Review by Tom Minogue
Cerebral and reflective, Sarah Howe’s first book of poetry Loop of Jade describes a swath of experiences and influences. Introduced by Borges’ perhaps-too-infamous The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’s categorization of animals, the poet uses examples such as ‘(a) belonging to the emperor’ and ‘(j) innumerable’ as a springboard into memory and the nature of literary influence. Through most of the collection this framework serves to amplify the speaker’s voice, and merges historical perspective and contemporary experience. The reader is taken from the general present through time and family lineage: the second poem of the collection ‘Crossing from Guangdong’ closes its first stanza with ‘My heart is bounded by a scallop shell – / this strange pilgrimage to home’ as the speaker makes her way through China on a bus. Howe’s eye for sensory detail in this poem is balanced with a search for family, and the recognition ‘I have made / the crossing. The / same journey you, a screaming / baby made’ gives us a key to the collection. In the search for our heritage we attempt to recognize who we’re born, who we become, and how we’ve gotten there.
What’s most striking is how nimble these poems are, in spite of their numerous, dense allusions. The poet voices admirable disagreement with mainstream literary figures like Pound, Roethke, and Ashbery – devastatingly so in ‘MONOPOLY’ where the speaker deigns to tell us ‘I never eat cake in case of global meltdown. / I am my own consolation’ in a deadpan broadside against solipsism. Howe is able to embrace a confessional form while subverting the form’s usual self referential nature. During ‘(d) Suckling Pigs’ she pivots to the themes of food and religion as a means of psychological insight. Here, humor emerges from the meeting ground between the in-the-clouds-holy and scum-of-the-internet-unholy in lines like ‘Wikipedia says it comes down from Leviticus, / how your God labelled creatures unclean to ingest; / but then, disgust seems to blur into reverence.’
To focus solely on the more quotable material would be doing the book a disservice, particularly in the subtle way other historical perspectives are embraced. ‘Islands’ draws us into a world of difficult living, ‘Sweltering in the box-space of her / plastered room, its single grime-barred window.’ After describing growing up with ‘four perhaps, or three’ in a tenement, the deepest part of the memory comes with the realization ‘She was always taking in abandoned things. / I think she saw her sadnesses reflected in them.’ Her insight allows us to know her ‘real mother. Unreachable across / the water.’ By this point the speaker’s grief becomes so deep she must jump through time to name it. For the heaps of description we’re blindsided by emotional revelation.
This technique is used to bravura effect in the title poem, where a disjunction between ancient tales and the present intensifies our involvement in the story, and explains the circumstances of the speaker first in a digressive and then in an immediate fashion. Momentum picks up at the transition into the present as the journey of the ‘loop’ is presented in a series of tercets, and Howe balances tradition against her own belief. Do the generations of women who have come before her have to sacrifice themselves for her own life? There is no answer in the poem, only a solitary line to break the form and a final question. Since it’d be a shame to spoil it, I can only say it’s the same one Confucians, Muslims, and Christians have been asking themselves for a millennium and longer. As a means of recalling the past and interrogating the future, this poem works on a level of pure resonance.
I’d be remiss at this point if I didn’t address the criticism levelled at Howe from a number of sources after her winning the TS Eliot Prize. These have risen because the poems here take some investment of thought to appreciate: some less patient readers have described them as ‘cold’ or say that they ‘pummel with allusion.’ It doesn’t strike me as unfair to ask if those same descriptors would be applied to the same work with a white man’s name on it. No chance. These criticisms which are fuelled with racist and misogynistic undertones, should not prevent anyone from reading the muscular debut of a breakout poet.
Tom Minogue drifted off on a freight heading to Tucson and woke up in Stromness. His work can be found and forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Leopardskin & Limes, and The Rumpus. You can mansplain the dead to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.