Loop of Jade – Sarah Howe

The T.S. Eliot Prize is awarded by the Poetry Book Society for “the best collection on new verse in English first published in the IK or the Republic of Ireland” in any particular year. The Prize was inaugurated in 1993 in celebration of the Poetry Book Society’s fortieth birthday and in honour of its founding poet T.S. Eliot. With winning prizemoney of £15,000 and £1,000 for the nine “runners-up” it is a keenly sought after award. The honour roll includes Les Murray (1996 for Subhuman Redneck Poems), Ted Hughes (1998 for Birthday Letters), Seamus Heaney (2006 for District and Circle) and in January this year Sarah Howe became the first person to win the Prize with a debut collection, “Loop of Jade”. The collection also won “The Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award”, was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.
Sarah Howe was born in 1983 in Hong Kong to an English father and Chinese mother and moved to England as a child. She is the founding editor of Prac Crit http://www.praccrit.com/, an online journal of poetry and criticism, and for readers of poetry a wonderful online resource.
But onto her collection “Loop of Jade”, T.S. Eliot judge poet Pascale Petit said “Loop of Jade” “shone with its startling exploration of gender and injustice through place and identity, its erudition, and powerful imagery as well as her daring experiment with form.  She brings new possibilities to British poetry.”
You know you are in for a humorous and philosophical journey before you read the first peom, the epigram is from an essay by Jorge Luis Borges, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”, and more specifically the grouping of animals in the fictitious “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge”. Fourteen of the poems in the collection following the fourteen divisions of animals (eg. Belonging to the emperor, or embalmed, or tame…)
Before the classification of animals the collection opens with “Mother’s Jewellery Box”, by opening the first page of the poems we are opening a box of jewels, mother’s gems, we are discovering rarities, aged and beautiful, not only the literal jewels but through our poet’s exploring her dual English/Chinese heritage the beads, leaves, seeds, chains, strings, rings are going to form in another time and place.
It is from poem two, we learn of Sarah Howe’s journeys to Guangdong imagining her mother as a girl, wheeling her case “through the silent, still-dark streets if the English/quarter, the funereal stonework facades/with the air of Whitehall, or the Cenotaph,/but planted on the earth’s other side.”
A learned collection as evidenced by the fifth of Borges animal groups, and the poem “(e) Sirens”. The poem explores the use of the word “pickerel” in a poem by Roethke, where the writer believed it referred to a fish, but later discovers it is “a young pike” which is a small wading bird, her realisation that she had “been seeing things wrongly” and the meaning of the Roethke poem changing as her knowledge increased. Her own poem then explores the history of the sirens, who were originally birds, winged creatures in Homer, but how Horace reigns in fantasy and the sirens become fishlike. Could Roethke have had a double meaning by using the word “pickerel”?
The knowledge and background of literature continues with “(g) Stray dogs” and the association with Ezra Pound, quoting Canto LXXXI ‘Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail’, and using the poem itself as an exploration of Ezra Pound’s imprisonment in Pisa in a specifically built 6×6 cage and his subsequent mental breakdown. Or “(h) The Present Classification” and the association of Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’, Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, the mother/sister/daughter relationship and a fleeting reference to Antigone.
However these are not all poems deeply rooted in literary studies, we have “MONOPOLY (after Ashbery)” with all 16 lines, of the Quatern (four quatrains of four line stanzas), beginning with “I”, our poet is the one monopolising, however the content of the poem does refer to the board game too. There is “(j) Innumerable” a “Poem on the eve of May 35th” a date that is explained in the ‘notes’; “In Chinese, the Tiananmen incident of 1989 is known by its date – June 4th – references to which are censored on the mainland. For a time, the invented date ‘May 35th’ allowed Chinese web users to circumvent the ban.”
A collection that uses many forms, many structures, from the traditional to the modern, for example;
Life Room
Turpentine sky unfurls through steeples and slates; the warehouse
                                                                eyes of Shoreditch blink in turn –
far off the trickling cars, the bright red bus that weaves its way to
                                                                Spitalfields, Hoxton, Bethnal
Green with purposeful inconsequence. In the darkening corner by
                                                                the sink Apollo half-springs
from his sandals, outspreading his pleat-slung marble arm.
A poem that goes on to describe a life drawing class, the lines moving beyond the limits of the page, life itself limitless, and the poem also delving into memory and the fact that there is no knowing when experiences will be recalled.
There is a blend of her heritage in the artful use of the third person “picture a journeying scholar-poet…” followed, in poetic form, the meditation on beauty and form and shape and place, a reflection on Chinese language characters, their form, shape, meaning. These reflections and journey’s into her own roots and her mother’s past include remembrance of the single child policy, the impact this had on the female population and how that could have personally impacted her own Chinese mother, “It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters”.
A stunning collection of masterful poems, and to be her first published collection is astounding. Quite simply one of the best collections I have read in many years, a physical journey but a journey to another time, another place, another person, discovery of race, roots, language – that elusive poet’s quest not too far from her pen. A poet I will be revisiting upon each new release as well as re-reading this collection itself.
Someone I now forget
once said
journeying is hard.

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