During the week of International Women’s Day, I took a trip to Shoreditch to visit Penguin’s ‘Like a Woman’ pop-up bookshop, which was stocked with women authors to celebrate #IWD2018.
Whilst perusing the beautifully curated bookshelves, I came across a true gem, Loop of Jade (2015) by Sarah Howe. I’ve been reading a lot of novels recently, and I was in need of a poetry-fix, so this wonderful collection really caught my eye. As a winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2015, I knew that I was in for a treat. Added to that, all of my favourite things were mentioned on the blurb: ‘an enthralling exploration of self and place, migration and inheritance’. It did not disappoint, and I’ll take you through some of my favourite moments in the collection here.
This collection is a meditation on life, nostalgia, and journeys – from daily commutes to returning to one’s roots. Howe was born in Hong Kong and is half-Chinese, half-British, and grew up in the UK. Her voice is unique in British poetry and genres of identity and migration literature, and I really appreciate her work for its beautiful imagery, expansive lexicon, and moving stories. Travelling back to Hong Kong, her birthplace, this collection is an exploration of geography, culture, and family often reflecting on the experiences that her dual heritage have brought her.
The poems move from Shoreditch to Shanghai, Hoxton to Hong Kong. The scenes of Hong Kong refreshed my own memories of visiting the famous city– smog filling my lungs, cars tooting their horns, trams, crowds, hustle. I’d love to visit again.
I also loved the descriptions of London. Reading it on the tube made me romanticise this city, my new home; I even fell in love with a rather mundane sight, ‘pools of spangled tarmac after rain’ in ‘The Walled Garden’. I walked home turning over the lines in my head: ‘As though to listen, the colossal trees/ lean out into the tungsten-haloed street’, whilst ‘snails’/ slow ribbon turns the asphalt into gold.’ It really made me appreciate my commute more than usual, and I thought about how traditional Japanese poetry often functions in a similar way – helping you appreciate brief, everyday moments of the natural world. In ‘The Walled Garden’, Howe depicts images of nature harmonising with urbanity with a sense of wonder and precision.
Another one of my favourite poems was ‘(k) Drawn with a very fine camelhair brush’ because I could read all of the Chinese characters which she was drawing – shown alongside each stanza – and really appreciated the intersection of two art forms, poetry and calligraphy, happening in two languages at the same time. Howe only incorporates Chinese a little bit, and I do not want to imply that this is central to her poetic aesthetic, but if this interests you then I would recommend Dictée by Theresa Hak Cha, which interweaves Japanese, Korean, French, and English in very powerful and political ways. If you enjoy Asian-American literature, Korean history, or language poetry, it is an aesthetically and linguistically fascinating piece of writing.
‘(l) Others’ was also really thought-provoking for me personally, about the language used to describe concepts of ‘blood’ and ‘race’, and in particular, being mixed-race, ‘from Γενεσις to genetics’ [from genesis to genetics]. Reading the thoughts of someone else writing about the harsh language of race, too, made me feel connected to ‘Others’, and less ‘other’ myself.
As a more light-hearted poem, ‘(n) That from a long way off look like flies’ really made me smile. It describes a dusty, ‘flower-pressed’ fly, ‘pent/ in this hinged spread of my undergrad/ Shakespeare.’ Describing this ‘grey smudge’ in her book, the voice of the poem asks, ‘like blood –/ mine or its?’ It’s a funny take on King Lear, and it brought back memories of ‘The Flea’ and all the metaphysical poems which I had to read for my undergrad course, too.
I could expand on all of this a lot more, but I’ll keep this post short. I think that Loop of Jade was a really thoughtful collection, full of great musings and amusement. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a poetic taste of a new British voice or a text which will make you have a new-found appreciation for bicultural experiences, and London’s tarmac. It’s definitely a diamond of an addition to my poetry collection. (Or should I say, jade?)
I was reading: Sarah Howe, Loop of Jade (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015).
I went to: Penguin’s Like A Woman Pop-up Bookshop, 1-3 Rivington Street, London, EC2A 3DT.