Hannah Lowe, The Kids – review

Hannah Lowe’s The Kids and Gerard Woodward’s The Vulture represent strikingly different approaches to poetry and offer complementary pleasures. Their very titles hint at the way in which in one the world is a fundamentally familiar place, felt as such by both poet and reader, and in the other it becomes rather frighteningly and chillingly strange.

The Kids focuses on what are presented as the poet’s own experiences as a teacher in an inner London sixth form college, as a schoolgirl, as a bereaved daughter and as a mother. Addressing us intimately and confidingly, with apparent trust in our ability to read between the lines of what she says, Lowe invites us to reflect on the situations she meets and the emotions she feels. The poems are almost all sonnets, which helps give a neatly framed appearance to the experiences and reflections they present. Adept at narrative, Lowe crafts them with an elegance that is a source of pleasure in itself. They often involve small but significant adjustments of the speaker’s and our own perception of this familiar world. However, few of these poems actually startled me, either by what they said or how they said it. I didn’t find many phrases or rhythms sticking in my mind, let alone haunting me with a sense of suggestiveness beyond my immediate grasp. Their great strengths are their narrative economy, and the sensitivity, humour and refreshing candour with which Lowe presents her interactions with other people. Even when describing situations in which she got things wrong or felt disoriented and out of her depth at the time, she tells the story in a way that implies that she understands it now, and that her readers will understand it in the same way. We see this in the first of her ‘teacher’ poems, narrating her first day on the job:

That first September, I climbed the blue stone steps
past Shakespeare’s doubtful face, an old mosaic
of Jamaica, and the ruby blot of lips
where last year’s girls had kissed the schoolhouse brick.

“The ruby blot of lips” is excellent. Altogether, lines 3 and 4 seem to me to have a layered and equivocal suggestiveness that’s unusual in this book, though without quite achieving the startling or haunting quality that would break through a slightly cosy sense of complicity between poet and reader. And delightful though they are, I don’t think the poems about the poet’s young son in the final section quite do this either.

Where I did find touches of haunting power was in a longer poem called ‘The Stroke’. Here, Lowe seems almost stunned, barely able to process the event and her own feelings as she’s confronted with her mother’s physical and her father’s emotional helplessness after her mother’s stroke. Such a crisis naturally drags to the surface unresolved tensions and issues in the daughter’s relation to both parents. What’s involved resists the neat packaging of the sonnet poems in its intensity, rawness and life-transforming scale. Shakespeare might have dealt with such material successfully in a sonnet sequence but Lowe has wisely avoided the attempt. Though she’s set this poem out in a way that keeps some visual consistency with the sonnets – pairing seven line stanzas to form fourteen line blocks – it’s actually a single 70 line poem in rhyme royal (a 7 line stanza form rhyming ABABBCC) and its sense flows continuously from stanza to stanza. Here’s the first stanza:

For days after the stroke, she lay bed-bound,
misdiagnosed – the Doctor said ‘Bell’s palsy’
of her weeping eye and tilted frown, her hand
cold-numb below the eiderdown. The telly
in the corner spun blue-light, an anarchy
of voices. My father, dying himself and lost,
brought trays of tea and plates of buttered toast.

There’s an awkwardness about the movement that seems to me appropriate and moving. The reference to the father – “dying himself and lost” – is almost overwhelming in its apparent randomness, as if the daughter can barely focus on him at this point.  But of course the randomness is skilfully contrived – BECAUSE it’s said as an aside, leaving us to register the point for ourselves, “dying himself” takes on enormous power. The lost / toast rhyme and the reminiscence of the last lines of Eliot’s ‘Sweeney Erect’ bring out the helplessness of his action in face of such catastrophe (as against Doris’s practicality in Eliot’s poem). I think I feel a flash of irritation mingling with the daughter’s pity, and that seems to me an example of this poem’s strength in presenting contradictory feelings in a raw and unassimilated way.

The Kids by Hannah Lowe. Bloodaxe Books. 80pp., £10.99

I would like to thank Danielle Hope, the editor of Acumen, for permission to post this review, which appeared in Acumen 104

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