If only all forgotten histories were alternatively recorded through poetry! That was my first reaction after I finished reading Hannah Lowe’s new pamphlet, Ormonde. The collection had its genesis from a notebook that belonged to the poet’s father fondly known as Chick, who had been the theme for Lowe’s first full-length collection. He had written in the notebook when he first sailed from Jamaica to England on the ship Ormonde in 1947. Ormonde’s history is forgotten, most people will recall the other ship, Empire Windrush, and wrongly assume that was the first vessel to carry immigrants from Jamaica, but Hannah Lowe sets records straight in the opening poem—‘Rewind, rewind the Windrush! Raise the anchor/ and sail her back, three weeks across the water’.
"…[Lowe]occupies the triple position of historian-poet-storyteller, and makes her voice both earnest and true by variations…"
Hannah Lowe does rewind, not just through facts and figures, but also through imagination. As she describes in the introduction, the material she came across through research was surprisingly little. Much of the material came from the journals kept by the poet’s father, and the desire to relive the moments of the historic journey goes beyond the personal, as Lowe writes in the poem ‘Shipbreaking’:
…I google what I can. If you
were here, you’d ask me why I care so much.
I’d say it’s what we do these days Dad, clutch
But Hannah Lowe does more than just Google for information. The process behind the creation of the pamphlet is as interesting as the final object. Faced with inadequate facts, Lowe placed advertisements in the newspaper, sent postcards to passengers she could find details of in the list at the National Archives but in the end, all the cracks in the narrative she had to fill with her imagination. Which is far more difficult than it appears to be, to speak for other people and claim for them their places in history occupies a different level of responsibility altogether.
And here is precisely where Hanna Lowe exhibits her genius: she occupies the triple position of historian-poet-storyteller, and makes her voice both earnest and true by variations. Assuming personas of the migrant worker and his dreams, a schoolboy thinking about English cricket bats, boxers, distressed seamen and even stowaways, Ormonde’s whispers and chatter come alive again with Lowe’s efforts. Switching between forms from a poem set in dialogues to sparse idiomatic ones adds to the pamphlet’s richness. The poem “white” deserves special mention in the way it plays out much of the political and cultural tensions of immigration in such laconic exquisiteness.
What makes Ormonde even more appealing is its design. From the handsome teal cover with a stick-on photograph of the forgotten ship, the generous use of facsimiles, postcards, photographs and footnotes, the overall mission of achieving a balance between fictional and factual narratives is a rare feat. Mike Phillips’s introduction sets the tone and heritage of the project, and it is carried forward by epigraphs from Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Stuart Hall. And I do not mean to resort to cliché when I say that reading Ormonde is a reenacting of the ship’s journey, from her sailing in March 1947 to the tearing in 1952, and how she lives on in fruit bowls made from scrap teak, and of course in Hannah Lowe’s pamphlet which starts from memory and turns into a most elegant memorial.