Unlimited is supporting a reading tour of Owen Lowery’s first major poetry collection, Otherwise Unchanged, published with Carcanet. The inspiration for the book is as wide-ranging as the poems that it includes, with work drawn from everyday experiences of love, life, and disability, and others that owe their inspiration to myriad literary and artistic interests. Simon Jenner reviews
Owen Lowery’s position in British poetry is unique. His work perceptually refracts through a spatial sidestep on shit happening, the way the world turns tilt and hallucinogenic at a craned neck, a twist from the corner of an eye. His poetry enters the looking glass world of a battle, as his master Keith Douglas put it in Alamein to Zem-Zem.
He possesses too Douglas’s wry objectivity, his relentless curiosity to probe whatever appears in his dial of glass. Lowery himself explicitly aligns his programme with Douglas:
– the relationship between the physical and spiritual, the concrete and the abstract, the point at which Macbeth could either see or imagine a dagger or Hamlet his dead father – has become an important part of my thesis on Keith Douglas. In Douglas's case it relates to his wanting to write "extrospective poetry" (The Independent January 5th, 2013)
The opening poem commences:
You must promise me one thing, to return
touched by the things you’ve seen, but otherwise
unchanged. When you bring me that other place,
that world removed, and I come to learning
the first colour you saw the sun hover
into, it must be you I’m learning through…
This is addressed as is so much to Jayne Winstanley, Lowery’s now wife and photographer, one of whose cloudscapes spins out of the front cover. Several poems explicitly address their relationship, her experientiality, her own life of looking, intently bringing that vicarious life to fuse with his.
There’s a double glass effect Lowery uses to a vantage on matter, on the construct of experience; of two dimensions through his partner first experiencing them as such, that Lowery refracts back again to a worded physicality.
… Perhaps I’ll be the views
you first woke, the ones you’ll be showing me.
This touches the conventions of being made new by love, invoking the lover’s profession as medium. It neatly subverts protestation, makes over lover as object, of becoming their shared point of study, where they’re touched but unchanged. It’s a wry defeat too, ‘otherwise unchanged’ instantly evoking stasis; Lowery’s physical state.
Lowery chose to mass seeing poems to open his collection; they’re some of his very strongest in an impressively weighty 120 pages, 75 poems. Language is informal, often informationally rather than linguistically rich, imagistic, breeding sharply realized tableaus; prosody alert and deft. ‘Meanwhile, back at the Chop House’ annunciates Lowery’s aesthetic neat:
There’ll be an angle from which we’re changed
in the jade of the Victorian tiles
every time our talking it over
finds a way between us. At that range
our thoughts lose themselves, become the smiles
the dead fill their own with. A camera
spears a moment through the evening droves
to make its own…
Lowery frequently broaches a poem with that buttonholing, studied urgency sometimes trademarked in contemporary poetry; earlier poems confirm what he’s grown out of to achieve. Like Douglas distinguishing ‘dead tanks, barrels split like celery’ Lowery discovers physical properties, life in conversation that ‘finds a way between us’. There’s a Douglasian magnificence in Lowery’s: ‘At that range/our thoughts lose themselves, becomes the smiles/the dead fill their own with‘ a debt Lowery repays. Thus a Lowery poem superimposes red arrows for prosodical argument, process - however unphysical - hefted, a plummet weight of arrival, like a ball in Rilke or Douglas’s ‘How to Kill’.
‘You with Larkin on’ in fact confounds jouissance and distance by enacting anxieties that poet flinched from where: ‘And I can make myself jump watching your face//so long I forget/to check your chest for moments/of breath’. ‘Man Walking’ opens in florescence, the ambiguity of ‘wrap’:
A wrap of flowers lifts him
from pavement and cemetery wall
to convergence at the point he makes
of early morning, our seeing
each other see him
at the same time…
The Chagall-ish imaged flood concludes
… of destination
only wants confirming
by a fall of petal on the dark
or his shoulder, a kiss
for us to remember him by.
Lowery interprets the aesthetic, a poem on the feisty heroine of The Woman in White, on Elgar’s Cello Concerto, on Celan’s suicide as another Death Fugue (Celan’s dated 1952): deft, though more regularly nuanced than Celan ever was; bracketed by poems on the Shoah, Primo Levi. Lowery takes all subjects as province. Edward Thomas, Frost, Owen, other re-imaginings of the site of battle filtered 90 years on, engage an imagination necessarily nourished on literature, arts, informed by historical trauma, though Lowery’s finest poems risk himself, his partner’s ways of prisming them both.
Slighter poems like that on Bin Laden’s death, where ‘the walls/are the colour sand can become, once clouds/bring the mountain close, with their bitter metal’ gleam with a vein revealed. Process is Lowery’s lodestar which he sets spinning to find weightier modes of expression.
Owen Lowery Otherwise Unchanged is published by Carcanet, 2012. Price: £8.96