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. 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:

  3. 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.

  4. I’ve now been reading Transparencies, on and off, for almost two years. This is a good period of time over which to think about a collection that works across Gaelic and English as well as seeming to span at least one lifetime of experience.

    Bateman made her name as a poet in Gaelic, though not as a native speaker. This is her first largely English collection. In Transparencies, some poems (though only twelve in a collection of sixty-four) are presented bilingually with the Gaelic originals on the verso, the poet’s own translations into English on the recto. The other poems appear in their sole English form. I know not one word of Gaelic and yet the Gaelic poems surprised and delighted me each time I encountered them. I was enchanted by looking at this strange rich language, full of consonantal clusters. I kept trying to lay the English over the Gaelic, or vice versa – one way in which the title of the collection began to work its charm.

  5. Simon Barraclough has been, for the past year, Poet in Residence at Mullard Space Science Laboratory. Barraclough remarks that his path there began with a fortuitous reading in 2013, but also long ago as a child looking up at the dark West Yorkshire night sky. His third collection, Sunspots, reflects this deep and pervasive interest in the cosmos, but more specifically, in our very own local star, the Sun itself.

    I come to Barraclough’s collection with profound interest in how science and poetry can interact, specifically astronomical and physical science. Barraclough does an excellent job of “circling” the sun in different ways, using each poem as a way of examining some facet, or “Sunspot.” His knowledge of Sun-science comes through in his application of scientific concepts and language, and his poems reveal the nature of the Sun via its interaction with us and with the broader universe. This is a cosmic long view of a book.

  6. Chris McCabe, Speculatrix (Penned in the Margins, £9.99) Andre Bagoo, Burn (Shearsman Books, £8.95) Dorothy Lehane, Ephemeris (Nine Arches Press, £8.99)

    Chris McCabe’s collection Speculatrix juggles language like he’s juggling knives, mixing contemporary urban scenes with Elizabethan and Jacobean references – sparks flying from the clashes and contrasts.

  7. Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons doesn’t have a jacket that would make me buy the book. It quotes Bernard O’Donoghue: “These are poems of the utmost importance,” while artist Paula Rego’s cover image of St Christina with a swaddled baby on her back is admittedly beautiful, but miserable. Feeling like a recalcitrant pupil having to engage with ‘heavy’ poems I probably won’t enjoy is not an ideal starting point. Flipping to the back cover, however, I am reassured by the smiling face of Etter, a widely-published American expatriate lecturing in creative writing at Bath Spa University.

    Coupling with my mixed emotions on what to expect, the collection itself deals with mixed emotions, as a birthmother meets up with the son she gave away as a teenager in a series of imagined scenarios. It includes anticipated heart-breaking moments, which never become syrupy and – surprisingly – deadpan humour.

  8. Tony Williams’ second collection, The Midlands, begins on a rather gloomy note, with the first line proclaiming, ‘The Midlands are crying’. But the detail of what provokes the despair makes it convincing, heartfelt and all the more pervasive:

    They cry in the carparks of aerodromes, deep in the cellars         of buildings that used to be bookshops. They cry over fences, at steam-engine rallies.         They cry over dogs and bags of granulated sugar.

  9. It says something, perhaps, about the power and mystery of Rosemary Tonks’ life (once the toast of literary 1960s Soho, turned religious recluse who repudiated all of her work) that I should have heard of her long before I read one of her poems. The image I had of her was a person who had disowned the craft of poetry but was still followed by a select band of stalwarts, initiates and rare booksellers. Until recently, I think there has been some truth in that, but Neil Astley is to be praised for all of his excavation, research and archival work in collecting together Tonks’ long out-of-print work and bringing it so accessibly to our attention in Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems. My major fear before reading these poems was that Tonks’ uniquely fascinating but agonised life story would threaten to eclipse the achievement of her poems, or at least strongly influence my reaction to them. Indeed, Astley’s detailed and scrupulous introduction gives us plenty of extra biographical information whilst also retaining a hint of the enigma, but the main achievement of this collection seems to be to present a rounded sense of Tonks as an artist prior to the radical change in her life in the late 1970s and her retreat from writing and literary life. For instance, Astley reprints two of her reviews and a rare interview with Peter Orr, which shows the visionary intensity and integrity that shaped her work:

    TONKS: …”I don’t understand why poets are quite ready to pick up trivialities, but are terrified of writing of passions…I want to show people that the world is absolutely tremendous.”

  10. There are four pamphlets in 2014’s Faber New Poets series: 9: Rachael Allen 10: Will Burns 11: Zaffar Kunial 12: Declan Ryan

    Sixteen pages is quite a slender space in which to make your mark, but Rachael Allen gives us, in effect, two separate sequences, as her pamphlet interleaves found language/trash-culture prose poems with a set of childhood memory/Cornish landscapes. All offer quite static images; no movement is attempted, and the relationship between the two sequences isn’t clear, as they bleed at times into each other, leaving a giddy, slightly seasick, sugar-rush feeling in the mind. But she has a rich vocabulary, and in the tightest of the poems (‘Kingdomland’ and ‘Old Fears Are Still Valid’ stand out) strong, compelling imagery.