Owen Lowery: ‘Otherwise Unchanged’


Writing and studying poetry was initially part of Owen Lowery’s recovery following a spinal injury incurred while competing in a charity judo tournament as a young professional sportsman.

photograph taken at sunset of the back of Anthony Gormley’s iron man from a sculptural placement at Crosby Beach in Merseyside. There are quite a few iron men placed at various intervals along the beach, meaning that the tide comes over them to varying extents. They are quite famous around Liverpool because people are always dressing the iron men up in all kinds of strange clobber. I like them so much because they are representative of stillness and movement, travelling and not, at the same time. It is a wonderful and inspiring place to visit.

An Iron Man on Crosby Beach in Merseyside is part of Another Place by Anthony Gormley. Photo (c) Jayne Lowery

Having recently won an Unlimited Award, Lowery’s first major poetry collection, Otherwise Unchanged, was published by Carcanet in 2012. The work speaks in a range of voices, drawing from poetic traditions, far and wide.

In the small selection from the collection, featured below, we are taken on a journey into the wards where Lowery received treatment, reflecting on staff and patients alike with a vivid, lyrical language full of acute perceptions of the individuals, and of their situation.

The collection includes poems on various informal and formal subjects and the work is populated with literary and artistic themes as well as the poet’s interest in war poetry. Below is featured one of a series of poems responding to the work of Turner Prize nominee Dame Paula Rego as well as a poem on the SS Ohio – an American oil tanker requisitioned by the Allied forces to re-supply the island fortress of Malta, during the Second World War.

In January 2013 Owen Lowery was commissioned by The Independent to write about his relationship to war poetry; and an article featuring his poem ‘Man walking’: was Carol Rumens’ poem of the week, published in the Guardian in September 2013.

Owen Lowery has recently become a recipient of an Unlimited Award to support a reading tour of Otherwise Unchanged. Beginning in Summer 2014 and ending in April 2015 the tour will visit venues in the north of England as well as London’s South Bank at the Unlimited Festival in September 2014

Please click on this link to read a personal perspective from Owen Lowery on a selection of war poets who have been both the subject and inspiration for much of his poetry

Bruise from my Baclofen pump re-fill

A tide-mark that won’t be washed clean
aggravates an October leaf’s
diminishing gold an obscene
yellow. A confirming relief
accepts its history. Meaning
attaches its clockwork breathing
to the day or the day before
with the doctor’s head setting pores

alight as he leant down, too mild
to say my talking didn’t help,
but saying it with the stretched smile
of a tolerance palpably
remote. The way a pond might smile
at the burden of a yelping
dog from the world next door, or rails
when a glance of sun gets impaled

on a wall. He’d worked the needle
a way in, testing the soap-bar
swelling through my skin with freedom
aware of its liberty, marked
the path he’d follow to bleeding
a little after, as if stars
were guiding him through the ceiling’s
flat neon. All the while, feeling

for the point he had to be sure
wasn’t lying, there was Burma
wanting to be remembered, born
under similarly pressed terms
to those in which I tried turning
protocol over again, form
being there just for the breaking,
though this time I left it shaking

in its tepid rain. Not that much
to build on anyway, just that
he’d mentioned it once when I’d touched
behind the blind smile, when his trust
couldn’t stop itself erupting
as the needle drew and then flushed
the valve inside me, and the bruise
waited a few days to come true.

© Owen Lowery, 29 September, 2012

The Promenade Hospital at Southport

Victorian Gothic shrinks in its towers
and collapses in on its wards, a mill-town
stranded after a charabanc jaunt
feeling the nimbleness of the wind flaunting
its distance. The red of terraces impounds
itself, sways, disempowered

by the sudden lack of soot to lean
on for support, dizzy watching the gulls
spell what they are on rapid transitions
of greys and blues. It stays official
even here, ambitiously sullen
hoisted over its pinch of green

breath. I didn’t know, not
initially, more than the gasp of doors
wheezing clear as I passed between
the split differences of nows and when
I was inert as a starfish on a concrete floor,
hadn’t got as far as what

it stood for, life and death aside
that is. Crossing the slabs of light
its windows dangled on tiptoes for abacus
weeks I couldn’t help tabbing
as they passed, it’s a fag-end’s flight
once we’re out, a moment gliding

of its own accord. The marine lake
from where I was I couldn’t see
more than the shine of, sits on its mirror
as the wavelets catch the leaf murmur
of summer’s breaking. But no sea
otherwise, just beach, like a mistake

that can’t correct itself, a pier
with nowhere else it can even begin
to dream of going. Hard to think
from here, turning the salty wrinkles
round to face the world for a minute
instead, where I was, the nearest

corner, or one less confronting
and confronted. Somewhere the gulls travelled
for the sake of blowing open I suppose,
and convalescence binds the coast
to what it promised. I watch it gather
its bricks towards its heart, stunted

until it calls me back. Change
flicks at the track-suit they’ve poured me in
for getting up, mimicking the whack
of sails. Its line’s stretching retracts
from its limit, measures an instant
freedom against the ward’s estrangement.

© Owen Lowery, 4 September, 2012

New admission, Southport, ICU

Rumours of an attempted suicide
navigate intervals between our beds
and what moves behind the curtains’ usual
closure. Relatives enter next with heads

like wilted flowers, dumb-struck and dazzled
by their strange immersion. Voices are hushed
on instinct. Looks make hurt attempts to pass
over the lungfuls of soft percussion

in the search for answers. Nothing from him
at this stage except the sporadic moans
of birthing cattle, the disrupted trim
of honeycombed blankets, and the tubes grown

part of him. A provenance replaces
his lack of any more context than that
he was magic-carpeted through gazing
doors with. We learn what we take to be facts

giving him both Oldham and Manchester
for a home town. Nurses talk in segued
instalments, each fresh one an expansion
of the last, until, before he’s found legs,

so to speak, before he’s articulate
he’s fully explored, even the music
of his African skin’s the party trick
of a Christmas uncle. Once he’s used up

they move him to less urgent wards, ones filled
with those who can breathe, who push their own chairs
the startled dancers reconnecting wills
to limbs. Glimpses then, but only rarely

when he coincides with nurses the doors
admit and expel, and with a lunch-time
he’s brought to my side, an improvised cure
more than anything, to feed me with hunched

fingers, to find a way out of his maze
of splintered mirrors. Just that once, talking
enough to catch sight through his eyes’ dead glaze
of life stumbling out of its awkwardness.

© Owen Lowery, 19 September, 2012

Paula Rego’s Yellow Dog

Trapped in an Egyptian dance forever
best understands, a cleverly braided
girl is Mother now. In the prop she’s made
of her left hand, her dog’s jaw severing

domestic blocks of colour. In her right
a spoon, its action also holding still,
prepares to force its gift on the dog’s will
with acceptance already clamped tight

inside. A bowl of milkish good is close
enough to reach when the drama sparks
again, when inertia breaks like an arch
the builders got wrong. Her profile shows us

nothing of the struggle except its end
is equally firmly set. The dog squirms
a fraction before balance comes to terms
with its transformation. The movement blends

them both to the point of contact. Love knows
they need, they both do. He’ll comply, of course
he will. And her face will become the remorse
any gentle dictator always shows

afterwards. There’ll be kisses, the plump coos
bruising up in the throats of wood pigeons
shot in the name of individuals
desperate to embrace their being used.

Owen, 10 January, 2013

The arrival of SS Ohio, 15 August 1942

Ohio hobbles to the Grand harbour
with tugs and destroyers struggling through the noise
beside her, coinciding, colliding with
the Santa Marija. The sight rings
the church-bells hoarse. Her course churns
behind, heals over. The smothering
blue resumes. Already, we’re grooming
the miraculous, attaching or confusing the two
events, even before the food
staggers into the cargo bays and the grey
ache of hunger breaks. Ohio
dawdling in and the Madonna’s Feast Day,
despair and deliverance, drift on bearings
converging beneath the surge of belief
on the quayside. Then the release of pent up
ecstasies. Hats flexing the flat
colours of the desert and its duty fall
off their arcs. A starched loft
of sky erupts like couples in the twilight
world of the shelters. A wealth where there would
have been a poverty of lovers leans
for a better view, renewing and resetting
themselves and what they’ve seen walling
them in for months. Miracle mingles with
a fair lump of luck when they look
at the state the tanker’s in turning to stone
walls and sea-floor. Holed by sprees
of bombs and torpedoes, she comes in pulsing
water through her hull, heavy with fuel
and with the crew hidden. It happens like a crash
in a dream, suspended unendingly on a lens,
with act and consequence as reflections under
and over meniscus. The noise shoving
steel to its appointed place stands
watching and listening to the light washing
and kissing the wall. Words like welcome
magnify to the point they appear disjointed,
as ridiculous as a drag Madonna. The dust
of the latest Stukas lingers on as Valetta
lifts and collapses and lifts again.

© Owen Lowery, 9 January, 2013