“Chan”, poetry by Hannah Lowe

From the gangplank of a pre-war steamship to the present, via the jazz underground of 1960s London, Hannah Lowe’s rewarding second collection revels in the company of an unlikely crew of voices and personalities. Chan takes its name from the poet’s father (nicknamed, in turn, after the Polish card magician Chan Canasta) but does not shy away from the older resonances of the word, tracing these back into her Hakka heritage and the journeys of a global diaspora. Along the way, the poems investigate lives that intersect with Lowe’s personal history, no matter how brief the acquaintance: from the magnetic jazz saxophonist Joe Harriott, her father’s first cousin, to the travellers and stowaways who join Gilbert Lowe on the SS Ormonde in 1947 as it sails from Kingston to Liverpool.

Chan, Hannah Lowe (Bloodaxe, June 2016)
Chan, Hannah Lowe (Bloodaxe, June 2016)

Mirroring the stage presences of Canasta, Harriott, and other larger-than-life characters, many of these pieces have a distinctively theatrical quality, as if Lowe has chosen to pursue the lost identities of her cast by evoking, first, their masks and fabrications. Some achieve this formally: poems like “Distressed British Seamen” and “Mishra’s Blues” are laid out as scripts or dialogues (with stage directions to boot), while an intriguing sequence in the collection’s third section, “Borderliner”, contains poems with varying line-lengths laid out in parallel—like a jigsaw—such that they form a block of text on the page. An example of this which is particularly moving is “Genealogy”, which merges an ode to the narrator’s unborn child on the left


I carry you, a fleck, to Jamaica
I am sick daily […]
Sweet speck, what will you be?


with a travelogue from a journey to find her forebears on the right


I stand on my grandfather’s wrecked grave
pen in hand. I am allowed to write his name…


The effect is that of cacophony beaten into shape, two irreconcilable narratives—birth and death—made to match.

Other poems, more subtly, summon their half-remembered, half-recreated figures with just a sprinkling of bold or italicized conversation on an otherwise visually and metrically regular page. These pieces seem, at first glance, less successful at reviving realistic historical encounters, not least because the italics alone do little to make Lowe’s uncompromising (if highly inventive) rhymes sound natural in context. In reality, however, they allow her to conjure particular episodes in the recitative idiom of oral history. In the delightful poem “Cherokee”, the poet sees herself again on her mother Betony’s knee again as her mother, too, loses herself in an even earlier time. Twice remembered (and one imagines, told and retold), Betony’s early courtship with Harriott sparkles with its first-hand frisson:


He phoned me up, a party, would I go?
My mum said Joe who’s Joe, a darkie, no!


Given how eclectic the book is in its patterns and recollections, we must ask: where does its true locus—and locale—lie? Lowe keeps the poems clean of extensive epigraphs or footnotes, choosing instead to tuck her personal connections to these characters into brief notes at the back, and leaves us to follow threads of family history ourselves through the poems’ place-names, passenger lists, and affectionate slurs: in one pair of parallel poems, the narrator’s father (who, like Lowe, is of mixed heritage) is given the moniker “Ship Yit Tiam” (“eleven o’clock child”) by his father. Just as Lowe herself is sent through “the back door of Lowe-Shu Supermarket” by an irate uncle when she asks after her grandfather, we are taken from cousin to acquaintance, relative to family friend, to re-enact the frustrations of her own journey.

Or perhaps the countless selves, lives, and registers are simply the most empathetic way to revisit a difficult past. In “Yellow River, Milk River”, addressed to her son Rory, Lowe chronicles the history of the Hakka


always moving, hounded down […] by knives
and fire and blood


alongside the personal traumas suffered and inflicted by individual members of that narrative.

Now woven into the identities of the present, the past is difficult to escape: the word hakka was, after all,


an insult spat until the Hakka took
the word back


and Lowe reminds Rory, almost ruefully, that “my name […] is your name too”.

But this heritage is by no means something to regret. We find, elsewhere in the collection, that home—in the most difficult of circumstances—is what keeps Lowe’s characters true: as the young wayfarers Chan and Mishra play the cards they are dealt, over a cup of “chai” and miles from home, Mishra summons the “tigers on [his] wall” and “the elephants in green mirror” to keep his friend accountable:


Their eyes are fixed to your hands,
you sharpie, you swizzler!


Thanks to Lowe’s careful research and spirited retelling, the stories in Chan—stories of a family’s history, written across continents—hold something for all of us. She reminds us of those who still, today, make journeys like her father’s and grandfather’s, “skirting the bold lines of the map”, and issues a gentle rebuke to those who think that only the geographically rooted can know what “home” means. Being seen as a “border-liner”, or “neither here nor there”, may still carry a history of pain and misunderstanding. “But I say”, Lowe writes, defiant:


it’s only when you are standing
on the border that you are free
to look both ways

Theophilus Kwek is the author of three collections, They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue, Circle Line and, most recently, Giving Ground.