2019 Forward First Collections Reviewed #4 – Jay Bernard’s ‘Surge’

As in the previous four years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 20th October 2019. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

 

The full 2019 shortlist is:

Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins) – reviewed here.

Jay Bernard – Surge (Chatto & Windus)

David Cain – Truth Street (Smokestack Books) – reviewed here.

Isabel Galleymore – Significant Other (Carcanet) – reviewed here.

Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)

Jay Bernard’s Surge is a slim volume carrying with it a great deal of political as well as publishing history. Its early stirrings seem to have been Bernard’s residency at the George Padmore Institute in north London where they explored documents relating to the New Cross Fire in January 1981. Often dubbed the ‘New Cross Massacre’, thirteen young people died in a fire at a birthday party. The fire may have been racially motivated arson and certainly the authorities’ response to the incident was unconvincing, possibly obstructive. There is a direct line from this incident, through the imposition of SUS laws and ‘stop and search’ in South London and the SWAMP 81 police crackdown and the subsequent, so-called Brixton Riots of April 1981. The Scarman Report in November of that year laid the blame for the riots squarely on the police action. In our contemporary landscape, and especially after the Grenfell Tower fire and the still-unresolved shameful treatment of the Windrush Generation, it’s easy to see why Bernard wanted to write about New Cross.

new-cross-fire-houseBut Surge itself has since gone through various forms. There were 10 original poems written quickly in 2016. There was a performance piece (at London’s Roundhouse) in the summer of 2017 (it was this version that won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in poetry in 2017). But it has taken 3 years for this Chatto book to be finalised. In an interview just last year, Bernard observed that they were still unclear what the “final structure” of the material would be. I’m possessed of no insider knowledge on this, but it looks as if this “final” version took some considerable effort – reading it makes me conscious of the strait-jacket that a conventional slim volume of poetry imposes – and I’m not sure the finalised 50-odd pages of the collection really act as the best foil for what are, without doubt, a series of stunningly powerful poems. The blurb and publicity present the book (as publishers so often do) as wholly focused on the New Cross and Grenfell fires but this isn’t really true and something is lost in including the more miscellaneous pieces, particularly towards the end of the book.

Bernard writes of events in the past by deploying a multiplicity of voices which are given the power to haunt backwards and forwards through historical time. Unusually, their own voice is heard in ‘Ark’. They are here searching through an archive of documents of “flaking Letraset and amber glue” that also (punningly) acts as an ‘ark’ to bring the dead back to the present. What preoccupies the narrator is how and where to “file / the damp smoke and young bones” of the New Cross victims. The conclusion seems to be they cannot be securely and finally located anywhere while the country still experiences “the burning house, the child made ash, the brick in the back / of the neck, the shit in the letter box and piss up the side of it”.

memorial2Bernard’s poetic voice is at its best when making full use of the licence of free forms, broken grammar, infrequent punctuation, the colloquial voice and often incantatory patois. So a voice in ‘Harbour’ wanders across the page, hesitantly, uncertainly, till images of heat, choking and breaking glass make it clear this is someone caught in the New Cross Fire. Another voice in ‘Clearing’ watches, in the aftermath of the blaze, as an officer collect body parts (including the voice’s own body): “from the bag I watch his face turn away”. The cryptically titled ‘+’ and ‘–’ shift to broken, dialogic prose as a father is asked to identify his dead son through the clothes he was wearing. Then the son’s voice cries out for and watches his father come to the morgue to identify his body. This skilful voice throwing is a vivid way of portraying a variety of individuals and their grief. ‘Kitchen’ offers a calmer voice re-visiting her mother’s house, the details and familiarity evoking simple things that have been lost in the death of the child:

I have held this house

in my arms and let it sob

on the bathroom floor, heard it in

the background of a call,

heard it speak a kind of love –

A vigorously rhythmic patois voice is used in ‘Songbook’, recycling the horrific narrative again as a young boy and girl dance happily until:

Me seh di heat ah di night ah come up thru di floor

Black smoke ah rise tho dem nevah did know

[. . .]

Gyal fall back inside an we no see her no more

No bright green dress up pon di third floor

Bernard acknowledges their debt here to Linton Kwesi Johnson’s earlier poem about the New Cross Fire; you must listen to Bernard give a mesmerising performance of their own great poem here.

linton-kwesi-johnson-golden-penI’m guessing most of the poems I have referred to so far come from the early work of 2016. Other really strong pieces focus on events after the Fire itself. ‘Duppy’ is a sustained description – information slowly drip-fed – of a funeral or memorial meeting and it again becomes clear that the narrative voice is one of the dead: “No-one will tell me      what happened to my body”. The title of the poem is a Jamaican word of African origin meaning spirit or ghost. ‘Stone’ is perhaps a rare recurrence of the author’s more autobiographical voice and in its scattered form and absence of punctuation reveals a tactful and beautiful lyrical gift as the narrator visits Fordham Park to sit beside the New Cross Fire’s memorial stone. ‘Songbook II’ is another chanted, hypnotic tribute to one of the mothers of the dead and is probably one of the poems Ali Smith is thinking of when she associates Bernard’s work with that of W.H. Auden.

104-artontheunderground-14jan14But when the device of haunting and haunted voices is abandoned, Bernard’s work drifts quickly towards the literal and succumbs to the pressure to record events and places (the downside of the archival instinct). A tribute to Naomi Hersi, a black trans-woman found murdered in 2018, sadly doesn’t get much beyond plain location, a kind of reportage and admission that it is difficult to articulate feelings (‘Pem-People’). There are interesting pieces which read as autobiography – a childhood holiday in Jamaica, joining a Pride march, a sexual encounter in Camberwell, but on their own behalf Bernard seems curiously to have lost their eagle eye for the selection of telling details and tone and tension flatten out:

The bus heaves past Loughborough, to Camberwell,

to the green, buzzing with students drunk on Friday,

drunk on art and trendy and young: wine bottle young,

rollie-young, tight, flat-chested young. I follow you down,

I follow you up to the stairs of your flat [. . .]

grenfell-the-sunThe mirroring architectonic of the collection emerges with the poems written about the Grenfell Tower fire. So we have ‘Ark II’, two pools of prose broken by slashes which seem to be fed by too many tributary streams: the silent marches in Ladbroke grove, the Michael Smithyman murder and abandoned investigation, Smithyman’s transition to Michelle, and the burning of the Grenfell Tower effigy, the video of which emerged in 2018.

In an earlier blog post I was thinking about “the (in)adequacy of a certain English poetic voice to confront the scale of ecological issues, or as a vehicle for expressing certain cultural differences, or as a way of exploring the kind of tragic and grievous event represented by the Grenfell fire and its aftermath”. I think Bernard offers answers to this sort of question in their New Cross Fire poems but the challenge of Grenfell (is it the lack of historical distance?) does not yield the same sort of success. The final poem in the book, ‘Flowers’ is a case in point. Each quatrain carries a rhetorical question, creating a formal rather than urgent or passionate impression, and the valid question is will “anybody speak of” the kinds of issues raised elsewhere in the book. Yet the canonic imagery invokes the speech of flowers, the transition from summer into winter (done much more effectively in ‘Stone’). In the context of a live reading, in the context of the horror, the grief, the injustices, the historical perspectives raised so very successfully elsewhere in Surge, I’m sure this sort of poem has an impact. But in the cold light of day, Bernard’s voice here sounds confined by expectations they ought to be ignoring and ends by giving a rather awkward performance – especially when it’s compared to the fluid, passionate, skilful, clever, eloquence of something like ‘Songbook’.

2019 Forward First Collections Reviewed #3 – Raymond Antrobus’ ‘The Perseverance’

As in the previous four years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 20th October 2019. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

 The full 2019 shortlist is:

Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins)

Jay Bernard – Surge (Chatto & Windus)

David Cain – Truth Street (Smokestack Books) – reviewed here.

Isabel Galleymore – Significant Other (Carcanet) – reviewed here.

Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)

 

Raymond Antrobus’ The Perseverance has already received a great deal of coverage since being chosen as a Poetry Book Society Choice in September 2018. It is a collection that has achieved the difficult task of transcending the acclamation of the poetry world to a much more widespread appreciation, such as winning the Rathbone’s Folio Prize 2019 (awarded to “the best work of literature of the year, regardless of form”). In many ways it is a conventional book of poems – its voice is colloquial, it successfully employs a range of (now) traditional forms (dramatic monologues, prose poem, sestina, ghazal, pantoum), its forms, syntax and punctuation are nothing out of the ordinary (compared to the work of Danez Smith, for example, a comparison that Antrobus invites). Its subject matter is to a large extent dominated by a son’s relationship with his father, by questions of racial identity and (this is what is especially distinctive) the experience of a young Deaf man. Besides the latter, what really marks the book out as special is that impossible-to-teach, impossible-to-fake, not especially ultra-modern quality of compassion.

I think the portrait of the “complicated man”, Raymond Antrobus’ father, is remarkable. This is a warts and all portrayal as can be seen in the title poem, a sestina, in which the boy’s seemingly endless and repeated waiting for his father to come out of the pub called ‘The Perseverance’ is reflected in the repetitions of the poetic form. The neglect of the child (and of the mother of his child) is made perfectly clear; one of the repeating rhyme words is ‘disappear’. But another is ‘perseverance’ itself which sets up sweetly ironic resonances in relation to the experiences of both father and child. But a third rhyme word is ‘laughter’ which transmutes in significance as the poem develops. At first it is the distant din from the inside of the pub. It grows into a sort of paternal life-view: “There is no such thing as too much laughter”. In the end, after the loss of the father, it is what the son remembers, rather than the neglect: “I am still outside THE PERSEVERANCE, listening for the laughter”.

Raymond Antrobus

Antrobus’ epigraph to ‘The Perseverance’ quotes from ‘Where you gonna run’, a lyric by Peter Tosh: “Love is the man overstanding”. The latter word means a form of understanding that emerges after all untruths have been overcome. The poems scattered through this collection make it clear that a full overstanding of his “complicated” father took a while. The disciplining of his child often took the form of “a fist”. When Raymond knocked loose wires from his father’s sound system, the response was a beating. Yet, “every birthday he bought me / a dictionary”. His father could recite “Wordsworth and Coleridge”. He never called his son deaf, but rather “limited”, and he would read with him in the evenings (more of that later). But then he might regale his son with tales of his extensive sexual experiences, “three children with three different women”. In the end, as so often, the child ends nursing the infantilised father who is suffering from dementia. The father’s mind is filled with the past, his own growing up in Jamaica, his first kiss, his later, difficult life in England. ‘Dementia’ deploys a second person address to the condition itself:

 

you simplified a complicated man,

swallowed his past

until your breath was

warm as Caribbean

concrete —

In the final poem in the book, Antrobus again uses a traditional form – a pantoum this time – to evoke some of the moments of closeness between father and son as they read together. In ‘Happy Birthday Moon’ the father’s attentive, gentle, encouraging side is memorialised as is the Deaf child’s desire to please his father:

 

Dad makes the Moon say something new every night

and we hear each other, really hear each other.

As Dad reads aloud, I follow his finger across the page.

 

Much earlier in the book, Antrobus writes of clearing his father’s flat after his death. On an old cassette tape, stowed away for years, the poet now listens to a recording of his own two-year-old voice, repeating his surname: “Antrob, Antrob, Antrob”. The final syllable is missing because the child could not hear it. At the time of the recording, no-one in the family suspected there was an issue. Years later, Antrobus sits “listening to the space of deafness”. Other sections of this early sequence, ‘Echo’, document the Deaf child’s experiences of slow diagnosis (“since deafness / did not run in the family”) and the tests that finally revealed the truth. These are important poems for the hearing world to read; the lazy inaccuracies and limitations of our imaginations always need re-invigorating with the truth of lived experience. The first section of ‘Echo’ takes us straight into the experience of “ear amps”, of “misty hearing aid tubes”, of doorbells that do not ring but pulsate with light.

Antrobus’ subject is only partly the frustrations of Deafness (capital D refers to those who are born Deaf – hence a state of identity, a cultural difference – as opposed to small d which refers to those who become deaf, having acquired spoken language, whose relationship with deafness is more as disability, as medical condition). One poem uses the repeated refrain “What?” Another, with courageous humour, records every day mis-hearings such as muddling “do you want a pancake” with “you look melancholic”. But it is more often the capability of the d/Deaf that Antrobus wants to proclaim: whether the doorbell is heard or seen, “I am able to answer”.

Inevitably, there is anger to be expressed. We feel the heat of this especially in ‘Dear Hearing World’ which, as Antrobus’ note confirms, contains “riffs and remixes of lines” from ‘dear white america’, a poem by Danez Smith included in Don’t Call Us Dead (Chatto, 2017). Smith’s example – a prose poem full of frustrated anger and a desperate wishfulness for better race relations in the USA – seems to liberate Antrobus’ voice. He wishes – or rather demands – better treatment for the d/Deaf: “I want . . . I want . . . I call you out. . . I am sick of. . .” The hearing world is castigated for its mistreatment of the d/Deaf: “You taught me I was inferior to standard English expression – / I was a broken speaker, you were never a broken interpreter”. Antrobus also takes aim at some high profile figures for their attitudes to d/Deafness. I remember being asked (and refusing) to teach Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Deaf School’ (collected in Moortown (Faber, 1979)). Antrobus here reprints and redacts the whole poem, following it with an excoriating commentary on Hughes’ patronising and presumptuous comments. Elsewhere Charles Dickens and Alexander Graham Bell come in for criticism.

Of course, such blinkered prejudices about d/Deafness and race remain rife as ‘Miami Airport’, a fragmented account of an interrogation at the US border, makes clear. With Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, the British-Jamaican poet, Antrobus, would say, “I am from there, I am from here”. Born to an English mother, his father always tried to keep his Jamaican heritage alive. But even his appearance speaks two stories as in ‘Ode to my Hair’: “do you rise like wild wheat / or a dark field of frightened strings?” And the subtly shifting meanings of repetition in the ghazal form of ‘Jamaican British’ cleverly brings out the liminal spaces imposed on individuals who share Antrobus’ ancestry.

But despite the many issues raised in this book, it is not in the end to be praised for its campaigning zeal. In the wonderfully titled ‘After Being Called a Fucking Foreigner in London Fields’, Antrobus confesses, “I’m all heart, / no technique”. He’s talking about fist fights here, but it’s certainly not true of his poetry. There is plenty of technique and skill on show, but it is put to the service of the “heart”. Not in a sentimental way at all – these poems can tell brutal truths – but in the compassion, the love, that most of the poems exude. There are plenty of essays and definitions of identity around these days and there is rightfully plenty of blame-work, but Antrobus finds it in himself to forgive. Instead of punching his abuser in London Fields, he “write[s] until everything goes / quiet” and in ‘Closure’, addressing someone who knifed him years ago, he finds the strength to say, “There is no knife I want to open you with. Keep all your blood”. This is a first collection that barely puts a foot wrong and thoroughly deserves the praise that has already been heaped upon it.

Michael Rosen talks to Raymond Antrobus on BBC Radio 4

 

Forward First Collections: Some Early Results 2015/2014

The 2015 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for Best First Collection (with its £5000 cheque) will be awarded finally on 28th September. I have been reviewing the shortlisted books this summer as follows:

Mona Arshi – Small Hands (Liverpool University Press) 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.

Who will win?  I can give you what blog-mathematics tells me and I can give you my own modest opinion and I can give you a prediction of who I think might be picked by the judges who are A L Kennedy (Chair), Colette Bryce, Carrie Etter, Emma Harding & Warsan Shire.

  1. Judging merely by hits on the reviews on this blog (statistically wholly unreliable) the winner will be Andrew McMillan – agreed this might just reflect the fact that he and his supports are more social media savvy than others but I suspect it reveals an real interest in his work out there. (And for completists among you, the remaining rank order was then Arshi, Howe, Siegel, McCarthy Woolf).
  2. Who do I think should win? All five books have been hung on topic-hooks by their publishers (illness, ancestry, cultural difference, sexuality, miscarriage) though only Howe and McMillan really justify this as complete volumes. It’s a sign of the need to market a book these days and I’m sure this trend will grow more powerful though I don’t think it’s a great idea for either writer or reader (is it an appeal to the ‘general’ reader?). But the ground being broken by McMillan has been thoroughly ploughed by his (acknowledged) hero Thom Gunn and Howe’s cross-cultural explorations and formal experiments I find interesting but not necessarily volume-coherent. My favoured book was actually the American one, Blood Work by Matthew Siegel which I thought was a wonderfully coherent, moving, funny and achieved collection (despite being a first book). So he’s my pick – and I’ll be wrong on the night!
  3. Who will the judges choose? McMillan – that combination of (sufficient) controversy and accessibility.

Whoever it is in the end, congratulations to them and to all the shortlisted poets.  It’s been a feast and thanks to those who have been following my travels through these books.

As a final footnote, in October last year (somewhat after the event, I confess), I reviewed Liz Berry’s winning first collection and as a bit of context I’ll post that again below. For the record, I think her book is better than any of this year’s five.

Liz Berry, Black Country (Chatto Poetry, 2014)

If a reputation can be earned through the writing of half a dozen poems of real worth then Liz Berry has probably already written them, earning her place in the landscape of early 21st century British poetry. Her debut collection (containing 14 poems from the earlier chapbook The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls (tall-lighthouse, 2010) has charm, accessibility and a humour that belies the serious ways in which she exerts pressure to counter the hegemonies of language, gender, locality, even of perception. Berry is a teacher by profession and will, no doubt, have equivocal feelings about her work appearing in classrooms – but it will rapidly and rightfully find a place there.

imgres

We resist what tries to define and suffocate us in part by declaring who we are. Berry’s confident, natural, even uninhibited use of her own Black Country dialect is one of the most superficially striking things about this book. Against “hours of elocution”, she opts for “vowels ferrous as nails, consonants // you could lick the coal from” (‘Homing’). Variously her grandmother and mother influence her in this and, in ‘The Sea of Talk’, her father also urges her never to forget the place of her birth with “its babble never caught by ink or book”. The definition of a community against the pull of a conventional linguistic centre is explicit here. Her grandmother is a frequent role model and the growing girl studies “her careful craft”. “Right bostin fittle”, the older woman declares (ie. great food – brains, trotters, groaty pudding) and the budding poet willingly touches her “lips to the hide of the past” to inherit the authentic gift.

Other poems, making it clear that locality is as much a component of who we are, record and celebrate the Black Country as “a wingless Pegasus” composed of scrub, derelict factories, disused coal shafts, yet still a “gift from the underworld” whose nature and fate is enough literally to make grown men weep (‘Black Country’). Berry takes huge pleasure in enumerating the details of her locale. “Come wi’ me, bab, wum Tipton-on-Cut” invites one poem which then takes a tour of waterways, allotments, parks, mosques, steelworks and canals (‘Tipton-On-Cut’). Similarly, ‘Christmas Eve’ seems to improvise from the great concluding paragraphs of Joyce’s story ‘The Dead’, using the ubiquitous fall of snow to lead the reader across the landscape of Beacon Hill, Bilston and Molineux.

Liz-Berry

We elude being imposed on and defined by others by changing. This, for me, is the more profound aspect of Berry’s work; so many poems unfold as processes of self-transformation. A mark of the book’s self-confidence can be found in ‘Bird’ which announces this motif of liberation: “When I became a bird, Lord, nothing could stop me”. Here, it is the mother’s voice urging, “Tek flight, chick, goo far fer the winter”. In keeping with this, the poems display a formal variety – free verse, short-lined quatrains, couplets, tercets, ballad forms, punctuation comes and goes. This is further reinforced by Berry’s bold, category-dissolving imagination which instinctively reaches for metamorphic possibilities. In ‘Birmingham Roller’ the escapee is a bird again, “jimmucking the breeze, somersaulting”; people become dogs, trees, pigs, fade to mere echoes, girls become boys. The donning of a pair of red shoes invigorates, eroticises: “rubies that glistened up a dress, / flushed thighs with fever” (‘The Red Shoes’).

Sexuality features so prominently in Black Country in part because of its potential for transgressive energy. I’m sure ‘Sow’ is anthology-bound with its “farmyardy sweet” female narrator, rejecting external definitions (“I’ve stopped denying meself”), accepting her true nature as a “guzzler, gilt. / Trollopy an’ canting”. This is a real tour de force of dialect, imaginative transformation and downright feminist self-realisation that “the sow I am / was squailin an’ biting to gerrout”, even daring the reader to “Root yer tongue beneath / me frock an’ gulp the brute stench of the sty”. Berry’s power of imaginative transformation is so powerful that the book creates mythic figures at will: the sow girl, the Black Country pegasus, the patron saint of school girls, Carmella the hairdresser, the Black Delph bride, the last lady ratcatcher. ‘Fishwife’ presents another of these figures like something from a quasi-pornographic Grimm’s tales. Attending a 17 year old girl’s wedding, she brings the gift of oysters, erotic energy, transgressive flirtation, power and ultimately pleasure:

                                            I slipped
from my bare skin
alive oh alive         all tail           all fin
how the tide tossed
until alive ohhh alive
the waves flung my shining body        upon the rock

She kisses the bride with “her tongue a plump trout” and other poems also resist categories to the extent of a sensation of gender-bending, or more accurately gender neutrality. I’ve already mentioned the girl who becomes a boy. ‘Trucker’s Mate’ reads like a homosexual “romance” and ‘In the Steam Room’ positively drips with sexuality – but of an explicitly “sexless” kind in which “any body / might give you pleasure”. ‘The Silver Birch’ achieves the extraordinary feat of evoking “sex [. . .] before sex” (eroticism before gender), “when I was neither girl or boy [. . .] a sheaf / of unwritten-upon paper”.

imgres

With so much dissolution of the normative, Berry dallies with the surreal and there can be dangers if the work does not also bear a weight of darkness. A poet like Tomaz Salamun writes in the tradition of Rimbaud’s systematic disorganisation of the senses, but combines, as Ed Hirsch suggests, “exuberant whimsy and fierce rebellion” to resist too easy a relationship with the pressures of the real. Happily, Black Country encompasses some richly productive tensions between the real and imagined, home and away, past and future, conformity and rebellion, sex and death. The latter rises to the surface through the middle of the book in poems like ‘The Bone Orchard Wench’, ‘Echo’ and the murder ballad ‘The Black Delph Bride’, acknowledging that the traffic between real and imagined contains plenty of irresolvable grit, impossible to wish away in any facile manner.

The collection concludes in more plainly autobiographical terms with the approach of the birth of a child and perhaps there is less imaginative pressure here, a risk of sentiment, “waiting [. . .] for the little creature that grew inside me”. Nevertheless, in reviewing first collections it’s traditional to look forward to achievements to come but this is inappropriate with Black Country simply because there is so much confidence, focus, shapeliness, already achieved uniqueness. Rather, this is a poet whose work presently demands our admiration. Oh yes . . . and what about those half dozen or so poems of real worth? I’d suggest ‘Bird’, ‘Bostin Fittle’, ‘Black Country’, ‘Tipton-On-Cut’, ‘The Silver Birch’, ‘Sow’, ‘Fishwife’. You’ll hear more of these in years to come.

Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Sarah Howe

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.

imgres

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.

dscf6175

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.

Strigel_1506-detail

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.

wumen-huikai
Wumen Huikai

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.

SH photo

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?’

slide-2

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.