Rich and fierce, Sarah Howe?s poems are alive to the complex stories and voices that cohere around objects, family and place. . . surprising and moving. . . - EDMUND DE WAAL
About Sarah Howe
Sarah Howe was born in Hong Kong in 1983 to an English father and Chinese mother, and moved to England as a child. She studied English at Cambridge, where from 2010-2015 she was a Research Fellow at Gonville and Caius College, before taking up a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at University College London. She has been the recipient of a Hawthornden Fellowship and the Harper-Wood Studentship for English Poetry, as well as fellowships from Harvard University?s Radcliffe Institute and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation. Her pamphlet, A Certain Chinese Encyclopaedia (Tall-lighthouse, 2009), won an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors. Her first full collection, Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus, 2015), won the T.S. Eliot Prize and The Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award, and was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. She is a Lecturer in Poetry at King?s College London.
Howe?s work is extraordinarily varied in subject and form. The poems in Loop of Jade include meditations on Chinese history and culture, responses to works by Bonnard, Puccini and Sir Philip Sidney, and poems in dialogue with Borges, Pound and Ashbery. Running through these diverse works is a preoccupation with identity, childhood, memory and the act of poetic composition itself. The opening of ?Crossing from Guandong? illustrates the suppleness with which Howe evokes the process of recollection:
Something sets us looking for a place.
For many minutes every day we lose
ourselves to somewhere else. Even without
knowing, we are between the enveloping sheets
of a childhood bed, or crossing
that bright, willow-bounded weir at dusk.
Tell me, why have I come?
Howe?s formidable technical skill is displayed fully in this passage. The subtle slant-rhymes dramatise the murky transitions between distinct but related memories; the syntax stretches in a probing, exploratory way across several run-on lines; and while the diction is characteristically measured, even conversational, the whole is held together by an intricate and unobstrusive structure of consonantal patterning. The elegant, loop-like trajectory of these lines is also detectable in the long titular poem, a sustained meditation on memory, place, and language, which alternates passages of prose and lineated verse. The prose sections – which are, in fact, often composed metrically – describe the poet?s conversations with her mother about the latter?s childhood in China. Characteristically, Howe?s pragmatic acknowledgement that she ?can never know? the places of her mother?s upbringing – that they will remain always beyond her imaginative reach – precipitates some of her most dazzling descriptive writing:
I can never know this place. Its scoop of rice in a chink-rimmed bowl, its daily thinning soup.
Harbour thunder echoes in their sleeping room: outside, the rattling, clanking bits of boats. She huddles closer to the other girls. On slight brown arms, hairs begin to lift. The brightest smack of lightning will induce (can this be right?) the bunk?s iron frame, like some kind of celestial tuning fork, to zing with a preternatural hum ?
The ?preternatural hum? of this iron bed-frame can be felt elsewhere in her work, especially in poems focussed on objects. ?Mother?s Jewellery Box?, the opening poem of the collection, renders its quotidian subject so exactly that it becomes newly mysterious, radiating an intense and ambiguous emotional charge:
the twin lids
of the black lacquer box
open away ?
a moonlit lake
ghostly lotus leaves
unfurl in tiers
One of the most distinctive characteristics of Howe?s work is the way in which she situates these intimate moments of imagination and experience in broad historical and cultural contexts. ?Others?, a poem concerned with the idea of ?future children?, begins with an epigraph from Genesis, and in its winding etymological investigations takes detours through French, Hebrew, Greek, Chinese and English, before arriving at this question, striking in its simplicity: ?I wonder if they?ll have your blue eyes.? It is a moment characteristic of Howe?s body of work, which combines a wide range of knowledge with a generous sensibility to create poems of remarkable intensity and immediacy.
Howe?s expertly modulated and nuanced reading of her poems helps deepen our appreciation of the whole body of work.
Sarah Howe?s recording was made on 31st October 2017 at The Soundhouse, London, UK.