REVIEWED BY JAMES PHILLIPS
Hannah Lowe (Bloodaxe: 2021)
Humorous. Engaging. Evocative. There is much to love about The Kids, Hannah Lowe’s Costa Book of the Year 2021 poetry collection. Primarily about the author's own experiences of teaching in multicultural London, it packs quite a punch.
Her own first hand accounts form the basis of many of these poems, from students she’s taught, people she once knew, all the way to witnessing what students’ boredom is like from a teacher's perspective. Her fine use of language provides many quirky, original figurative phrases which whilst amusing, are dually evocative: ‘how quick // the kids can zip their chat, though leave it hanging / in the air so you can smell it’ (‘Red-handed’ p. 25). There are no dead metaphors here. Her observations are notable – random, intense – making the experience of her memories, because that is her primary resource for this collection, more vivid.
But beneath this story-telling, often colloquial tone, more difficult topics quickly begin to emerge, sometimes imperceptibly as though coded and other-times plainly, piercing uncomfortably through the text. The poet is of mixed heritage (her father is half Jamaican and half Chinese) and her personal experience offers cultural insights, giving the collection its foundation. She notes slurs and derogatory racist shaming which kindle a sense of shame and embarrassment in a reader. The poet’s consciously simple narrative helps regulate our own response to the events she relates; placing us in her shoes and those of her students. This leads us to reconsider our own experience and sense of morality.
The collection explores the poet’s own development. Split into three parts, she first explores her present experience as a teacher. This eases you into the collection. What soon follows is a harsher personal reality. Her titles often intrigue. She addresses challenges in her upbringing and the experiences of people she will never forget. The reader occasionally feels engaged in watching warfare, with a strange bystander feeling of being in the room, tensions shimmering, voices echoing, just a moment in passing. And, just like a flashback, it ends. She offers a snapshot into intense moments of being: the cruelty of some of her teachers, subpar boys and first loves. The third part follows her from late teens to motherhood. She writes of her own children, especially her son, Rory. What especially strikes a reader is how individual people have such influence on others; how actions and words don’t always fade into the ether. Instead, Hannah Lowe catches fragments of life, she renders clips of time on the page.
This is an important collection about growing up, and perceiving growing up, in multicultural Britain. It is a testament to a changing country. But too, Hannah Lowe encapsulates the microcosm. Some of the poems are just for her, some for everyone. Some are for unique, particular people, giving an intricate, intimate, yet often anonymous, glimpse into their lives. Some of the poems I might never understand. Here is poignancy, laughter, and everything in between. The Kids is a collection I strongly urge you to read.