This is my second post about the poetry collection Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe. I first wrote about her choice of epigraph.
This is not a typical critical review. I am writing in an attempt to understand some of the craft in how she wrote such an amazing collection and why I so admire it.
Briefly the poems are about the narrator’s exploration of her Chinese heritage (she was born in Hong Kong to a Chinese born mother and an English born father). She visits China, listens to her mother’s stories, explores the language and China’s past and much more. She tells us early on in the collection ‘There is some symbol I am striving for’ and she takes us on this wonderful quest.
Probably the first thing that drew me to the collection was some shared interests. Borges (the epigraph is a rich example of magical realism), China (I’ve been fascinated with the country since I was a child. One of my all time favourite films is Hero. The second date with hubby, more than 20 years ago, was to see Eat, Drink, Man, Woman at the cinema [he loved it, so was a keeper]), Fairy tales, a light sprinkling of science, natural history, Madama Butterfly (one my favourite operas along with Raise the Red Lantern), mothers and daughters.
Of course shared interests are a good start but not enough in themselves for a piece of work to really grab you, speak to you and make you want to read it again and again.
I want to say vague things like it has depth, the writing is beautiful, in some places straight forward in others richly expressed. The whole collection hangs together exceptionally well while still being broad in scope, varied and unpredictable. All of which is true but I want to understand why. I have never close-read a poetry collection before so I’m making this up as I go along.
First of all, after multiple readings the re-occurrence of certain motifs and themes becomes more noticeable. Motifs include the colour green (and red to a lesser extent, both lucky colours in China unless it is a green hat!), the moon, pearls, fish, birds and butterflies.
Major themes include China (past and present), mothers and daughters, traveling (in the broadest sense), taxonomy (I include in this naming/categorising things in language and art) and chimeras (hybrids, genetically modified).
A mind map of the collection, with all 37 poems clustered in the centre surrounded by the motifs and themes (there are certainly more than I have outlined) linked by lines would be a crazy hectic web of cross-fertilisation. That is not to say everything is linked to everything else.
However the motifs are not simply repeated, that would not do. For example the colour green appears in a number of guises. Jade loop from the title, lichen-green uniform, phthalo-green tide, green detergent, jade pendant, green dragon flies, olives, pea soup, fluorescent green, verdigris, jade saucer.
The same goes for the major themes. For example the theme of Chimera / hybrid is dealt with in numerous inventive ways; in terms of the narrator’s mixed race (the Chinese guard’s ‘half recognition’ of her face), her father listening to Madama Butterfly call ‘Chiamera, Chiamera’, a mother that transforms into a lychee tree, a daughter who transforms into a goose, ill-fated lovers that turn into butterflies, the hybrid marriage between a Chinese bride and a Jew, a mermaid, a hybrid view of a girl in a poem (using fish and bird metaphors) ‘fish one way fowl the other’, ‘a grafted paradise’,’ a Trojan contraption’, ‘a spliced mouse’, ‘the Sphinx’, Mendel, describing words that die out ‘Crossbreed. Half-caste. Quadroon.’
Even with this short list it is easy to see how themes inter-relate and well, hybridise and enhance each other.
Themes and motifs undeniably help the collection form a satisfying connection and provide an opportunity for the reader to get to know the subject matter from different perspectives. The layered texture of these themes and motifs gives a richness to the text, the connections might at first be subconscious in the reader and when the recognition comes and settles it is a wondrous thing. And all of this is subtly undertaken by Howe.
I also claimed the collection was diverse and surprising, more of that later.
Week 1 of Nano Poblano Done! Congratulations to everyone else!