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