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