In a recent interview American poet and writer Eileen Myles opined that ‘[t]here’s nothing more ambitious than a young poet. You feel omnipotent.’ In her debut collection, T. S. Eliot prize-winning Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus, 2015), Sarah Howe tests the extent of her own powers. She produces poetry which is at times alienating and at others masterful.
The epigraph is taken from the translation of Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘The Analytical Language of John Wilkins’ included in Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, wherein Borges describes a nonsensical list which categorises animals into groups
(a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) others, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.
Loop of Jade features diverse poems which take each of those categories as a starting point, alongside others: some interconnected and some which seem unrelated. Borges’s passage caricatures those who feel that they are in total command of language and serves to show, as Foucault puts it, ‘the stark impossibility of thinking that’. By opening with this quotation, Howe sets up the expectation that Loop of Jade will explore the follies of language with a sense of humour and an awareness of its limitations. However in some places, Howe’s intelligence seems to run away with the poetry and she risks losing readers with an erudition pushed past the point of pathos.
The poem ‘(d) Sucking Pigs’ shows the well-educated speaker resorting to Wikipedia for information about her partner’s religion, but ends with the visual joke of a literal reference (Xu Bing’s A Case Study of Transference; Wikipedia couldn’t help me out much there). If you’re unfamiliar with the references, you can look them up for the ‘ah ha’ moment, but I could never tell if inaccessibility was the point or not. In ‘(h) The present classification’ Howe mocks academics who cannot think beyond their own very specific field of interest:
one generation from Adam and Eve. This same uneasy story
being the funded subject of some Doctor of Paleoanthropology,
more used to fingering arrow flints in lint-free cotton gloves
than pondering the stained alleles, shuffled and stacked
by the exoduses of early hominids. […]
Ironically, the poems in the collection like this (which are a joy to read aloud and linguistically playful) are probably only of real interest to those who are already well-versed in poetry. Either that, or it’s a joke that I wasn’t in on.
Elsewhere Howe explores the limitations of her own knowledge. In ‘(e) Sirens’ she has an epiphany when she comes to the realisation she has been misinterpreting Roethke, ‘when you realise/how long you’ve been seeing things wrongly’. This perspective is refreshing; as Dave Coates asks in his review of Loop of Jade, ‘[W]hen did you last read a poem where the poet so enthusiastically acknowledges their fallibility?’
A flick through the volume reveals the formal invention and experimentation at work. The title poem is perhaps the most formally ambitious. Howe describes hearing her mother recount her childhood in prose poetry punctured by centre aligned verse that recounts the Chinese myth of the butterfly lovers Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. In a middle section the narrative voice switches to the mother’s perspective, and her characteristic pauses are rendered in free verse which uses both margins to frame words in the middle:
There was a man in a nearby district.
When I was young and my mother short
of money there was a while of lot of
times actually when I was sent to live
with other people. […]
The voice of the mother is brought to life by the form, exemplifying Howe’s skill and keen ear. In this poem, and generally throughout the collection, Howe really does push the boundaries. Like ‘Loop of Jade’, the poems which have tangible personal stakes are the most engaging.
There are certain poems in Loop of Jade so arresting you feel like you’ve just crashed through a glass ceiling. Reading ‘(c) Tame’ aloud was a genuinely unsettling experience. The final line ‘A single blow. Profit. Loss’ is a perfect climax to a carefully rendered fable, and the force of it seems to ripple throughout the collection. Loop of Jade is at its best when exploring the relationships between parent and child. The earlier ‘(a) belong to the emperor’ has greater emotional impact when you go back to it having read some of the poems that follow.
Overall this is a challenging collection, which will push a lot of readers out of their comfort zone. Some of Howe’s experimentation pays off more than others, but the collection never fails to be surprising. The final poem ‘Yangtze’ begins and ends with the reflective lines ‘The moon glimmers/in the brown channel’. Loop of Jade never feels like it has come full circle but instead suggests possibilities for the journey ahead.