The Neighbourhood, Hannah Lowe
Out-Spoken Press, 2019 £6.00
The neighbourhood is Brixton. The theme of neighbours is especially critical, here, now. The threat of deportation hangs over Lowe’s London, alongside others: pollution, poverty, homelessness, gun crime.
Brixton is also my neighbourhood — I can see my road on the map on the cover. I live in one of the few private rentals on a street of housing association properties. This is a close community, and, although I’m not an alien, I’m an example of the forces acting on it. Many of those deported as part of the government’s (ongoing) ‘hostile environment’ will have lived here since long before I was born.
Some distances between neighbours are wide — in wealth, opportunity, or ways of life. Others, like our physical environment, are very small. Lowe is an acute and compassionate observer of all of them. It’s a tough negotiation. How do you write about people under pressure and also maintain their dignity?
In ‘Balconies’, the poem describes a negotiation, an exchange of notes between the poet and their neighbour below. The neighbour complains about the ‘water dripping through the slats / when I hose the plants.’ The poet complains about cigarette smoke.
Lowe draws attention to what she chooses to say to her neighbour, who is Romanian, and what she doesn’t: ‘Nor do I say how I often kneel among the greenery to watch her’ she writes, as she ‘stares silently at the offices opposite.’
Neighbourliness is a kind of voyeurism, though transformed here into something else by the sanctity of the image (‘kneeling’) and their shared experience. The neighbour, chastened, replies that she is trying to quit.
At this point, just when the distance between them is at its greatest, something odd happens: ‘I will give up soon, she writes. I do not know the solution. / I hope we are not on bad terms. I mean this.’
It is unclear who is saying what, or whether, in fact, both women inhabit the statement ‘I mean this’. The uncertainty has a dual effect: by representing how they have been unsettled by the encounter, it deepens the recognition of distance, and — like the balconies — it also brings the two of them together. It’s a good poem.