CHICK by Hannah LoweSu Andi | August 13, 2013
RRP £8.99 Publisher: Bloodaxe Books ISBN-10: 1852249609
Hannah’s Lowe’s first poetry collection focuses mainly on the intriguing figure of her father, who was of Chinese and Jamaican heritage. This heritage is strikingly captured in the poem ‘Three Treasures’, which variously pictures ‘Jamaica…in a dark blue trunk’, ‘England downstairs in a rocking chair’ and ‘China in the won-ton skin,/gold songbird on the brittle porcelain’ (p.46). Succinct, precise and evocative, such images typify Lowe’s technique in evoking particular places. A number of poems document her father’s night-time gambling, giving a tender yet uncompromising sense of a life hampered by poverty. One of the real virtues of the collection is her ability to convey this poverty by suggestive details (’ironing cellophane’; ‘a hump of blankets in the purple light’; ‘a ring of phlegmy men’) which she allows to speak for themselves. The poems also beckon towards the memory of people associated with her father; she is alert to a sense of companionship in her father’s gambling. In ‘Chick’, men ‘with yellow eyes and meaty skin’ place an ace of hearts across his coffin (p.9). Throughout the collection, then, the poet admirably walks the tightrope between observation and sentiment.
Some of the most moving poems of the collection chronicle her father’s illness, hospitalisation and eventual death. These poems do not deny the unpleasantness of the dying process. ‘No dignity in this’, she writes in a poem called ‘Six Days in March’, where her father appears on the stairs as an ‘old child in tears’ (p.62). The business of daily life intrudes on his death, a drama which is accompanied by constant rings on the doorbell and smoking relatives (’Fishes’, p.59). Nevertheless, the poem ‘Fishes’ transcends the mundane, transforming her father’s experience of dying as though to acknowledge his legacy and ongoing existence. The poem gradually expands into a form of seascape: ‘I see your brain cells… / a thousand small fishes, crossing the ocean’ (p.59). The image is a rich one, inverting the process of conception where teaming shoals of fish resemble millions of sperm seeking an egg. But the phrase ‘crossing the ocean’ also suggests migration and diaspora, implying a spiritual return to origins as much as entry into the underworld. Ultimately the process of dying is conveyed as anything but final as the energy of braincells morph into new forms.
The poems begin in the East End of London but end on a holiday beach. ‘The Day’ is the final poem of the collection. In many senses it accords with a growing number of contemporary English poems that are currently explore the presence of black people in the English countryside. In this poem, the speaker’s black father figures as a self-conscious outsider. He participates in the children’s games, burying the speaker ‘deep in the cold wet sand’. Yet at the same time he is remote, the sole black person on the beach. He is even bothered by his daughter: ‘We couldn’t catch the eye of the black man / Watching on the pier’ (p.70). Later, he tells the children about the ‘chalk man’ which ‘loomed’ large on the hill above them, the ‘effigy’ of the Saxons which indicates permanence: ‘more fixed than named in sand’. As if to emphasise his sense of estrangement from the seaside setting, he writes his own name in the sand but it disappears even before he has left the beach. So while he shows familiarity with Saxon history and, though his stance on the pier suggests his connection to the sea and multiple voyages across it, the poem is inflected with a sense of ‘lost, forgotten things’ (p.71).
This is a very accomplished first collection which is well worth reading. The poems explores the larger-than-life figure through the eyes both of a child and the restrained yet rich retrospective view of an adult. A recommended read.
Dr. Corinne Fowler, Lecturer in Postcolonial Literature, School of English, University of Leicester