Beverly Ellis reviews Hannah Lowe's 'The Hitcher'

Another Breath of Fresh Air

The Hitcher  by Hannah Lowe, pub. The Rialto (Aylsham, England), 2011, price £5.50, ISBN 978-0-9551273-5-9

Subsequent readings of this pamphlet confirmed my first impressions, that this is an exciting debut collection by a gutsy poet.

I’ve been very pleased to notice a growing strand in contemporary British poetry of independent women whose subject-matter takes you on a journey along with them: sometimes actual travel to quite risky places and sometimes an edgy, emotional or psychological voyage – which might just take place at the local café, but the fallout is no less devastating than hitch-hiking alone in a foreign country.

Hannah Lowe’s poems take many different forms, but are frequently first-person narratives.  Her stories of friendships, partying hard and youthful heart-break are redolent of events most of us have survived, but may prefer not to remember!  Some of the poems reminded me of work I admire by Katrina Naomi, e.g. ‘Tunnel of Love’ and ‘Lunch at the Elephant & Castle’, and what a pleasure it is (albeit an uncomfortable one) to have brave female poets set down in words the routine humiliations and questionable decisions of our formative years – specifically as experienced by young women – and transform them into emblematic rites-de-passage.

Although sometimes subject to the actions of males, Hannah Lowe’s female personas are self-defined and, despite making the occasional bad choice (well, haven’t we all?), never evince victim status but accept responsibility for their own actions, flawed as these may seem in hindsight:

    I turned twenty-one that week and dialled
    my mother from a greasy booth along the Boulevard,
    sobbed soundlessly into the static fuzz as punk-haired girls

    flew by on roller skates, a tramp with tattooed stars
    under his eyes was thumping on the glass.  An orange Dodge
    pulled up and I climbed wordlessly into the car

    beside a man I’d seen somewhere before…

As in this extract from ‘Room’, some of the poems in The Hitcher take place abroad – in California, for example, where the poet lived for a time – and give access to both glamorous locations and the seamier side of life.  But most of the poems are set in the London area and revolve around family and social contacts.  The possible stasis and isolation of life in a big city are glimpsed lurking under the fragile carapace of confidence in ‘Lucky Dip’ and in mentions of people seeing their therapist; and I’ll never forget the true-to-life female friends in ‘Ink’ who discuss the possibility of long-haul travel, but seem unlikely to get as far as the nearest airport:
    Seems that everyone at lunch is pregnant again.  I paint
    my life in lurid detail.  Let them sip lemonade
    and see what they’re missing.

    Siobahn talks about taking off.  At Brechon Bouton, it’s Paris.
    In El Rincon, it’s Peru or Chile…

And – yes – I think something is surfacing in the work of this poet and also in the attitudes expressed by a number of other British females writing in recent years, something that has long been accepted in other areas of culture, like popular music…  Dare I say it?  Yes, let’s be bold for once: finally mainstream British poetry is admitting to the lives of real, modern women.  Of course, this is just a personal view – and I’m sure there have been many fine examples in the past of poems reflecting a wide range of female experiences – but at long last I am beginning to see a canon of work of British women depicting lives that I actually recognise: including women who might get drunk once in a while and have a one-night stand; women who rarely see a kitchen and have no plans to do so any time soon; or (horror of horrors) even some women who dare to suggest that having a sprog may not be the ultimate expression of their femininity.  Perhaps the welcome sea-change I’m beginning to detect is that – slowly, gradually – a wider variety of female outlooks is finding more tolerance socially so that these are able to be expressed more directly in poetry, making it truly optional whether or not to displace real experience into oblique metaphor or myth.

Like the women in her narratives, Hannah Lowe’s poems stand on their own two feet.  Whether expressed via the most subtle of sonnets, or in her longer pieces, each poem tells its tale without the need for a game of hide-and-seek.  Her work revels in a wealth of sensuous detail and sinuous language, the effect of which is somehow filmic; each poem whisks you away somewhere and you can’t quite work out how you got there, but even when danger threatens – as in ‘The Hitcher’ or ‘Jason’ – you are always reluctant to exit that world when the poem ends.

At the summit on women’s poetry, chaired by Jo Shapcott at Aldeburgh a couple of years ago, part of the conclusion reached was that – whilst it has in fact been around for thousands of years – women’s poetry is, in another sense, still quite a recent phenomenon, continuing to diversify and find its own path.  I am very pleased to report that Hannah Lowe’s poems have definitely come of age, with no need to ask Dad’s permission to stay out late.

….reviewed by Beverly Ellis

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