Monday, 2 May 2011

Review: The Hitcher, by Hannah Lowe

I first encountered Hannah Lowe’s poems in The Rialto and was impressed by their combination of strong narrative drive, vivid language and endings that didn’t so much tie poems up as open out beyond them. When I later discovered that the same magazine’s publishing arm was bringing out a pamphlet of her work, titled "The Hitcher", I got hold of a copy.

The blurb on the back cover is impressive but daunting. In other words “immensely talented”, “wonderfully evocative”, “one of the most exciting new voices in British poetry” and “in brilliant command” all contrive to put the poet under some degree of pressure before her reader sets off.

Does Lowe deliver? Well, this chapbook finds her showcasing many of the qualities that first caught my eye, while also highlighting areas that need work. She’s capable of setting scenes deftly with language that draws precise sketches without straining for effect, as in the opening lines of “The Picnic”…

“We walk to the shadows of St James’s Park,
past blue deck chairs, paired like old friends,
under the flight of a frisbee, the wide oaks,
a fractious sky of tumbled light.”

However, her fondness for long lines sometimes leads to wordiness and overegging a good idea, as in “Dracula’s Bride”…

“Often she remembers the party at Hallowe’en,
the old gang in fancy dress, fake blood, fangs,
one guy painted totally green”.

In this case freedom is contaminated by flabbiness, of too many words not earning their keep and not becoming new, whereas at other times Lowe achieves terrific tensile rhythms. I have the impression that she’s feeling her way towards an exciting music that doesn’t always click as yet.

Her Anglo-American background, meanwhile, seems set to offer fertile poetic territory: Lowe views both the U.K. and the U.S. with the added edge of being something of an outsider in both countries, while her verse also feeds off both traditions. For example, her observations of life in London are exceptional, detached but involved.

And yet there’s a fair bit to pick holes in. To start with, I find it surprising that the proofreading of the pamphlet failed to pick up on two instances of mix-ups between “its” and “it’s”. This might seem nitpicking, but the poems in question were consequently ruined – their jarring errors yanked my attention away from the verse.

A more important question, however, is the repetitive nature of Lowe’s linguistic resources and voices: a confessional, autobiographical “I” runs through almost all this poetry. Delicious in a single poem, its cumulative effect over the course of the collection becomes over-rich and lacking in variety. As for images, well, in 23 poems I encountered…”fists hard as stones”, “You punched a window”, “the hole I punched in the door” and “when my brother put his fist through a window”. In other words, their initial element of surprise was quickly lost.

“The Hitcher” is a real mixed bag, flawed yet exciting. These poems look as if they’ve been written over a short, intense period in a tremendous initial burst of creativity. As Hannah Lowe moves beyond them towards a first full collection, it will be intriguing to see how her work develops. If she broadens her canvas while also tightening up her musical control, she could well live up to that blurb and maybe even surpass it.

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