Loop of Jade, by Sarah Howe, is the author’s debut poetry collection. It includes explorations of family, history, migration and inheritance. Within each work is an inherent restlessness tinged with longing. History, fable, Chinese culture, and modern life are skilfully woven together.
“Something sets us looking for a place. Old stories tell that if we could only get there, all distances would be erased.”
Howe was born in Hong Kong to an English father and Chinese mother, moving to England as a child. Her experience of living with dual roots seeps through.
The collection contains musings on parents and childhood: a mother’s voice that is firm then almost querulous as demands go unheeded; a father in thrall to the glow created by a remote control. There is curiosity about customs left behind. There are undercurrents of guilt.
A theme returned to several times is the historic treatment of women in the culture of her forbears.
“According to old Chinese custom, the midwife placed near the birthing bed a box of ashes scraped from the hearth so that, if female, the baby might be easily smothered.”
Several poems portray the madness of rulers and the historic treatment of daughters. Men denounced woman, appearing to blame them for existing – “for lust brings many monsters”. There is a suggestion that women may only be regarded as a father would, or as a lover, never as equals.
Travel, changing school and being other are scrutinised. There are musings on art and caligraphy. It is the smallest details of a memory that are recalled.
‘Crocodile’ picks up on a moment in a restaurant:
“She looked down at her napkin, then up; in that second, when no eyes met, it seemed perfectly right that words should be things you have to digest.”
My favourite poem was ‘Loop of Jade’ which ponders an unexpected late night conversation with mother:
“It’s as though she’s been conducting the conversation in her head for some time and decides disconcertingly to include you.”
The daughter is unsure how much of the recollections from childhood can be believed.
I do not read much poetry finding the need for concentration in order to appreciate the nuances a challenge. I did, however, enjoy this collection immensely. The variation in style and length appealed. Senses were pierced, a sharp focus on place and life offered, snapshots of emotion felt.
Loop of Jade won the TS Eliot Prize in 2015. For poetry, a recommended read.