Rialto Press, 2011 £5.50
Reviewed by Niall Campbell, Jon Stone and Richie McCaffery
Hannah Lowe’s The Hitcher is startling on first read, second read, and thereafter. A twenty-three poem publication, it is formally strong and assured, as seen in Lowe’s impressive handling of terza rima.
The opening poem, ‘Fist’, starts the pamphlet off with the attention-grabbing lines, “When my brother put his fist through a window/ on New Year’s Eve, no one noticed until a cold draft/ cooled our bodies dancing”, and that intensity doesn’t let up. These are poems on travel and the private event, chewed over, then framed in a rich, thoughtful language. Here are the last five lines of ‘Room’:
There is something fine about the dawn walk home
from a stranger’s house, the blue shore
hazed against the sky, the sun rising defiantly and boys
already out on skateboards, rattling down the asphalt drives,
arms flung out wide as though about to fly.
This is just beautiful stuff. The turn from describing the world around her in the earlier part of the poem to this reflective element works well. As with the pamphlet’s opening line, the statement “there is something fine about the dawn walk home/ from a stranger’s house” is devastating, replete as it is with so many insinuations and drama, but this is left hinted at, as the poem returns to gaze at the activity of the surrounding scene.
‘Caterpillars’ also demands special praise. Again, as in many poems in this pamphlet, there is a strange, hinted relationship between two characters practising dancing in a room together, then:
.........................silks are swinging
in the wind beside the plants I’ve drowned,
split and leaking sap, the caterpillars
oozing brightly on the stone towards us.
We dance, you lift my hair, I drop my head.
What of this is true?
“The caterpillars/ oozing brightly on the stones towards us” is haunting, but rich and vibrant. And again the last line is deft and punchy.
My only slight whinge regards a production element: that the first and second poems are on facing pages—a strange gesture. The first poem should be an event and introduction and doesn’t need the second poem eyeballing it. But otherwise this is an excellent publication and Lowe’s The Hitcher is definitely worth looking out for.
I know I always, always mention this in reviews, usually at the start, but it is a bugbear of mine, so here we go again: despite having four different endorsements on the back of Hannah Lowe's debut, none of that space is used to give us a concrete idea of what to expect from her poetry. It's evocative and lyrical/exciting new voice time again, with not even the faintest allusion to subject matter, style or thematic interests. I do think it undermines a poet when a publisher can't find anything to say about them that hasn't been said about thousands of others, and it's especially baffling when, as is the case here, there's real character to the writing.
Almost all the poems take the form of short, precise accounts, either recalled from memory or played out in the present tense. Lowe's narrators never seem to be far from desolation, and the details she focuses on are often pure kitchen sink. I don't mean to denigrate the collection by saying that—yes, there is smoking, drinking, boredom, sex and death, but more specifically there's the weird beauty of “last night's puckered butts”, “Brocade stool in the dark back room”, a discarded bra making “a shadow-rabbit on the ceiling”. A typically smart technique she uses is to contrast a small luxury or moment of grace with a strong dose of the mundane. ‘Artisan Du Chocolat, Borough Market’, for instance, opens as if it's going to be a paean to finer things, but the shift comes as she moves from the second to the third stanza:
I order hot chocolate, so thick it stands up,
while in between mouthfuls, the girl to the right of me
talks of her therapist, whether she'll move to the suburbs
or stay in the city. I'm lonely she says to her friend.
‘English Widows in Beautiful Gardens’ is likewise packed with sensuous imagery (“secateurs around the throats of roses”) but ends by bringing us down to earth, with rotten petals and “husbands facedown in the pool”. Loneliness seems to be the predominant driver for many of the events and actions described, but the first poem, the longest and most powerful, casts a wider shadow of pain and violence across the rest of the pamphlet. Lowe is never showy, and she writes with the force of someone who has experienced everything her narrators recollect. If I have one criticism, it's that there's little variety in tone: it's bittersweetness all the way.
Other than the lack of a good blurb, the presentation is extremely well judged: a stark line drawing on cream/off-white for the cover, marrying exactly with the colour of the pamphlets innards. Larger than the average pamphlet too, without being unwieldy. Once upon a time I would have said £5.50 was pushing it as a price point, but I suppose that's the way things are headed at the moment.
.........“It’s late, I’m in a stranger’s hallway,
always leaving, stepping out into the road,
the rain, the hollow slam behind me of a door
and there you are, parked up against the curb,
the engine running soft below the yellow blur
of streetlamp. Wordlessly, I climb into the car.”
.....(‘Those Long Car Silences’)
Hannah Lowe has key motifs, such as in the quotation above, where the character of the poems claims twice that she “wordlessly” gets into a car, as if to give the impression of viewing the world as a percipient passenger. The poet Edwin Morgan viewed his role in life as an engaged non-driver, going through emotional, intellectual and literary experiences with his eyes wide open. Hannah Lowe does something similar, accumulating considerable mileage with her zest for life and quest for new sensations. At the same time she chronicles some of the ordeals such a restless life (from London to Tibet via Santa Cruz) can bring.
Lowe is not a passive witness in the passenger seat but a ‘hitcher’ and a traveller whose reactions to the people she meets (and loses) along the way is a genuine and hard-earned blend of celebrative and elegiac poetry. There are moving poems for the poet’s father, who in the hospital begs his daughter for one more cigarette (‘Smoke’) and is recalled as a hapless gambler (‘Chick’), where the funeral flowers are “shaped as dice”. These plaintive pieces are balanced against memories of more halcyon days where “the shopkeeper told us we looked like/ an advert for happiness” (‘Now That You Live in Hoxton’).
The break-down of relationships is a basis for many of these poems. It ranges from disaffection in ‘The Hitcher’, where the fire “burnt out”, to the fall-out of a relationship centred around a sunflower the poet still waters so as to “hold my faith in linear things” (‘The Sunflower’).
While there are undertones of grief and longing, particularly vividly captured in ‘Lucky Dip’, the overall drive of this collection is the search for happiness and life-affirmation—which the poet does not always find. The pamphlet begins in medias res with the emergency in ‘Fist’ where “my brother put his fist through a window” and the paramedics “saved him/ [ . . . ] they saved us all”, and it ends with the bathos of love simply burning out, like a fire seen from the car window. Between these poems, which act as book-ends, Lowe seeks out and writes deftly about a gamut of new experiences, captured in almost eidetic detail with specific brands and names. She ends still very much on the road, traversing both physical and emotive distances.