Loop of Jade: Sarah Howe, Chatto
On the cover of this beautifully produced book of poetry we learn of Sarah Howe that she was born in Hong Kong in 1983 to an English father and Chinese mother and moved to England as a child. Thus the scene is set for one of the major contemporary stories of the migration of peoples and combination of cultures. Increasingly, people belong to and are part of more than one cultural tradition. Sarah Howe gives us her own perspective on this.
It will not have escaped the readers of this website that the book won this year’s TS Eliot prize. As a quality mark this does not get any more impressive. It was also shortlisted for the Forward prize and I attended the prizegiving ceremony on London’s South Bank. Sarah Howe read the poem ‘(c) Tame’ and I said to my companion that it was the best thing I heard all evening. And that was no disrespect to the many superb poems that were read out. The warm commendations on the book’s cover from artist and writer Edmund de Waal and poet Ruth Padel only add to the credentials of book and author.
So, even if we agree it is a good read, we might yet want to know what kind of read it is. It is not “easy” one, certainly. For me, good poetry rarely is. This writing is allusive, dense and often opaque – qualities which I recognise can put some readers off. Add to this two pages of Waste Land-style explanatory notes to clarify some of the references, a ploy not universally popular. For me, however, this tussle with meaning and reference is integral to the enjoyment of really fine poetry. Integral to, but not a substitute for: you still need to respond to that dance of words, thoughts and sensations that constitutes the joy of reading poetry and this, as the aforementioned Mr Eliot asserted, can be experienced prior to “understanding”.
Howe does not disappoint. Her diction is surprising and inventive, her imagery vivid and shocking. Just a few examples here, picked almost at random:
The glistening bodies/ of cockroaches like obscene sucked sweets
To the humid strains of Frank/Sinatra
The bus sinks with a hydraulic sigh
We slept/ three small girls to each shelf of the beds/ like dumplings stacked in steamers.
Her metrics are always supple and endlessly varied. Sometime she moves like haiku; sometimes she uses lolloping lines of Whitmanesque length. We get prose, couplets, tercets, quatrains. We get Olson-style gapped lines, Williams-style three-ply stepped lines. She even gives us iambic blank verse in the superb ‘Crossing from Guangdong’, an account of a bus ride that challenges comparison with the bus ride Elizabeth Bishop took to Boston that was delayed by that sublime inquisitive moose. References to American poets do occur in the collection. You would not be surprised to be reminded of Pound and his Imagist interest in the ideogram and his wonderful ‘Cathay’. Ashbery was less expected, as was the meditation on Roethke’s poem about the student who died after falling from her horse.
I end up with a question – a genuine one – about the organisation of the book. It starts with a quote from Borges from some cod encyclopaedia he has invented that proposes a taxonomy of animals. We go from ‘a’ to ‘n’ in categories and these categories recur dispersed through the collection as included in the titles of poems. The relation of titles to the poems they head still eludes me as does the overall plan. What does it mean? I refer the reader to that description of meaning in poetry, in which “meaning” in a poem knocks at your front door while the poet nips round the back door to burgle you. All I can say is that I have been well and truly robbed.