miles and miles
        you drove me through this city, strange words lit
        in neon, Lucky House, The Taj Mahal, Halal.

        I kept my voice held back for nothing
        but to punish you.  I see us from the outside now..

This poem, like several others, draws on her relationship with her father. He was a professional gambler, which gives her access to some great material and language, as in these extracts from ‘Chick’.

        Dan said he saw you ironing cellophane.
        I said you’d let me hold a thousand pounds.
        We found a hollow-soled shoe…

        At the funeral, a ring of phlegmy men with yellow eyes
        and meaty skin.  They told me what your name meant,
        put the ace of hearts across your coffin,
        flowers shaped as dice.

Hannah writes about relationships, love and grief.  The poems are often filmic in effect – road movie, when they involve a journey – full of movement, colour and things happening.  This can give the reader that drunkenness-of-things-being-various feeling, as in ‘Room’.

        I turned twenty-one that week and dialled
        my mother from a greasy booth along the Boulevard,
        sobbed soundlessly into the static fuzz as punk-haired girls

        flew by on roller skates, a tramp with tattooed stars
        under his eyes was thumping on the glass.  An orange Dodge
        pulled up and I climbed wordlessly into the car

        beside a man I’d seen somewhere before.

A lot of writers mining this kind of seam would come across as self-consciously edgy or hip, and would probably get praised for it.  For me part of the core appeal of these poems is their directness and lack of ego: they employ irony but aren’t clever, edgy or flaneurish.  This is from ‘Fist’, a poem in one long block.

        This was Ilford, Essex, 1993, nearly midnight,
        us all smashed on booze and Ecstasy and Billy,
        6 foot 5, folding at the knee, a shiny fin of glass
        wedged in his wrist…
  I got down, I knelt there on the ice
        and held my brother, who I never touched, and never told
        I loved, and even then I couldn’t say it
        so I listened to the incantation easy fella..

In an interview on Jen Campbell’s blog here, Hannah says she reads a lot of American poets and Philip Levine is her greatest inspiration.  The American influence comes across in the wideness of her writing, the ease with which she flings out her long lines and narratives.  

For now at least, that ease may be linked to her use of the first person.  All the poems have an ‘I’ or (occasionally) a viewpoint close to that, except for ‘English Widows in Beautiful Gardens’ which I found to be among the few less successful; it’s well written but the subject matter feels more conventional, and the compelling, truth-telling tone isn’t there.

Hannah uses form well; the terza rima, and sonnets.  This is from the lovely sonnet ‘Foxes’:
        My newest bra is hanging on the headboard,
        makes a shadow-rabbit on his ceiling.
        We mix our noises with the foxes until dawn..

I can imagine her doing a lot more with form in the future.  She is in her mid-30’s and has only been writing for a few years.  It will be very interesting to see what she writes next. 

The pamphlet looks really good – it’s wider than most and beautifully designed; The Rialto has done Hannah proud, though I wish it knew the difference between it’s and its.  She did the magazine proud at the launch last week, upstairs in a packed Kings Cross pub. 

I’ll end with the end of that sheep poem.  It reminds me a bit of Elizabeth Bishop’s Sestina, with whose form it has something in common.

        and even now that night comes back to me –
        her wool and the wet black fields
        that I sometimes watch from this deafening house
        where there are always parties
        and never the calmness of sheep.

To find out how that form is sustained throughout the poem, and where the togaed man on the pamphlet’s cover (bridge pier, near left) wants to go, you can buy The Hitcher on The Rialto’s website, here. 

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