The experience of reading Sarah Howe’s début poetry collection, Loop of Jade, is akin to that of the speaker in ‘Mother’s Jewellery Box,’ the first poem in the book, cracking open ‘the twin lids’ of the ‘black lacquer box’ to discover a cornucopia of minute and significant treasures. From the offset, Howe’s gift for descriptive precision captivates: the ‘twisted strings/of flattened beads/lupin seeds’ that must be entangled necklaces and the delicious ‘teaspoon of honey/whisky poured/by morning light’ perfectly captures the prized jewel in her Mother’s collection: her amber ring. This golden amber is beautifully suggestive of the ornate imagery and attention to detail which are features of this collection. Amber also preserves and facilitates in the reconstruction of organisms which become caught in the resin as it is secreted.
The amber ring then can be seen as representative of one of Howe’s poetic intentions, the often problematic act of reconstruction, and the tension this occupies in the delicate relationship between memory, subjective interpretation and reality. Howe examines the world through this ancient amber, a world tinged with gold, yes, but also populated by tiny creatures who seem to ‘insectify’ her desire to observe closely, to be in the present moment, whether you like it or not. In this miniscule environment there exist ‘insect cars’, life models as ‘upturned beetles’ and Howe admits this landscape is a ‘miniature world,’ or more specifically as in ‘(k) Drawn with a very fine camelhair brush’ a ‘world within worlds.’
The tininess of things, and Howe’s obsession to notice them, is indicative of the existence of a parallel world, one of reflections and shadow-play, a world of the other. In ‘(k) Drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,’ ‘dragonflies hover above blurred other selves,’ which speaks to the dual or ‘twin’ nature of Howe’s identity. Born in Hong Kong to a Chinese mother and English father, she moved to England when she was seven. This sense of duality feeds her creative impulse; the pressure boring down on the poems, transforming them into diamonds that glisten with intensity, multi-faceted. It is no coincidence therefore that the final words in ‘Mother’s Jewellery Box’ are ‘morning light.’ In this opening poem, and the ones that follow, we are alerted to Howe’s elaborate, heartbreaking and funny world, eager to follow wherever she cares to take us, in this instance, ‘Crossing from Guangdong,’ the second poem in the collection.
In case you haven’t guessed it, this is a jewel of a book. I use that particular word because Howe has a magpie’s eye for beauty, for the unusual, the intricate, she holds these gems up to the light for us, the poems themselves precious, facilitating our viewing of the world from a variety of perspectives. She points out objects of mythic symbolism on the way, from the smallest insect to the brightest celestial orb. In Howe’s eyes, these two – the macro and the micro – loop in unexpected and glorious ways. Howe urges us to pay attention as much as she does to the minute; the ‘bouquet of our clothes’ in ‘Night in Arizona,’ one of a number of tender love poems, the unscraped painter’s palette in ‘A Painting’, that holds a ‘chewy rainbow’ of paints that have become ‘blistered jewels’. These observations are, in Howe’s words, ‘snatches of heaven/in a misted spoon’ – where everything is slightly skewed, so while proportions are not immediately familiar, the ensuing lightning bolts of insight are most certainly on target.
There is an Alice in Wonderland quality to the work, a sense that the speaker has had to keep a gimlet eye open, and a curved ear attuned, to all these visual and auditory treasures, hoarding them in order to remind herself and the reader of the innate beauty and mechanical perfection of natural and unnatural worlds. Through these experiences we learn to integrate with all levels of experience, and as a result, curtains – or in Howe’s case – an array of transparent materials – fall away allowing us for once to appreciate the present for the reward that it is. Howe’s poetry works with the precision of a finely-crafted timepiece, each part working in harmony alone and as part of the collection, and Howe, as watchmaker, ‘sets us looking for a place’ (italics mine) in every sense.
Within the poems, there are moments of contradiction, paradoxes that float like oil on water, iridescent and shining. Take ‘Crossing from Guangdong’ where Howe’s magnificent line-breaks ‘we lose/ourselves’ access a liminal space, an in-between place, where we are offered a unique view of both sides but are subsequently unsure of our footing, just as the speaker is, trying to see through ‘plexiglas’ and ‘perspex’ to the true and real nature of things. Yet, there is physicality too, ‘my eyes snag on every fitting’ suggesting that paying such intense attention can hurt. This ‘snag’ becomes the even more suggestive ‘snared’ in ‘(b) Embalmed’ when exotic birds are captured by huntsmen to adorn ‘the spiritual plane’ of the ‘Exalted Being’, the Emperor who has died and is quietly (and odorously) decomposing in his sleeping carriage.
Exposing one’s senses can be painful for sure, but Howe is a calm, careful and wise guide. I loved in particular her fascination with insects, they are never far away in this book, pattering and scurrying out from lines and images; ants and dragonflies, beetles and flies. There is even one squashed in the pages of the book, in the form of a funny and clever poem, ‘(n) That from a long way off look like flies’, and Howe wonders if she ‘should scrape her off with a tissue’. Howe respects and even loves these creepy crawlies, for how they work as bio-machines, but perhaps, even more so, for how they operate in their parallel worlds, where they are not small, but appropriately sized, and are only tiny in relation to our experience of them. Again, Howe plays with perspective, encouraging us – tempting us even – to look closer, to click open the back of the watch, to really ‘watch’ the second-hand, the other hand, moving; to fully experience the perfect beauty of the tick.
The natural world is not mere accessory, but a necessary embellishment to our macro experience, one that we can miss if we’re not careful, and one that will ultimately feed on our demise. This finely-tuned aesthetic awareness cannot always be easy for the speaker, or indeed for the poet can lead to a type of perfectionism, but a wonderful sense of awareness and keen-sightedness too, that Howe readily explores in the magnificent title poem, ‘Loop of Jade’, about her Mother, language, hybridity and love. In this poem Howe succeeds in turning past pain into something sweet and present – and in doing so creates one of the most arresting lines in the whole collection, the ‘candied rose-petal patches’ description she gives her Mother’s burnt face. These scars are beautiful because they are familiar and loved, but Howe’s sensitivity and respect is clear when she does not look at the injury, aware of her mother’s discomfort, as ‘she will so carefully layer and arrange her lovely black hair’ to hide them.
Loop of Jade crosses boundaries of time, place and space. It interrogates what it means to belong – to a race, a country, a family, in a romantic relationship – and how these states, and our experience of them, are only reflections of the connection with the self, insects and all. The insects are beautiful because they are present, as are we. We travel with Howe, on this strange and stirring journey, to the final poem, ‘Yangtze’ and the final lines, ‘The moon glimmers/in the brown channel.’ We blink in the soft light, realising that the ‘morning light’ in ‘Mother’s Jewellery Box’ has transformed to become the moonlight in the river. Standing in this golden beam, we have only travelled a day, though it feels like many orbits, many lifetimes. The moon, our memory of it, its own memory of sunlight, rotate around each other, preserved with such care in that ‘teaspoon of honey’, the translucent amber of Howe’s poems.
Sarah Howe is a Hong Kong-born British poet, academic and editor. Her first collection of poems is Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus, 2015). She will read with Daljit Nagra at Poetry And…Identity on 12 November