For you, the catch wasn't something caught:
not word or contender, attention or fire.
Not the almost-missed train, or the sort
of wave surfers might wait an entire
lifetime for. Not the promise that leaves
the old man adrift for days, his boat
creaking, miles offshore. Nor what cleaves
the heart in two, that left your throat
parched and mute for taking pill
after yellow-green pill, the black-blue
taste the price you paid to kill
the two-parts sadness to one-part anger.
No. The catch was what you could never
let go. It's what you carried, and still do.
poem by Ben Wilkinson
from For Real (Smith|Doorstop Books, 2014)
Poetry, as RS Thomas once claimed, is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart. The poet’s task is to find the effective middle ground; to perform that lyric trick whereby thought and emotion seem to effortlessly combine. Seek to provoke only feeling, and crude sentimentality ensues; indulge in the cerebral, and the poem might be interesting enough, but it will remain lifeless – a kind of versified intelligence. In Loop of Jade, Sarah Howe’s debut collection, winner this week of this year’s TS Eliot prize, the poet attempts to merge personal accounts of her dual Anglo-Chinese heritage with her scholar’s penchant for the intellectually abstruse. The result is a book of poems that are as playfully and frustratingly recondite as they are memorable and unusually affecting.
“The twin lids / of the black lacquer box / open away”, writes Howe in “Mother’s Jewellery Box”: “a moonlit lake / ghostly lotus leaves / unfurl in tiers // silver chains / careful o’s and a’s / in copperplate”. This might seem an unassuming vignette with which to open a collection, but it sets the tone. An evocative box of trinkets is a good metaphor for Howe’s poetry, possessing as it does a well-wrought yet elaborate quality. Depending on a reader’s taste, these poems will seem either elegantly graceful, or decorative and over-designed. “Night in Arizona” is a prime example of the best and worst of this style. On the one hand, Howe’s musical gift for conjuring insistent rhythms evokes the claustrophobic heat of a motel room in the desert: kicking the bed sheet to the floor, the sound is “like the spilling of sand / from shovel and the night air blurs / for a second with its footfall”. But on the other, the preference for elevated diction in what is ultimately an account of mildly irritating sleeplessness comes to mismatch language and event: “the razory arms of a juniper rattling crazily / at the edge of that endless reddening haze”. In these more conventional lyric sections, Howe is at her best when she reins in linguistic excess. “Earthward” is a subtle meditation on watching “the shadowplay / of trees / against the blinds”, disturbing replicas that shake “with a gusting stutter / more restless still / for being not / the thing itself”. The effect is haunting and immediate, precisely because of the sparse diction employed.
Thankfully, Loop of Jade is itself restless. This is true of the poet’s journeys through the China of her youth and the clash of differing cultures apparent in her adult life, but also of its formal repertoire. The jewellery box opens on to various worlds – some real; some mythical; some deftly blurring the two – and Howe switches between shorter lyrics and longer narrative forms, keeping readers on their toes. In “(c) Tame”, one of a scattered sequence that takes its titles from a fictional taxonomy of animals, the historical Chinese custom of smothering an unwanted newborn girl in ashes is assimilated into a mythical tale of a daughter transformed into a soaring bird. This kind of symbolic metamorphosis strongly recalls another recent Chatto debutant, Liz Berry, the eerie exactitude of the poem’s narration, combined with its magic realist wavering between the brutal and the fantastical, makes for an imaginative dissection of masculine violence.
It is a shame, then, that too often Howe opts for an unconvincingly heightened and florid register – in “Pythagoras’s Curtain”, “cicadas … cadenza the acousmatic dusk”; “A Painting” lays it on thick with “the oyster-crust … of an unscraped palette – chewy rainbows, blistered jewels” – instead of working harder to write with the difficult clarity and complex simplicity of which she is capable. The most memorable writing in Loop of Jade tends to stem from this latter approach, and nowhere more so than in the book’s title poem. The Hong Kong of Howe’s early years is a fecund territory for a poet seeking to reconcile a quintessentially English life with a starkly contrasting eastern heritage; even more so for one fascinated by the linguistic and cultural collisions and confusions that define our increasingly global community. Though far from the most polished writing on offer here, “Loop of Jade” traces the poet’s background and China’s recent history through an unflinching, moving and minutely observed portrait of her mother, who tells vivid stories of her childhood with “a pause-pocked, melodic, strangely dated hesitancy”. In between revivifying these memories – of a latrine that sprouted “the glistening bodies of cockroaches, like obscene sucked sweets”, or being made to wash her hair with “a green detergent meant for scouring floors” – the poem relays the tragic Chinese legend of star-crossed lovers turned into butterflies in their premature deaths.
Weaving between the frank prose of memoir and a ballad-like lyric mode, Howe creates a nuanced metaphor for release – from tensions between the opposing worlds that the poet herself yearns for, turning to the transformative promise of poetry in reconciling the irreconcilable. Her fondness for lexicographical conjecture can feel trivial and slight. But whatever the subject, it is the poet’s gift for simile and metaphor-making that lends Loop of Jade its transformative scope, able to make a school memory of chanting the names of Hong Kong’s islands “strange again, like savouring / those New Year candies – small translucent moons / waning on the tongue”.
first published in The Guardian, Saturday 16 January 2016
“Burdensome artistically, exhausting over time, damaging to one’s reputation, the source of rebuffs both private and professional … poetry reviewing is an enterprise only a few people do credibly or well”. So Mary Kinzie declared in a letter to Poetry magazine, around the time I stumbled onto this strange path of poetry reviewing, nearly a decade ago. It’s a nifty quotation, and one I’ve gone back to over the years. The hours are long, the rewards are poor, and your typical response is the indistinguishable silence of the indifferent, agreed and aggrieved. That, and the occasional feeling – after a ‘mixed’ or ‘negative’ review appears in print – that somewhere out there, your name is being scribbled in a black book. If you’re really lucky, the poet in question – or their partner, or colleagues, or friends – may even take to social media with brimming ire. (Poets are ‘the irritable race’, as Alice Fulton once quipped.) Why bother? Why on earth did I start penning these things?
Because I’d just begun to take my own poetry seriously, and thought of reviewing as an overlapping endeavour. A way of stretching and questioning my reading habits, honing a sense of what I thought poetry was capable of, how and why poets succeeded or failed in their poems, and what I wanted for my own. Because, during my final year as an undergrad, immersing myself in new poetry instead of studying the things I should have been, I came across some of the most witty, smart, engaged and engaging prose I’d read, in the form of electric, genuinely discerning pieces by the likes of Ian Hamilton, Michael Hofmann, Ian Sansom – reviews as memorable as a good poem. Because I studied literature and philosophy at university, mixing a propensity to debate and argue with a desire to do so in crafted, perceptive, entertaining, even downright infuriating writing. No doubt, too, because in a fit of youthful hubris, I fancied myself as one of Kinzie’s ‘few people’. With a love of language, an analytical mind, and an (ahem) argumentative bent, I might be halfway decent at the job. (How little I knew. Truth is, reviewing is an art form in and of itself. As with writing poems, getting any good is a lifetime’s work.) And because, increasingly and ever more importantly, I believe in the necessity, as Douglas Dunn puts it, of “an honest, descriptive, detailed, clarifying criticism”. It keeps poetry healthy, and it’s poetry’s weedkiller. “No good growth without good gardeners”.
In the end, though, the real peril of being a dedicated poetry reviewer isn’t occasionally upsetting folk – that happens to anyone who lives an honest life – or unwittingly shutting doors on yourself. It isn’t publically broadcasting your opinions in a way that might make you wince, years down the line. It isn’t even, as Michael Hofmann once said, the knowledge that “a lot of the articulacy and connections and the nerves that might have gone on poems, have gone on these pieces”, though that can be a sorry thought. The real peril is more of a threat: that you might graft to become as astute a critic as possible, and the worst warnings still turn out to be true: that the critical culture is forever losing ground to a fast-food one, and that cash prizes, administered by a process marred with conflicts of interest, are the endgame of literary reception. But then, even as I entertain these thoughts, I console myself: through whatever affliction or vocational derangement, it was me who fell into poetry reviewing, not the other way round. The poet in me has no choice but to write poems; so too, the critic and his criticism. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Or so I tell myself.
first published in New Walk magazine, issue #10, Spring/Summer 2015
‘What is masculinity if not taking the weight / of a boy and straining it from oneself?” In “Strongman”, Andrew McMillan takes his young nephew’s playful request to “benchpress him” like “his mother’s new lover can” as an imaginative springboard to some urgent personal and social concerns. It is typical of the poems in Physical. Adept at finding the surreal in the everyday, turning an ear to the lilt of conversation alongside serious (but rarely solipsistic) reflection, McMillan’s verse worries away at what it is to be human, to feel through both the flesh and our emotions, to lose and to love, but most of all, what it means to be a man. In his delicate, frank and piercing interrogations of maleness, this is a poet who looks to assess the state of modern masculinity. He does so in ways that few others currently writing are either willing or able to.
“The men are weeping in the gym / using the hand dryer to cover their sobs”, begins one grimly comic dissection of male anger and anxiety: “swearing that they feel / nothing when the muscle tears itself / from itself”. Sorry scenes of guys bulking themselves up with bicep curls and protein shakes, “swearing” under their breath, are related with an insider’s perspective; the poem manages to steer clear of sanctimony even as it gently mocks, speculating at the compensatory nature of such actions. Similarly, the frustrated imagination of an unhappily married man is powerfully envisaged in “Things Men Take”, though here the tone comes closer to judgment as it seeks to expose and provoke, wondering at “the man who takes the image / of the blond haired girl in the lowcut top”. The effect is immersive, and the poem makes for uncomfortable reading.
Alongside these portraits of a heterosexual, damaged masculinity as witnessed, Physical also explores what it is to be a gay man. Some of these poems are couched in symbolism – or rather, unpick the euphemistic manner in which the homoerotic has been historically conveyed. “Jacob with the Angel” relays the biblical tale of the Israelite’s evening wrestle with an unknown aggressor, conventionally viewed as an allegorical contest between the flesh and the spirit. While preserving this interpretation, McMillan also opts to see it literally: “it just happens”, the poem says, with justified insouciance and a kind of take-it-or-leave-it, get-over-it attitude: “the way the weather / or the stock market happens / tangling in the unpierced flesh of one another / grappling with the shifting question of each other’s bodies”. In reimagining an iconic religious scene as a chance sexual encounter between gay lovers, the poem is something of a manifesto, declaring a commitment to truths both figurative and literal, to depictions of the vulnerably carnal, and to preserving experience and making meaning through verse. As the narrator concludes of Jacob’s request for ink and paper: “he says writing something down / keeps it alive”.
In an age where poetic voice is often valorised above all else, it is worth praising the emotional force and cerebrally transformative capacities of a poet’s writing. Alongside the effortless scrutiny of the masculine, the way in which McMillan not only writes about the body, but actually writes the body itself, should be celebrated: I can’t think of any other poet who could make a poem about a trip to the urinals into a serio-comic hymn to intimacy that actually works, let alone close it with a confessional scene of sensual immediacy that moves and shocks. But since McMillan’s success with his imaginative materials seems particularly predicated on his poetic voice, it is worth noting that his unusual blend of influences – Mark Doty, John Riley and Geoff Hattersley – makes Physical one of the most distinctively voiced debuts since Simon Armitage’s Zoom! in 1989. Where many male poets have an uneasy relationship with their poetic forebears, attempting to best them in a kind of literary one-upmanship, McMillan falls asleep with his hero Thom Gunn on his bed, “night after night / open at the spine”.
The long poem at the centre of this collection, “Protest of the Physical”, is a tour de force in the true sense. Attempting to combine social observation with acknowledgement of various artistic debts, it is a jump-cutting song of love and hate to a post-industrial northern town, where the “lame arm of the crane circling / unstocked shelves of half built car park” is a metaphor for how “the day’s spent itself already”. But interwoven throughout is also a recurrent personal desire for escape: “I left you because man made fire / then carried / it across the plain”. Though the poem is similarly sprawling and sometimes overly scattergun, a contrast with Ginsberg’s “Howl” illustrates how McMillan yields a quieter music, for all his blend of vivid Bildungsroman and communal pulse-taking. In its ambition, however, it warrants the comparison.
Elsewhere there are poems that show McMillan’s extended gift for the comic, as in the brilliantly titled “The Fact We Almost Killed a Badger Is Incidental”. Conversely, “I.M.”, in which a bereaved electrician pulls out switch boxes that suddenly look like “intricate rooms in a doll’s house”, is as haunting as it is compassionate. Minutely observed, bold yet understated, moving and often profound in the same breath, Physical is a book everyone should read.
first published in The Guardian, Saturday 5 September 2015