Stop Press January 2016: Sarah Howe’s collection has just become the first ‘first collection’ winner of the TS Eliot prize. A fantastic achievement. What follows is the review I wrote of the book during the summer of 2015.
This is the fifth and last in the series of reviews I have been posting over the last two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2015 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 28th September. The shortlist is:
Mona Arshi – Small Hands (Liverpool University Press, Pavilion Poetry) reviewed here;
Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus); reviewed here;
Andrew McMillan – physical (Cape Poetry); reviewed here;
Matthew Siegel – Blood Work (CB Editions) reviewed here;
Karen McCarthy Woolf – An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet) reviewed here.
Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus); author’s website.
Howe reading at the Southbank Centre:
Sarah Howe’s first full collection is packed with journeys, stories, bits of language, calligraphy, mothers and daughters – but mostly it should be admired for its readiness to experiment. The concluding poem, ‘Yangtze’, might be read as an evocation of the Daoist belief in the primacy of fluidity and the watercourse way. A moon glimmers uncertainly on water’s surfaces, a river flows, a diving bird vanishes into it, fishermen’s nets catch on something submerged, a bridge remains only “half-built”, a travelling boat merely “points” to its destination. What remains hidden and inarticulate predominates; as the Daodejing argues, our life’s journey often runs against the current because we mostly lack the proper perspective to see the world is really one, not the parts we think we know. Those 81 wonderful ancient Chinese poems also argue that our way forward is really backwards, to recover an understanding of what has always been: that sense of unity of being which underlies all phenomena. Their wisdom is a sort of nostalgia and this is what drives much of Howe’s work.
Two nostalgic tributaries flow into Loop of Jade – one philosophical, the other autobiographical. As in Daoist thought, words are not to be relied on and this is why Howe’s epigraph is by Borges, out of Foucault. It is a mock absurd taxonomy of the animal kingdom, sub-divided into a) belonging to the emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, and so on to n) that from a long way off look like flies. The butt of the joke is language’s categories, organised perhaps in such quasi-random ways. Several poems play with the pleasant thought that Chinese calligraphy can bring us closer to the truth. A scholar sits in his study and “lends his brush the ideal pressure – / leaves his mind there, on the paper”. Jesuit missionaries arriving at Canton likewise thought they’d discovered “Adam’s perfect tongue”, the language of Eden, an “anchoring of sign to thing”. The poems address the risk that we “might forget // words’ tenuous moorings” but as we are all signed-up postmodernists nowadays the joke ends at the scholar-poet’s expense in the poem ‘(k) Drawn with a very fine camelhair brush’ when his poorly tethered boat drifts away and leaves him helplessly marooned upstream.
Yet Howe is poet enough (‘poet-scholar’ is more of a disjunction than a working synthesis) to allow a woman in a Bonnard painting to long for “someone who will teach her the names of trees” (‘Woman in the Garden’) and the technique of the banderole – those speech scrolls often included in paintings – makes an unusual subject for a poem because it is a way to “make / mute canvas speak” (‘Banderole’). Perhaps it even bears some resemblance to Chinese calligraphy. Certainly, we need names as a form of geography, “for knowing where we are and names / of fixed and distant things” (‘Islands’). Accordingly, Howe scatters brief lyric poems, mostly descriptive, through the book and these seem also to aspire towards the state of calligraphy – one way at least of negotiating with the recalcitrance, the difficulty of mooring words; but these are not among the most successful poems in the book.
Instead, Howe’s experimentalism is more iconoclastic as shown in ‘(m) Having just broken the water pitcher’. This poem draws on a story from Wumen Huikai’s The Gateless Gate in which the sage Baizhang asks his pupil ‘If you cannot call it a water pitcher, what do you call it?’ The correct reply, we are told, is to kick the pitcher over and leave! There are some fascinating insights buried in this book about the rebelliousness of Chinese bloggers reinventing forms of language to avoid censorship and there’s no doubt they can be seen as partaking in the ancient traditions of their country. To paraphrase the opening chapter of the Daodejing: the words you are permitted to use are not the words that will remain. The kicked-over pitcher – to shift the metaphor as the Daodejing does – breaks the paradigm, returns us to the uncarved block of wood, the original state, before words, government, censorship.
This original state is characterised in Laozi’s Dao poems as the ‘mother of all’ and the second nostalgic tributary flowing powerfully into Howe’s book is an autobiographical exploration of her Chinese mother’s life and culture. This is the more immediately accessible and marketable thread of the book that the Chatto blurb draws attention to and these poems are very vivid and moving. Most of them build in a documentary style, full of specific, often period, details to demonstrate yet another way of negotiating between words and things. ‘Crossing from Guangdong’ (a poem that might be usefully read beside Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Arrival at Santos’) has the narrator arriving on a paradoxically “strange pilgrimage to home”, trying to imagine her mother’s earlier life:
Something sets us looking for a place.
Old stories tell that if we could only
get there, all distances would be erased [. . . ]
This search is as much philosophical/spiritual as autobiographical: “Soon we will reach / the fragrant city”, though arriving at the putative destination, there is still so much “you can no longer see”. The title sequence of the book itself is in this mode, becoming even more documentary in its largely prose passages, interspersed with lyrical folk tale material and ventriloquistic evocations of the mother’s speaking voice. It ends with a more conventional poem on the jade pendent itself , given by the mother, blessed by a grandmother. It is worn to protect: “if baby // falls, the loop of stone – a sacrifice – / will shatter / in her place”. Curiously, the final line suggests some sort of fall has already taken place though the jade remains intact and I guess this is the fall from cultural roots torn up in Howe’s childhood move to the West: “And if I break it now – will I be saved?’
This is a fecund book, full of poetic ideas and a variety of forms. But it’s not exactly easy reading – Howe isn’t always inclined to swing her poems far across the chasm between writer and reader. But their richness derives from the twin sources of Howe’s thinking: on one side erudite and philosophical, on the other intimate and autobiographical and the use she makes of the myths, thinkers, stories and landscapes of her Chinese background means this is a book unlike any other.