1. I don’t like jazz. Therefore, I had immediate misgivings when confronted with the pastel-painted jazz scene adorning the cover of Hannah Lowe’s latest collection Chan. Not wanting to judge a book by its cover, I forged ahead, only to find that no less than the first fifteen (fifteen!) poems were, more or less, all about jazz, centered around some saxophonist I’d never heard of, littered with lines like “now blow that gold, Joe blow it!” and “it’s like painting sound” and other such snatches of conversation commonly heard on the lips of those who love jazz.

    But in between these jazz-infused lines arose observations (“the wooly din/ of a batch of sick sheep”) and descriptions (“she wore a tight rope of chubby pearls”) that drew me beneath the jazz-laden platitudes into the language of loss and desperation that Lowe captures throughout the book.

    I also strongly dislike baseball and avoid it like the plague, yet I still recognize the opening of Don DeLillo’s Underworld as one of the best examples of modern Anglophone literature. The same goes for Lowe’s work: despite my trepidations, these poems unspooled in all kinds of polyphonic and contrapuntal ways, drawing me into the tragedy they depict. As the poems progress, the saxophonist Joe Harriot, an early proponent of “free form” or abstract jazz (I looked him up), slowly shrinks, losing his battle against time in the poem ‘Ethology’, “where he slumped and had to sit to play// and like the animal who disappears/ to die alone, he packed his sax.” I found myself mourning someone I had never met, whose music I (still) haven’t listened to.

    A similar sort of winnowing through time pervades the rest of the collection, echoed by Lowe’s father’s Jamaican patois that bubbles up now and then, as well as in her observations of him (“He was smaller”—a singularly devastating line when it comes in ‘My Father’s Notebook’). The self-assured authority of the details Lowe employs means she can create entire worlds, histories and plots in short sparse lines, particularly in poems like ‘Boxer’ and ‘Schoolboy’. In the latter poem, which details a boy being sent to England for school, two tercets stand out for their vividness and brevity:

    but i don’t care
    she sold my pig
    for the ticket

    coughing in the yard
    to rope him
    nightie hanging off

    The scene remains right behind the eyes, even if only snatches of the whole image can be captured.

    It’s hard to separate the intersectionality of Lowe’s own identity from her work, mainly because the plurality of voices echoing, and competing, in her multiethnic past make their way to the page, especially in the latter two sections Ormonde and Borderliner. Lowe’s confidence and aforementioned authority keep this diverse chorus from slipping into cacophony, even when the relationships and connections addressed, such as the passage from the Caribbean to England, are nothing but confusion and trouble, marred by both history and the present.

    A run of poems towards the end of the collection manifest this intersectionality and continual clash of identities in a more concrete manner: smashing two poems together on the page and separating them only by typeface, e.g. in the titular ‘Borderliner’:

    I’m skirting the bold lines of the map border-liner, might mean white girl
    neither here nor there, but home in the border places with corkscrew hair
    Tijuana, where rich American boys slam tequila or brown girl with flat hair
    or controlled drugs, or down the fence slipping from one side to the other

    At first the technique seems too “obvious,” two voices both competing and cooperating in a somewhat forced concatenation. Lowe’s telling us we can read these poems several different ways and I, for one, don’t always like to be told. But, as with the entire collection, these poems rewarded repeated close readings, sentiments left unuttered finding space between in these packed lines.

    Lest one think this collection deals only in loss and tragedy, a certain melancholy optimism burrows up now and then in images leaving a soft imprint of hope, as in the last poem of the Chan section, ‘If You Believe: One Pale Eye’:

    Chan pulling his cards from his pocket
    and holding each one up to his lighter
    until the flame spread and the symbols
    and faces cindered, and he flung them out
    across the dark still water, like firebird.

    Austin Diaz
    Austin Diaz, a born and raised Texan, currently teaches Latin (in German) in Switzerland and is working to prove to the proper authorities that he could also teach English.

    chan hannah lowe

    Chan by Hannah Lowe is published by Bloodaxe, £9.95.

  2. Magma 67 Launch

    Written by Rob Mackenzie at 4:26 pm

    The launch of Magma 67 will be on Friday 24 March, 7pm, in the LRB Bookshop, 14-16 Bury Pl, Bloomsbury, London WC1A 2JL. Guest reader is Richard Price, and the list of confirmed readers includes M67 ‘Selected’ poet Holly Corfield Carr, Alison Brackenbury, Martyn Crucefix, Claire Crowther, Isobel Dixon, David Briggs and more… Entry is free, but you must register at Eventbrite to guarantee entry.

    Bones & Breath: Magma 67’s theme, culled from a poem and collection title of the late Scottish poet Alexander Hutchison, is a description of who we all are: solid and ungraspable as water, robust and fragile as an iceberg. Bones and breath are mechanisms of death and life.

  3. Video and sound test post

    Written by Wes Brown at 4:44 pm

    Test post of Magma video.

    Jon Stone reading at a Magma lauch:

  4. After Memorial, her rendering of military deaths in Homer’s Iliad, Alice Oswald’s seventh collection returns mostly to poems about the natural world.  Traditionally poems have described nature either as evidence of God’s handiwork or as a comfort or inspiration for mankind.  This tradition was refashioned by Hughes who celebrated the mindless forces of nature and is further re-presented by Oswald in what I will call neo-animist terms – nature can be seen and responded to as living in a non-scientific and also non-religious sense.  This is established in the book’s first poem, A Short Story of Falling, which describes rain’s effect on leaves and flowers, continuing: if only I a passerby could pass as clear as water through a plume of grass to find the sunlight hidden at the tip turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip then I might know like water how to balance the weight of hope against the light of patience… This isn’t pathetic fallacy in the traditional sense – that inanimate substances can share or express human feelings – but rather that nature, if looked at aright, can reflect our deepest desires and fears.  Oswald sometimes addresses us like a prophetess or sybil: May I shuffle forward and tell you the two-minute life of rain starting right now lips open and lidless-cold all-seeing gaze… (Vertigo) or as a storyteller enacting her subject matter:             I’m going to flicker for a moment and tell you the tale of a shadow that falls at dusk… (Shadow) or to set up a mystery:             This is what happened the dead were settling in under their mud roof and something was shuffling overhead             it was a badger treading on the thin partition… (Body) In every case the poem develops into a meditation on the life of nature and sometimes on death (a rotting swan, a dead badger, dying flies) with an intensity of focus and originality of language like no other poet writing today or ever.  For example, to read “I have been leaning here a long time hunched / under the bone lintel of my stare / with the whole sky / dropped and rippling through my eye” (Looking Down) is to see seeing in a new way.

    Some poems may be new departures: Fox suggests a feminist response to Hughes’s The Thought-Fox – vixen speaking to another mother rather than dog-fox inspiring self-absorbed male poet; the 15-line Slowed-Down Blackbird strikes me as a wry response to Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird; and Aside, a lovely description of the four-year-old Oswald hiding in a laurel bush and becoming absorbed by its spirit, has a distant echo of Edward Thomas’s Old Man.

  5. Cain, Luke Kennard’s sixth collection, could be described as the poetry collection equivalent of a concept album, and as such it risks disappearing down the rabbit hole of its own conceptualised universe. Does it emerge? Yes and no.

    In the interests of brevity, here’s (most of) the blurb which does an excellent job of summarising the Big Idea:

  6. Bones & Breath is the name of a book by the Scottish poet Alexander (‘Sandy’) Hutchison, published by Salt. It won the Saltire Award for Best Scottish Poetry Collection, 2014. Sandy died in November 2015. The title poem has the poet as a bird “barely out/ of the nest”: Heart brims and spills.

    Words try eyes and wings; try air.

  7. Jane Bonnyman’s first pamphlet, An Ember from the Fire: Poems on the Life of Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson, is a gothic wonder of a book, an adventurous, swashbuckling exploration of an extraordinary life. The pamphlet opens as the heroine travels from Indianapolis to California (her daughter in tow) to meet up with her first husband who is hoping to cash in on the gold rush. It covers Fanny’s scandalous divorce, her meeting with Robert Louis Stevenson, his death, and her quiet retirement in her own small Eden. The life expounded here is startling and vivid (it is difficult for me to believe that no one has written a collection about this subject this before) and luckily the writing lives up to the challenge, sheathing those good bones in appropriate flesh.

    The first poem, ‘Dawn’ traces Fanny’s journey across America in pursuit of her treasure-hunting husband. A taut, precise poem, it perfectly encapsulates the triumph of hope (in the guise of will) over the conventional stagnation of death. It begins with a description of seemingly-inescapable desolation: Among stagnant pools where dead fish float and coconut leaves drift over rotting flesh like helpless souls, and feverish women lie curled in hammocks chattering to revenants of their lost men Across this landscape, Fanny strides armoured with her purpose. She wills her way through the land of death, like a heroine from one of her future-husband’s books: she buys liquor, hot coffee for her daughter, finds a guide, three mules and a road that leads beyond the cemetery to Panama City ‘Dawn’ is structured in two evenly-divided parts; there are nine lines for death, and nine for forced rebirth. Not a word is wasted. The effect of reading this poem is very much like inhaling the first breathless fifty pages of an adventure novel, when the story first starts to get really good.

  8. Magma 64 Launch on the theme of ‘Risk’

    Written by Wes Brown at 12:12 pm

    The launch of Magma 64 will take place on the 24th of March, 7pm at The London Review Book Shop. Formed around the theme risk, we were delighted with the huge variety of poems that we received. Risks in every form, size and daring, cunning, moving shape. The challenge we had was weighing every one. To see if the risks paid off, to see if after all, the poem was worth writing.

    The event will feature readings from contributors to the issue and a guest performance from Philip Gross. Tickets are free but booking is essential. Click here to reserve your place.

  9. The rise of Poetry Film much like music videos and Fashion films, breathes contemporary life into work.

    Poesie D’alphaville by Paul Eluard is a timeless expression of love, Mathis Sananes directed with his team of Tara Trangmar (producer) and Eric Gonzalez Garcia (DOP). The short film is narrated by Yohan Agelou to bringtender visuals to this celebrated work. Combining poetry, music and motion picture, the project focuses on bridging three contemporary relationships with an eternally relevant text.

  10. Magma Competition celebratory evening at Keats House

    Written by Lisa Kelly at 12:10 pm

    The winners and special mentions of the Magma Poetry Competitions – for the Judge’s Prize and the Editors’ Prize – will be reading their poems at Keats House in Hampstead on Friday 11th March at 7pm, and you can buy your £5 ticket here or pay on the door and join us for a wonderful night of winning poems and a reading by Daljit Nagra, as well as some sparkling refreshments to celebrate.

    For the Judge’s Prize judged by Daljit Nagra: