Review | The Neighbourhood by Hannah Lowe

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Hannah Lowe’s fourth chapbook, The Neighbourhood, begins with a winding dotted line that travels from the first to the second page. The image continues in the page of contents. The dotted line after final poem’s title droops to create a circle before it lands several lines down, anchored by the page number. Lowe’s poems encompass many voices, passing through sidewalk scenes, flats, and exercise classes to represent the variety of a neighbourhood.

All summer the children have been running in the global refugee crisis
in the communal garden Ammar is searching for his brother on a train
kicking a football through the yellow roses, chasing the bodies roll out
across the parched ground on the platform, a woman lifts a card sign
I hear their cries from the fourth floor help us, save our souls!

“The Garden is Not for Everyone” — The Neighbourhood, pg. 9

“The Garden is Not for Everyone” appears halfway through Lowe’s pamphlet. Its structure resembles the Pulitzer-winning poems of Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, which boasted the ability to be read in any direction, and any order. Lowe’s poem may not be as versatile, but it is not meant to be. Her juxtaposition of a communal garden and refugees’ struggle for visibility does not mesh together perfectly, and this reflects the wilful ignorance of more privileged citizens.

Lowe experiments with this dual imagery, and also with the placement of her lines and stanzas. In “The Fence”, every other line is justified halfway across the page, so the poem is split in two as Lowe’s narrator is kept apart from her neighbour. “Wood Green Stories”, inspired by the Scottish poet Iain Crichton Smith, consists of short stanzas beginning at varying points from the left side of the page. “Total Body Conditioning”, the longest poem in the collection which impressively blends anxiety about ageing with reflection on gentrification, has one stanza tilted forty-five degrees to the left.

Chick, Lowe’s first collection, focuses on life of her father, a black Chinese immigrant. He appears in this as well, standing next to a rotting riverside in “The River”, and gambling (the habit which created the distance Lowe discusses in Chick) in “The Dice”: a poem which evolves from Lowe in the present with a pair of antique dice, to their Roman origins, to her father’s gambling, to her son’s love for the dice he views as a toy, to the sombre significance of a public memorial for a shooting. Lowe presents all these images in sixteen lines. Her dexterity allows her to show the historical and political complexity of seemingly everyday objects; when one is the child of an immigrant of colour, the injustices against refugees is especially painful, when to others it can become yet another catastrophe repeated on the news. Perhaps this awareness leads Lowe to lament the fate of deportees and feature immigrants in so many of her poems.

Though Lowe balances multiple narrators and time periods, she cannot protect herself from the passage of time which gentrifies the city blocks she describes. An early poem, “Skirting”, shows her son Rory’s view of the sidewalk as he is pushed in his stroller. Thirteen pages later, in “Scooting”, he is old enough to ride a scooter and enter the mess of cars, bicycles, and buses on the city streets. Lowe’s concluding poem is hopeful, in a world where her adventurous son is not in danger, but possesses enough power to destroy anything in his path. Lowe beautifully imagines “a million curlicues/ of car-dust” that will “spin/ around [her] boy”. The lines from the beginning of the pamphlet return with these curlicues, and the full stop at the end of “Scooting” becomes the first dot of a line which circles and overlaps across the last three pages.

Like her poems, Lowe’s curving lines show us that everything is connected, whether it wants to be or even knows. Children play football in gardens at the same moment that refugee families are separated on crowded train platforms, women across generations attend exercise classes to feel youthful and powerful, and a child is fascinated by the same object which caused his grandfather so much agony. Lowe, who is the current poet in residence at Keats House, demonstrates a great deal of empathy in this collection, managing to include so many voices and themes into The Neighbourhood‘s eighteen pages of poetry.

Words by Emma Deshpande.

For more information on The Neighbourhood, visit Out-Spoken Press.


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