Review by Leo Cookman
Sarah Howe, Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus, 2015), pp. 80.
Sarah Howe was first brought to my attention (and the attention of many others) in October of last year, when a video showing her poem ‘Relativity’ read by Stephen Hawking was posted online for National Poetry Day. The poem was a shot in the arm and so bowled me over that I immediately went in search of more of her work. Her debut collection had just been published and was already garnering high praise and award nominations. The collection’s titular Loop of Jade refers to a necklace that Howe’s mother gave to her and the poems use this as a symbol to launch into an exploration of her relationship with her own dual heritage: Howe has an English father and a mother from Hong Kong. As a result the Hong Kong Review of Books was particularly interested in a review of Howe’s work, especially given that the collection has just won the prestigious annual TS Eliot Prize.
There is a continual interplay between sound and shape in most poetry and this is very much at the fore in Howe’s verse. Howe clearly has a deep and impressive knowledge of and familiarity with both British and Oriental poetry and her movements between these different traditions are a wonderful echo of the emotions and stories that this collection conveys. The longer poems in the collection, ‘Crossing from Guangdong’, ‘Drawn with a very fine camelhair brush’ and ‘Islands’ all appear and sound particularly English in their rhythm and tone but tell the stories of the Orient, of Hong Kong and its language and beauty. On the other hand, the poems ‘rain, n.’, ‘Fabulous’ and ‘Mother’s Jewellery Box’ speak directly of Britain, it’s cultural and linguistic heritage and Howe’s own time in the UK, but make use of forms and imagery normally associated with Chinese or Japanese verse. The line “teaspoon of honey / whiskey poured / by morning light,” for example, has clear echoes of the sounds of a Haiku or Senryu. Howe’s poetry is strikingly unique in its negotiation of these diverse cultural traditions. Where much poetry about dual-nationality seems interested in the concept of home and the search for origins and authentic identity, Howe’s poetry reads not like a search for the authentic but as an illustration of how language and culture clash and blend to form new realities, experiences, identities and poems which are more real that any ‘authentic’ traditions.
This duality is at its peak in the eponymous poem, ‘Loop of Jade,’ found at the centre of the collection. This powerful poem uses prose, poetry, broken form, diverse voices, imagery and references drawn from all the other poems in the collection, creating a strange cumulative effect. It seems to turn the collection of poems into what Giles Deleuze would call an ‘assemblage,’ a collection of social molecules and atoms that come together to form a new experience at a given site. Perhaps this is Howe’ s message about identity too: that rather than having its roots in one place, it is assembled through the coming together of totally diverse cultures, traditions and languages.
Far from simply being a commentary on empire and colonialism and how the dissolution of the British Empire has left its mark, Loop of Jade is a personal appraisal of how landscape and language can be so different yet so inextricably linked due to the people that live inside both languages and cultures at once. This collection really is a set of wonderful poems from a fascinating poet from whom I look forward to hearing more.
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Leo Cookman is a writer living in Brighton. His poetry has been published in Poetry of Sex (Penguin Books, 2014), The Best of Manchester Poets, Black Sheep Journal, LadybeardMagazine and BlankPages Magazine, among others.