(ISBN 978-0-9551273-5-9, The Rialto (2011), £5.50)
Hannah Lowe’s debut pamphlet The Hitcher is the fourth of The Rialto’s six Bridge Pamphlets so far, a series designed to traverse the canyon poets often face between having poems make it into literary magazines and gathering a strong enough set of them for book publication. The series has supported new and established writers alike and has certainly proved beneficial in Lowe’s case, with quite a few poems found in The Hitcher making the transition to her first collection Chick, which was shortlisted for 2013’s Forward Prize for Best First Collection.
Lowe has had a fascinating start to life which she rightly uses her writing to explore, making for a very autobiographical pamphlet. Starting with her upbringing in Essex and time studying abroad in California, Lowe draws inspiration from her problematic relationships with her brother and father, the latter a shadowy gambler, along with the decadence and loneliness of urban life in London and other episodes from her travels.
We can tell from the opening poem ‘Fist’, one of the poems which made the cut into Chick, that Lowe is a natural storyteller. A coming-of-age tale of her wild brother punching through a window, transforming a drunken New Year’s party into an emergency, ‘Fist’ shows a striking conversational urge. Its immediately accessible language hides clever control as its internal rhyme and dialogue create a poignant snapshot of adolescence’s insouciant drama:
‘A girl was crying in
the doorway, the music carried on, the bass line
thumping as we stood around my brother, Gary talking
gently saying easy fella, Darren draining Stella in one
hand and in the other, holding
up my brother’s arm, wet and red, the veins stood out
Lowe’s choice of formal structures helps her maintain this restraint throughout, tempering her free verse with the measure of sonnets and the narrative propulsion of terza rima. She employs these in a versatile way, firmer in anecdotal poems like ‘Room’ and applying a lighter touch in others, and this imbues The Hitcher with a sense of overarching structure and gentle direction: we can’t always be sure as to which place Lowe is taking us, but we have faith that we’ll know when we arrive.
Locating the changes of gear in these poems, how a word or sentiment accumulates for us to discover an underlying mood, makes each one a stimulating ride, and I found this to be The Hitcher’s most impressive quality. ‘The Picnic’ is a prime example, relating a clandestine tryst in a park between friends who undoubtedly know better. There’s a little Garden of Eden temptation lurking in the images here with the lovers lying barefoot, veins that ‘snake and pulse’, and a foreboding storm that we don’t see occur:
‘This is a secret. It beats with its own force.
The sky grows dark, inked and shelved
In foaming cloud. Two black ghosts slide around us.
They watch and wait.’
It’s this sort of subtle signposting that makes Lowe’s poems feel so emotionally complex and satisfying at their best, like ‘The Sunflower’s ungainly head symbolising vulnerability after a failed relationship; the restive sonnet ‘Foxes’, which maintains its ‘shadow-rabbit’ conceit wonderfully, or the fall of fireworks as ‘darts of red’ in the bitter memory of ‘Dracula’s Bride’. Lowe also succeeds in managing mood on a macro scale, establishing tropes for her themed poems and reusing them across the collection, such as giving her family poems brusque titles like ‘Smoke’, ‘Chick’, ‘Jason’, and ‘Fist’. All this adds up to make reading The Hitcher feel like a cohesive experience.
However, there is a slight flaw to Lowe’s willingness to show us a place and trust us to find our way there. Eager as she is to share her stories, occasionally she is prone to being too faithful to autobiographical details, particularly in travel poems like ‘The Highest Road’ and the longer terza rima strings which sag a little from their specificity. While studying for my MA at UEA, I remember Lavinia Greenlaw advising us in one of our workshops that a poem which takes liberties with original landmarks, even if it betrays its own artifice, can still be ‘true’ to our experience, if not more so in augmenting it.
There are poems in The Hitcher which I imagine were significantly redrafted or ditched for Chick, like ‘Learning to Play’ which is unique here for being so fragmented and experimental, but that title clearly conveys the formative aim behind this pamphlet and the Bridge Pamphlet series, a foundation which has clearly paid off in the release of Chick. It certainly makes me want to go out and see what some of these poems became.
The concept of the hitchhiker, wild yet open to any opportunity life offers, is therefore the perfect one for Lowe to choose for this pamphlet, and it’s a delight to see her nail it in the title poem where that fiery youth makes way for a place she can reflect over the ashes. What The Hitcher does is give us the hope that, regardless of when we finally get picked up, we all find a route to where we should be eventually.