At just sixty pages, “Loop of Jade” is a strong slender book of poetry. I had an odd experience reading it over a number of days as I found myself occasionally flipping to the back to see how many more poems awaited and every time I checked it felt like there were more. It was as if they were continuing to multiply or that the book was growing a tail to extend out further and further. I think this is because poetry, and particularly Howe's evocative poetry, has the effect of levelling time. The past, present and future can be experienced together. Even though many of the poems in this book obviously come from a very specific personal place, the weighty themes of identity and particularly society's diminishment of women are universal. There is a feeling in the language used that what has come before is coming again, that our patterns of thought and that our memories too spin round and round, that we live and travel in ever widening and continuous circles. This is informed poetry with something important to say.
Some of this writing such as the devastating poem ‘Tame’ have a more narrative or fairy tale feel. Here the value of female life and freedom is superseded by their perceived economic value. The poem 'Islands' is in a similar style yet has a more coming of age structure and surprises with lines of brutal reality that hit like a hammer: “She said she saved me from the refuse heap, from being eaten by the dogs with other scraps.” In the extended title poem ‘Loop of Jade’ micro-poems seem embedded within the larger poem which is composed of the stories told by a mother. There is an intensely felt gap between the experience between the mother and narrator: “myself a waving spot, unseen, on the furthest shore.” Yet there is a sense of continuation and connection between generations in the inherited “loop” which serves as a talisman forming a physical connection to the past and possible future.
There are poems here about love affairs and the act of creativity as well as strong poetry about identity and the question of place. This repeated phrase in 'Crossing from Guangdong' takes on great profundity: “Something sets us looking for a place.” The inclusion of multiple languages in the excellent poem 'Others' pays tributes to the blend of cultures and skin itself through generations. One of the strongest themes of this collection is the treatment of women in a patriarchal society. This is particularly true in China, but in the west as well. The institutionalized way in which women are valued below men so that we become blind to the ways in which this occurs. It seems to me that the intention of many of these poems are to sharpen our focus on how this works. One poem gives a perfect metaphor for this shift in point of view: “like at a put-off optician’s trip, when you realise how long you’ve been seeing things wrongly.”
Howe intelligently reexamines attitudes about gender in classical figures. In ‘Sirens’ she traces the disfigurement of women through literature that makes them into strange creatures because of a fear of desire: “for lust brings with it many monsters.” Later the same scrutiny is put to the Sphinx and the dividing line between genders. She also takes on Shakespeare stating in one poem that “On the heath, Lear assumes all ragged madmen share ungrateful daughters.”
This powerful poetry affirms the need of books to widen our view of history to include points of view which have no voice. There is a striking statement about the dominant political forces which have seized the narrative of history, but are mindful of the alternative narratives they've suppressed: “In their dreams, our long-lost books nightly buckle & char.” There is also much playfulness and humour to be found in this book which mentions Michael Flatley in one poem and where folklore mixes with research on Wikipedia. Howe demonstrates how she is in dialogue with many other poets as well referencing authors as varied as Theodore Roethke, Homer, Horace, Ezra Pound and Peter Streckfus. The most startling and beautiful thing about Sarah Howe's poems are the way she uses colours and shading to form images in the mind so I felt like I'd spent a long time gazing at paintings rather than simply reading.
Sarah Howe is one of the writers shortlisted for The Sunday Times/Peter Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award. The winner will be announced this month. I'm so glad this excellent prize has introduced me to Howe's writing.
Read an interview with Sarah Howe here.