A Veritable Chop Suey
Sarah Howe's debut trips up on contrived exotica
By Toh Hsien Min
Loop of Jade
Last month, the British stuck their bow fingers up to those across the Channel and, at the same time, towards the idea of greater integration with the rest of the world. Long known to be the biggest sceptic within the European project, Britain last month signalled that it was quite happy to remain an island, thank you very much. The pound lost eight percent of its value against the US dollar in a single day massive in a currency market used to measuring changes in pips and well in excess of the move that forced Britain out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 and a variety of industries began to estimate fearfully the foreseeable impacts of withdrawing from the common market. But for all of the economic challenges of Brexit, it is hard not to see the outcome as primarily a cultural choice. This was a decision made in Little England, the home of the English equivalent to the French exception that doesn't need a name because, well, it's obvious.
Similarly, insularity in British poetry has long ceased to be worthy of discussion, unless, of course, something happens against the run of play. Such an event could be poet Sarah Howe winning the T S Eliot Prize early this year with her debut collection, Loop of Jade. The recriminations began at once: the prize was awarded to Howe over the more usual names of Les Murray, Don Paterson, Sean O'Brien and Mark Doty because she was (pick your own preferred combination of) young, female, half-Chinese and, let's say, presentable. And while the Internet isn't a comprehensive record of cultural discourse, based on what can be found on it the response seems to have been an elaborated version of so what? or worse: You're just (pick your own preferred combination of) decrepit, misogynist, racist, etc. What about the poetry?
To an extent, the poetry doesn't discourage this firestorm in that it puts Howe's origin story front and centre, foreign cultural elements and all. A number of the longer poems in the collection, such as 'Islands' and the titular poem, go over the ground of Howe's mother's story; 'Crossing from Guangdong', early in the collection, describes Howe retracing these steps in Hong Kong: "Something sets us looking for a place". In comparison, there is virtually nothing about Howe's English father and that half of her heritage.
I will come back to that in a moment, but it is almost impossible to reference Jorge Luis Borges for a literary endeavour without bringing in some flavour of his straight-faced mischief, and so it is when Howe quotes Borges describing The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Language and its taxonomy of animals. This taxonomy is referenced for titles for poems scattered throughout Loop of Jade, which would be already sufficiently playful without the context that these poems originate in an earlier pamphlet called A Certain Chinese Encyclopedia. Even on a meta-textual level, Loop of Jade experiments with origin and explores how these threads might change when unpicked and immersed into different environments. Does Loop of Jade trace back to A Certain Chinese Encyclopedia or to The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Language or to Borges' essay 'The Analytical Language of John Wilkins' or even to Wilkins' An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language?
Linking the meta-text and the story is a clever device, worthy of a Cambridge-educated academic, so one would not expect this to peter out into an at-bottom-we're-all-part-of-the-same-giant-discourse cop-out. Indeed, translation and mistranslation, and their wider counterparts of connection and disconnection, do make themselves felt as concerns for the collection, right from the Borges quote including the "ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies" attached to Dr Franz Kuhn, who was a real-life translator from the Chinese. However, with the detail comes the difficulty. After a confident first poem ("open away"), with its elegant internal rhymes and poised, balanced rhythm, 'Crossing from Guangdong' swamps the reader with an excess of detail in which "There is / some symbol I am striving for" is almost lost, and two pages later we are with Scarlett Johansson, only on this side of the East China Sea when "the old woman on the Datong bus [ ] who could have been my unknown / grandmother, for all I knew or understood [ ] took a look at me and reached up / to grasp my shoulders, loosing a string / of frantic, happy syllables, in what / dialect I don't even know." Here, the line-breaks aren't worth setting out in HTML tags because the sentence reads better as prose, perhaps as travelogue, not helped by a too-pat "Suddenly, I know" arriving on the next page.
A more comprehensive review than this one might follow that path the instinct for and no small amount of skill with narrative that show up in poems such as '(c) Tame', but if there is a concern with what has happened there is also a consciousness of the limits of understanding. Speaking of the titular jade, Howe writes:
Chalk it up to self-awareness, or the sense of what happens "inside the boundaries of a poem", but there is in this poem and in the book as a whole "a sense it's not quite right a mistranslation". The depiction of misunderstanding in '(e) Sirens' is impeccable, but more illuminative is how, in some of the best lines in the book, Howe describes a "journeying scholar-poet":
and then caveats this excellently performative verse, which strikes me as being among the most Chinese in the book for the balance it holds between conventional opposites, with "This last scene being our mistranslation". At her best, Howe does give us a sense of the Chinese aesthetic:
And then this is all too often undone by chinoiserie, which in this book is also the title of a poem that collects a chest of curios ("I said Sleepy Willow. You said Voiture."). We are treated to pictograms the Chinese words for 'wood' (rendered by Howe as 'tree'), 'moon' and indeed 'dragonfly'. '(m) Having just broken the water pitcher' shows some possibilities of the Chinese language, but sticking pictograms alongside:
pushes the line of Chinese as gimmick. That's without even going into the detail that the strokes in the left radical for 'regret' are not even the same as those in 'plum blossom', less the "sidelong stroke". Now, I am not an expert on Chinese poetry by the wildest stretch of the imagination, but I cannot remember any Chinese poet making a fuss out of how "regret" is just one curved letter away from "egret". If the "anchoring of sign to thing" is the key point of interest with the Chinese language, then without even ascribing any value statement to how Chinese speakers would take this as old hat the question of the quality and depth of engagement with Chinese culture must come up. Perhaps this is where we connect back into the English half; the book is pragmatically saleable foreign culture for Little England, the English poetry equivalent of the Chinese takeout at the end of the high street.
More widely speaking, the existence of gimmick poems such as 'MONOPOLY (after Ashbery)' and 'Death of Orpheus' is an indicator that the governing aesthetic of the book is inadequate. There are lovely moments in the book; the aural quality of "Concealed strings, their chitinous glissandi" is stunning, and some of Howe's insights are memorable: "Maybe holding back / is just another kind / of need". Yet, on the whole the book is still "a muddle", still trying to emerge, still qualifying itself with "What I mean by this is ". I suppose there is merit in sticking to the blueprint of wrapping all this in the shell of the origin story. Howe follows through. Our dragonfly scholar sleeps. His skiff disappears.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 3 Jul 2016