9 May, 2016Issue 31.1Poetry

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Through Tinted Plexiglass, Sharply

Hugh Foley

Loop of Jade

Loop of Jade
Sarah Howe
Chatto & Windus, 2015
ISBN 978-0701188696
£9.99 (paperback)


Early in the second poem in Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade, ‘Crossing from Guangdong’, there is a moment of “wheels within wheels” vision, typical of the sophistication with which Howe approaches the visible word in her poems:

no sign of life, save for street hawkers, solicitous,
arranging their slatted crates, stacks of bamboo
steamers, battered woks, to some familiar
inward plan. I watch the sun come up
through tinted plexiglass. I try to sleep
but my eyes snag on every flitting, tubular tree,
their sword-like leaves. Blue metal placards
at the roadside, their intricate brooch-like
signs in white, which no one disobeys.
I am looking for a familiar face.

Not just alongside but because of the lovely sonic intricacy of the lines—vowels and consonants shifting round each other almost like acrobats—the form of Howe’s attention makes her work stand out. That is to say that the painstaking sonic patterning is due to the same rigour with which Howe looks at the world in this poem, and throughout her debut collection.

This is not simply a matter of transcribing what one sees as closely as possible, but of thinking about what the transcription process is and means. The different kinds of signs here, the almost absent ones, the inward plan, and the signs “which no one disobeys,” reveal that nothing written down provides direct access to the world as it is, what some people call “the given,” and neither does the eye, for that matter. Nothing means without the system within which it takes shape, and these systems, as the obedience of the people in Howe’s scene suggests, are rarely separable from questions of power. The view from a bus in China’s Guangdong province is presented, “through tinted plexiglass,” reminding the reader, perhaps, of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, wherein we “see through a glass darkly; but then face to face.” Howe’s poem likewise seeks face to face contact, but, in structuring this desire through an allusion, complicates how we might see familiarity. Might that desire for familiarity itself be troubling?

Howe’s poem, like many others in Loop of Jade, expertly models the most exemplary conscientiousness of vision. In another shorter poem ‘Earthward’, for instance, Howe watches the “shadowplay/ of trees/against the blinds,” and finds a particular beauty in their estrangement from “the thing itself.” This might seem slight enough, a little light epistemological fluttering in the evening, but as these moments accumulate in Loop of Jade they illuminate something both deeply political and personal. In ‘Crossing from Guangdong’, the desire to see authentically, itself mediated through the King James Bible is revealed as a kind of distortion performed by Howe to avoid the pitfalls that might open up when one claims direct access to the unfamiliar world. Whether these are pitfalls of self-certainty, or of ignoring power relations that frame our views, Howe’s poems leap over each one, all the while looking down to let us see them as they yawn up at us.

‘Crossing from Guangdong’ describes a trip taken by Howe from that province to the city of Hong Kong, where she was born, a trip recapitulating that made by her mother as an infant “some time in nineteen-forty-/nine (or year one of the fledgling People’s/Republic).” The familiar face here, then, is that of Howe’s mother and her family, and, to a certain extent, the glass represents the mediation of her experience of China, the country where she was born (although Hong Kong, where Howe’s British father and Chinese mother met, and Howe lived as a young child, was still a British protectorate when she left), but not where she has spent most of her life. Loop of Jade is anchored by a serious-minded meditation on identity, best embodied in the mother-daughter relationship, and Howe’s approach to this dynamic, sceptical and tender at the same time, is the product of an eye that gives almost every object in the poems the crackle of unfamiliarity. This is not to say that the poems are merely concerned with the alienation of mediation, the mise-en-abyme of the search for authenticity. It is in going further than this that one of the principle beauties of the collection is achieved. It is not simply a matter of, say, Howe’s life in Britain becoming a lens that distorts the view of China; the poetry is also concerned with the authentic possibilities of such mediation, possibilities which Howe reveals as implicit in poetry itself.

As ‘Crossing from Guangdong’ draws to its end, then, Howe describes the Hong Kong skyline hoving into view, followed by the richly ambiguous line, “So much taller now than when I left/fifteen years ago,” before the wonderful close:

Suddenly, I know –
from the Mid-Levels flat where I grew up,
set in the bamboo grove – from the kumquat-
lined windows on the twenty-fifth floor,
tinted to bear the condensation’s glare –
you can no longer see the insect cars
circling down those jungle-bordered boulevards,
the low-slung ferry, white above green,
piloting the harbour’s carpet of stars,
turned always home, you can no longer see.

The poem again returns us to the tint of the glass, and it seems impossible not to read this condensation as more than mere humidity. What becomes especially poignant though, and more powerful than a simple lament at the unknowability of the world, is that this negative knowledge, the negative space the poem makes as Howe’s mind and the skyline blur, is not a mirage as much as it is the possibility of a poem. In this it seems connected to Elizabeth Bishop’s great travel poem, ‘Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance’, and seems to me to survive the comparison. When the line breaks at the beginning of this excerpt on “suddenly, I know —”, this negative revelation is not just the acknowledgment of the gap between present and past, mother and daughter, but a statement that still has all the positive force of an epiphany, preserved in the particularly effective line breaks of this poem, which draw attention to the ways your “eyes snag” on the world. The collapsing bridge of the poem is where the connection is made after it has been revealed to be impossible.

Other poems in Loop of Jade make clearer the various forms of power against which Howe hopes to pit the multifarious, illusory space of poetry. Sometimes it is state censorship by the Chinese government, as in the excellent poem ‘Having just broken the water pitcher’, where a dissident blogger “ponders” the subversive possibility of homophonic puns in Chinese characters:

how strange it is (how useful …)
that I beg you for the truth is pronounced
the same as I beg you, Elephant of truth!

Or that sensitive words (as in filters,
Crackdowns) sounds exactly like breakable
Porcelain. Done typing he clicks Submit.

Aside from the admirable feat of explaining puns in another language, and puns based on logograms rather than a phonetic alphabet (in verse that doesn’t become laboured or prosaic), Howe here interweaves English puns of her own, such that that “Submit” becomes a beautiful act of defiance.

In other poems, Howe interrogates the discourses surrounding gender, both in a Chinese fairy tale in ‘Tame’, and in a Theodore Roethke poem (and in Western culture, more broadly) in the poem ‘Sirens’. This second poem is particularly effective in the way it elaborates a respect both towards Roethke’s image-making and towards the young female subject of his poem, its beauty saved by its in-betweeness. Ezra Pound’s Orientalism (and his anti-Semitism) are subverted in ‘Stray dogs’, and the evanescent ‘Drawn with a very fine camelhair brush’ dismantles similar Eurocentric assumptions Christian missionaries held about the Chinese written character. The point, however, is not that Howe’s collection is, or is only, a political project, but that the intimacy Loop of Jade creates, the intimacy that brings to life the central relationship between Howe and her mother, and accumulates its emotional power, in part, from the way that the poetry demonstrates people’s subordination, and their complicity in discourses of power. It is not for nothing that the collection’s epigraph, from Borges, is also found in Foucault’s The Order of Things.

This might make the collection sound “academic”, but the book skilfully escapes that fate. All of these poems are more than the brief theses expounded here. The modern-humanities-type learning present in Howe’s poems is not ballast, but becomes part of the felt texture of her experience. If you allow it, it might modify your sensibility too. In some senses, there have been few recent British poems more “personal” than the collection’s eponymous poem. ‘Loop of Jade’ is a major achievement, written in both prose and verse, where Howe retells her mother’s account of her youth in Hong Kong, interspersed with a Chinese tale, ‘The Butterfly Lovers’. At every point the poem is full of marvelous, unsettling images, images which reveal what underpins the intricacy of Howe’s work. Describing how her mother was forced to wash her hair with “a detergent meant for scouring floors”, Howe tells us:

Unconscious fingers reach towards her scalp. I do not look for the candied rose-petal patches – there as long as I remember –as of mange or burns, that tell why, before leaving her room, she will so carefully layer and arrange her lovely black hair.

Howe gives the reader a family dynamic that carries history in its marrow, a pain that is there as long as she remembers, in both senses of that phrase. This layering of “lovely black hair over blemishes,” and indeed, the transformation of blemishes themselves comes to seem like an ars poetica. The textural richness of Howe’s poetry, which often contrasts with other British poets who seem scared of putting on airs, is justified here as a specific way of transforming painful experience without making it, and the relationships that structure, a brute natural fact. Howe’s visual sense, the emphasis on mediation and tracking your own attention, here illuminates the liberating slippages of identity that poetry can provide, without hiding the injustices that ground, in different ways, all of our identities. The ornament of the poem becomes suggestive of the very practical necessity of ornamentation itself. It is here, Howe seems to suggest that we can share something and be aware of artifice without surrendering our need for what is underneath.

Even this aesthetic hope is not untroubled in the poem, however, as the transformations seem to shade into the question of taking another’s places. Howe speaks in place of her mother, and the loop of jade itself is a protective charm meant to break in place of an infant. Towards the end one senses that sometimes transformation can be usurpation, or illusion. The poem’s inability to renounce the sacrifices made by others— perhaps a more generous way of taking someone’s place than writing a poem – and its vision of these as ever present in the aesthetic object, the loop of jade, leads the poem towards a conclusion that feels starkly and powerfully ambivalent, like Prospero drowning his book. The question which ends ‘Loop of Jade’, and the obstinate questionings throughout Loop of Jade of sense and outward things, seem to me likely to resonate for some time. Howe is a poet who sees through things, both revealing what’s underneath, and using the barriers to sight to imagine a clearer picture. Her vision is one I think utterly necessary in British poetry now.

Not every poem in any collection will please everyone, and, for me, the opening poem, ‘Mother’s Jewellery Box’ felt almost too well constructed and thematically resonant, while the sonnet ‘Sucking pigs’ has a closing couplet whose joking invocation of academic footnotes doesn’t overcome its clunkiness. However, many of the other shorter lyrics are particularly fine, including Chinoiserie’, ‘Night in Arizona’, ‘Earthward’, ‘Pythagoras’ Curtain’, ‘To all Laments and Purposes’ and ‘Faults Escaped’. This last one ends in an especially luminous image;

Night is a veiled and silent mother;
a living cave, the stirrings in the sides,
water pushing blindly through a stone –

each cold diamond determined to be born.
Too soon they leave, their love a bloom
of salt; those encaustic tears, the stars.

Few poets have the gift Howe has to make things feel united in their separateness, as she does with the generations in the penultimate poem ‘Islands’. Howe here is speaking in the voice of her mother, speaking about her mother, and the pointed layerings produce, not staginess or artifice, but something healing, even as it seems desperately sad. If we are all islands, all strangers, then we might not feel so alone:

I never wondered
about these unknown siblings. Or my father’s
blackened hands, turning the warm hide
of a fraying shoe beneath his hammer.
Or my real mother. Unreachable across
The water, as planets circling in the night.

Hugh Foley is reading for a DPhil in English at Exeter College, Oxford.