This is my fourth post about the poetry collection Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe (I like these poems a lot). I first wrote about her choice of epigraph, the themes and motifs I felt connected to in the collection and some structural surprises.
These blog posts are not typical critical reviews. I am writing in an attempt to understand the craft of how she wrote such an amazing collection and why I so admire it.
It may be that whilst analysing poems is important for a writer it may not a be such a good thing for a reader.In this last post I want to see if I can isolate how my all-important emotional connection to the poems was achieved.
The collection opens with a description of Mother’s Jewellery box. Immediately we have the mother:daughter relationship and I picture a young girl, alone, carefully handling her mothers jewels. The box is exotic; ‘black lacquer…lotus leaves…lupin seeds…carnelians’. Already there is a sense of the unknown, maybe secrets, and of the daughter trying to understand her mother (the ‘tiers’ of the box, layers of knowing someone, what is seen on the surface and the hidden aspects of a person, or perhaps tears? or both?). The last stanza describes the colour of an amber ring, ‘honey |whisky poured | by morning light.’ At that point my ideal vision is shattered – does the mother pour whisky in the morning, is something from the past trapped in the amber? In very few words I have been on an emotional journey, My imagination tries to fill the gaps, to extrapolate what has not been said. I feel a tension in the relationship, I have many unanswered questions. I want to look into the dark, bottom tier of the jewellery box. I need to turn the page.
Keeping with the theme of mothers and daughters, Tame is a harrowing Chinese fairytale about the birth of an unwanted daughter. I already know this tale but this is a new take on the story. In the opening lines the baby is born with a box of ashes by the bed. Because of a carefully placed line break, at first I do not know what the ashes are for. I do not have to wait long for the first act of violence. The baby is a girl, a disappointment with no value, the father woodsman, wasting no time, tries to smother her in the ashes. The mother moves to intervene but weak, she is ‘flogged with the usual branch’.
It now feels as though I am in a world where all woman are habitually abused and considered worthless. The mother turns into a lychee tree ‘scar-ridged back…prone knees…work grained fingers.’ even then, the father curses its ‘useless meagre fruit’. The daughter, called ‘No Name’, ‘maimed …speechless’ survives and takes to nestling under the lychee tree, listening to ‘wordless lullabies’. Miraculously, the tender mother-daughter bond has survived.Years later, the daughter gains some strength and transforms into a goose. She ‘soared to join the arrowed skein’ of migrating geese. She has found a new family and is free from tyranny, or so I thought. In true fairytale form there is more. Geese, we are told, have a tendency to return to their birthplace. The goose-daughter ‘spirals into his yard’ and is ‘snared’ by the woodsman who of course does not recognise his no-name daughter. He presses his daughter’s neck against the stump of the tree and with a single blow chops off her head. The final moment is more heart-wrenching because the chopping block is the remains of the lychee tree.
This poem does not loose any of its power each time I read it.For me it deals with the poor status of woman in society and is even more poignant with respect to China and the consequences of their one child policy where daughters were seriously undervalued and resulted in the gender imbalance that now exists in the country. What I think is most devastating is that in such a male-dominated society one woman could not save another and everyone looses, including the father who, now alone, at least feels some disconnected sorrow and grief for his belief that a goose is more profitable than a daughter.
The neglect of the goose daughter also reflects the experience of the mother in the collection. Her adopted mother tells her in ‘violent anger’, and fairytale fashion, that she was the daughter of a cobbler with ‘too many mouths to feed’ and was abandoned on a ‘refuse heap’.
The final poem of the collection Yangtze remains a bit of a puzzle. It’s subject is a submerged Chinese city. Presumably a result of the building of the 3 gorges dam. There is a ‘ghost forest’ and ‘shells of houses | towns that once | held hundreds | of thousands’. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Emperor’s buried terracotta army in Embalmed. But to end the collection with a dam, what does this tell us of the narrator’s quest for a symbol, for the journey taken ? The poem tells us twice that someone once said ‘journeying is hard’. Was she unsuccessful? Was whatever she sought long buried or submerged, the past displaced? The abandoned city makes me think of the mother abandoned as a child but given a new life, just as the inhabitants of the city have moved on. I feel a sense of disappointment for the narrator even though I loved accompanying her on her search.
I look up ‘journeying is hard’ thinking this might be a clue. I am led to Li Bai, a Chinese poet from the 700’s and the poem Hard Road. I find there is a connection with Ezra Pound (the subject of Stray dogs) so I think I am onto something. It seems that journeying was a lifetime occupation of the ancient poet so I am once again hopeful. I have copied Hard Road below. Reading it I am content that Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe is the first part of a longer journey and, at its ‘dammed’ end, the narrator has merely paused a while to decide which turning to take next.
The Hard Road
Pure wine costs, for the golden cup, ten thousand coppers a flagon,
And a jade plate of dainty food calls for a million coins.
I fling aside my food-sticks and cup, I cannot eat nor drink….
I pull out my dagger, I peer four ways in vain.
I would cross the Yellow River, but ice chokes the ferry;
I would climb the Taihang Mountains, but the sky is blind with snow….
I would sit and poise a fishing-pole, lazy by a brook —
But I suddenly dream of riding a boat, sailing for the sun….
Journeying is hard,
Journeying is hard.
There are many turnings —
Which am I to follow?….
I will mount a long wind some day and break the heavy waves
And set my cloudy sail straight and bridge the deep, deep sea