Paul McLoughlin takes a thoughtful look at Sarah Howe’s Eliot prizewinning collection – and some issues arising from its success.
When Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade was short-listed for the Eliot Prize, I’d not heard of her. On first reading the book, I have to say I found her work irritating, The second time round I wasn’t so sure, because looking stuff up was reducing the number of obstacles, or at least lowering the fences. After further readings, I still think it’s a collection that wears its learning far too heavily, but before going on I need to rehearse a matter or two of general significance.
First, if I say I side with the spoken word in poetry (asking of a line, for example, if anybody would ever say it) it does not mean that I believe speech always enjoys primacy. Something a friend of mine once said (and reformulated in one of his poems) comes to mind: that something thought can sound ill-considered spoken and positively banal written down. So if poetry is to be regarded as speech of some kind, it must surely be as considered speech that has survived the journey from thought to the page. The extent of Howe’s vocabulary and her interest in Chinese pictograms very much suggest that it is the written word that interests her most.
Second, I was interested to read Michael Wood in a recent LRB summarising part of William Empson’s response to some writings by Derrida and others: What Empson found disgusting was the quest, as he saw it, for complexity for complexity’s sake, a project that was ‘always pretending to be plumbing the very depths’ but in reality was only congratulating itself on its cleverness. Howe’s cleverness is never far away. She won’t say ‘green’ if ‘sinople’ is available. And there are the interlocking matters of range of reference, obliquity and sheer difficulty, aspects that attract the academic long before (if ever) they appeal to the general reader.
Sarah Howe is clearly looking to find what language – the English she grew up with and is more than fluent in, and her mother’s Cantonese, which she remembers how to count in – can tell her about herself. (She also appears to want to show what it can tell her readers about themselves, and this is a wholly different matter.) She interrogates the written word, and, of course, the symbolism and etymology of things in themselves, and the spoken and written representations and pictograms that refer to them. There is nothing new in this kind of interrogation, of course (poets investigating their multifarious roots is familiar enough territory), so it is the manner in which she does it that must interest us.
The collection opens with the haiku-like three-liners of ‘Mother’s Jewellery Box’, the images of which derive from a desire to have the reader share in the experience of opening the box and inspecting its contents. This works in the sense of its opening the book, too, and I’m persuaded that it’s a poem that had to be written because prompted and shaped by a felt need, and the poem’s stepped three-line stanzas make us pace our reading. But some might find the language prettified: the poem ends: ‘her amber ring – / my fingers gauge / its weight – // teaspoon of honey / whisky poured / by morning light’.
It is followed by ‘Crossing from Guangdong’, the first of several narratives, this one recounting a re-enactment of the journey her mother had made as a baby in 1949 from the mainland where she was born. The final lines of the poem tell us of the poet having left Hong Kong ‘fifteen years ago’, which dates this return crossing to her early twenties, the family having settled in the UK, her father’s country, when she was seven. Again, the poem clearly issues from a compelling desire to search for ‘a symbol’, something familiar. The entirely natural transference involved in her fingering a ‘single, glossy orchid’, unable to decide if it is real, is moving and immediate The first line, ‘Something sets us looking for a place’, also opens the poem’s third and final section, which continues ‘Old stories tell that if we could only / get there, all distances would be erased’. At the beginning of the first section, however, the universal ‘we’ (which in both sections quickly and properly reverts to the more personalised and particular ‘I’) is less convincing. I know the ‘somewhere else(s)’, we ‘lose ourselves to’ are merely a poet’s examples, but ‘that bright willow-bounded weir at dusk’ is a bit precious, isn’t it? The question of tone matters here, and elsewhere in the book, because ‘we’ start to wonder quite who is being included. And there are other worries. Handing over her ‘crease-marred passport’ to the ‘lichen-green uniformed / official’ is described with the kind of studied precision one quickly grows to associate with Howe, but here perhaps it merely gets her into unnecessary difficulty. What is the purpose of ‘crease-marred’? To tell us she is widely travelled? And why should we need to know that? When he looks up at her, his eyes ‘flicker their uncertainty’. Isn’t this ‘uncertainty’ too knowing? She’s not writing a novel and he’s doing his job. Knowingness also diminishes the account of her mother’s making the same journey when, as ‘a screaming / baby’, she made ‘a piercing note among grey / huddled shapes’. Won’t ‘piercing’ do on its own? Do we need the ‘screaming’ that all babies do – but not all the time? And how about the exactitude of ‘the warm, pthalo-green, South China tide’ (shouldn’t that be ‘phthalo’?)? When Howe starts assuming, she can become judgemental and conspicuously wordy. And all of these issues (and I have not exhausted them) arise in a poem I like a great deal.
The collection’s elaborate structure is worth commenting on. Howe uses Borges’s fictional and happenstance taxonomy of animals quoted in and translated by Foucault in his The Order of Things for fourteen poems – following Borges’s categories a) to n) – in a range of forms (from prose poems to couplets, via a Shakespearean sonnet, the final line of which is a footnote). These demonstrate (with Borges and Foucault) what Howe calls ‘words’ tenuous moorings’, the poet understandably seeing something of the same tenuousness in her own roots. But the subjects of these poems go beyond the poet’s mother and the search for her own identity, taking in Chinese history, her ‘misreading’ of a poem by Roethke, Ezra Pound’s Italian cage, other women (from myth, literature and film), the origins of Chinese pictograms, and the poor midge found squashed in her copy of a rediscovered school Shakespeare. The principal poetic problem here is that I would have warmed a great deal more to many of these taxonomic poems had they been free of the schematic burden they have to bear. ‘(e) Sirens)’, for example, about her reading of Roethke’s ‘Elegy for Jane’ is an inviting poem, not least because Howe shows some humility in admitting to having read it wrong. It gets a bit preachy in its second half, but I didn’t mind that on this occasion. Nevertheless, even second-handedness (Howe quoting Foucault quoting Borges, who was not able to gain access to the original universal language proposition of John Wilkin that he was responding to) serves the argument of language’s being at best a system of necessary and helpful but flawed reportage. Where this leaves poetry is problematical, as problematical as where the generation after Adam and Eve came from (see ‘(h) The present classification’).
The same friend I mentioned earlier introduced one of his poems at a reading by saying that first it had begun with an epigraph he abandoned once he realised it was the best thing on the page. Borges and Foucault, while being very serious, were also extremely witty and playful. Loop of Jade can leave a reader feeling that what is being read has been too self-consciously worked at, that the poet always wants us to see on the page her intent on writing poems.
The title poem is formally varied (mainly narrative prose intermittently spliced to include a lyric poem). It is one of the finest in the collection, particularly in the way the mother is tenderly and most poignantly depicted, and yet its final section can still disappoint. The loop in question is a ring that the poet’s mother has had blessed. Her daughter wears it round her neck: ‘Into its / smooth circlet / I can – just – fit a quincunx of five // fingertips’. Isn’t ‘quincunx of five’ tautological? Certainly, the Latinate noun draws attention to itself, but what does it tell us exactly? That in order to fit inside the ring, the four fingers form a square into which the thumb is interposed, like the central dot of five on a die? If so, it is an image that allows for the five not fitting, because the thumb in this position can be slightly withdrawn. What follows is ‘Cool on my palm it rests – / the sinople eye / on a butterfly’s wing’. ‘Sinople’, as I’ve mentioned earlier, is another attention-seeker, and, anyway, most of the time ‘sinople’ means ‘red’, only later on, and in heraldry, denoting ‘green’. What on earth is wrong with either ‘’I can – just – fit five / fingertips’ or ‘the eye / on a butterfly’s wing’? I am reminded here that Yeats, in the interests of an exfoliation that better represents his poems’ concerns, would replace attention-seeking words with more ordinary ones because he didn’t want the distractions. And surely the last line of the poem just doesn’t ring true (‘And if I break it now – will I be saved?’). She knows the ring’s breaking, in a European age of reason, has nothing to do with whether or not she’ll be saved. My objection may be born of a strictness many won’t like, but Howe’s question is a confection the poem doesn’t need.
In the third-last section – if there’s a word for ‘third-last’ (and there is), Howe will know it, and use it – the Anglo-Saxon gaps reflect the speaker’s mother’s pauses before uttering words she struggles with (they focus our attention where it should be focused) and the way in which the italicised lyric poem-cum-fable is broken up and interspersed into the poem like a series of inlays is beautifully done. We follow its story and its import in instalments until the final section takes over.
‘(c) Tame’ is another excellent narrative poem, its tone for much the most part perfectly sustained. It is a tale built on the Chinese proverb ‘It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters’. The fate of girl-births in China has been well-documented. It is, therefore, a familiar one and could have been approached by anyone, not just by someone half-Chinese. This, of course, does not affect the success of the poem, the way in which Howe presents the symbolic and magical transformation of mother into lychee tree, and girl into gosling – and the ambiguity of the father’s grief in bringing up a child he ‘should have dropped down a well’ after assaulting his wife. I like the way the poem ends with a reference to the pernicious dominance of money, but it requires the poet to ‘invent’ an ending for the tale, in this case a woodsman who ‘snares a wild goose that spirals clean into his yard’ and presses its neck into a block and kills it with a single blow. Men don’t fare very well in this collection.
What is Chinese here comes across largely as the Chinese we in the UK would learn about were we the ones doing the research. This, of course, is the result of Howe’s general scrupulousness in approaching the issues embedded in dual-identity. She is and isn’t half-Chinese (she’s lived in England since she was seven years old), which is, presumably, her point. But the passages involving Chinese letters and pictograms, as fascinating as they may be, are not as compelling as they might have been had someone Chinese been telling us about them. Which is not to say that there aren’t some lovely moments, such as (in ‘(m) Having just broken the water pitcher’) when Howe notices ‘how plum blossom lies one sidelong stroke / of gum-suspended soot away from regret’. I’m not sure about the necessity for that ‘gum-suspended’ (it’s another adjective), but what I do like is the randomness of it. There is no attempt to make something of the near-duplication that isn’t there. None of this Chinese-or-not business is Howe’s fault. It’s how she is. I say this because (as I’ve observed earlier) whenever her mother features in the poems there is, for me, a powerful and inherently natural authenticity at work which one may miss elsewhere. For instance, I’m hardly likely to warm to phrases like ‘our entwined shape a word in the dark’ (‘Night in Arizona’) or ‘the sunflower patch / of a forethought’ (‘A Painting’). They are a kind of affectation, and they let in false endings. ‘The Walled Garden’ ends: ‘As though to listen, the colossal trees / lean out into the tungsten-haloed street. / I meet another on the road – this snail’s / slow ribbon turns the asphalt into gold’. This seems as overblown as a description of Happy Valley’s big screen on which ‘the dots of light weren’t tickering the customary shifting dance of odds but the exact words that would rise from the rippling mouths in the stands’ atoll’. It’s a race track, for goodness sake. And this in a poem that describes a child’s knowing something’s wrong, when the something turns out to have been what happened in Tiananmen Square on 4th June, a date transformed into May 35th for the purposes of flying under the authorities’ censorship radar (‘(j) Innumerable’). After James Fenton’s memorable poem about what transpired there, Howe offers a real, child’s eye view. Surely we (and the poem) could do without the poeticisms? There are adjectives everywhere in this collection. The four-line ‘(f) Fabulous’ would be lost without its six of them (its ‘grafted paradise’, its ‘maculate cargo’, its ‘spliced mouse’), which must beg some kind of question. Such examples are not rarities. In ‘(b) Embalmed’ (a prose poem of three-liners justified left and right), there are fourteen adjectives in the space of half-a-dozen lines (begin at ‘A muntjac’s spindled legs’).
Reputations have been known to get over-inflated, which suggests it would be wise to hold fire on our judgement at times, especially on young poets. But instant opinion is the way of things. In Sarah Howe’s case, she is not really being allowed quietly to pay her dues (though the book has been ten years in the making, and I think this shows impressive restraint and I certainly do not see it as a failing). I know Keats died at 25, Mozart at 34 and Charlie Parker at 35, but they’d all amassed formidable portfolios by then. If, however, by the time your first collection is out, you’ve already been selected to be a National Poetry Competition judge and your first collection wins the Eliot Prize, the poems surely invite scrutiny Unfortunately, the poet is also scrutinized, even if that is in part inevitable, given that the poet wrote the poems. Oliver Thring’s Sunday Times interview of Howe describes her book as ‘thin’ (don’t tell me he doesn’t know single poetry collections are almost always physically thin, or that he doesn’t know his ‘thin’ will be otherwise understood), and he complains that she ‘pummels the reader with allusion, scholarship, and a brusque sixth-formy emphasis on her own intelligence’. The unsigned, online Poetry International Rotterdam review is, by contrast, a eulogy based, by and large, on those poems that I feel are the best in the book, but it also claims that Howe’s work is ‘highly concerned with its own construction and surfaces’. Others might regard this as foregrounding its cleverness, and feeling pleased about it. And it may be easy to agree that ‘all her formal and linguistic powers are engaged in the serious business of bringing her truth more clearly into focus’, but it is relentlessly serious. If Borges’s and Foucault’s wit and playfulness are in short supply in Howe (I cannot see much of the humour others find in her work) this may be because hers is a different kind of humour. The same charge of relentless seriousness might be levelled against Geoffrey Hill, but what saves him for me is his angst. I also like his argument that to write in any other way than he has to would be to patronize the reader, that his ‘difficulty’ is a form of democracy. Howe might claim this democracy for herself but I don’t believe her ‘difficulty’ is always justified (or perhaps I mean ‘necessary’). There are times in the collection when the loop smashes on the floor and she isn’t saved. But poems are risky endeavours, and so they should be. Nevertheless, and it’s a huge nevertheless, this collection contains good work. Let’s not go overboard, or join a crusade. Let’s not engage in an asinine Twitter War in which the medium’s restrictions too often render opinions idiotic. The book has been described as ‘quietly and beautifully written’, and much of it has been. But not all of it. That’s more than enough to be going along with.