Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe

I was browsing a bookshop, looking to spend some birthday vouchers, when I stumbled across Sarah Howe’s collection of poetry: Loop of Jade. I had a vague memory of hearing good things about this collection, and the collection itself immediately appealed to me with its focus on cross-cultural concerns and cultural identity. I was intrigued to see how Howe’s personal exploration of her Hong Kong roots would play out in her poetry; I was pleasantly surprised by the ease with which Howe invites the reader to join her on the journey. It was definitely a journey I enjoyed and learnt much from.

As mentioned above, Loop of Jade is a collection of poetry in which Howe explores the implications of having been born to an English father and Chinese mother, spending the first few years of her childhood in Hong Kong before moving to England, and cultures colliding in her marriage. I always appreciate when, despite the poems standing alone, a collection can make them tell a story: this is a collection that very much does that. As the reader makes their way from cover to cover, more about the circumstances surrounding Howe’s trip back to Hong Kong become clear; early on she states ‘something sets us looking for a place’ (‘Crossing from Guangdong’) and for Howe her mother haunts every poem with the tales of her past. Bringing the overarching narrative full circle, Howe returns to the theme of boats, crossings, and journeys which started the collection, admitting to the reader:

‘Someone I now forget
once said
journeying is hard.
The moon glimmers
in the brown channel.’
(‘Yangtze’)

Howe’s journey is deeply personal and painful, but it makes for a wonderfully complete and real poetry collection. No matter how hard the process of discovering her identity has been.

One of the most interesting and enigmatic recurring links throughout the collection was the series of poems taken from the Jorge Luis Borges quote that precedes the collection. Howe takes each of the examples that ‘a certain Chinese encyclopedia’ uses to describe categories of animals and creates these wonderfully diverse, yet somehow interlinking poems. I will freely admit that I am still not entirely sure I understand the meaning of each of these pieces: there is a depth and complexity to them that I think I will need to come back to again and again before the dots connect. Maybe they won’t ever connect, and the whole point of these poems is the mysterious and unreachable. Nevertheless, I thought this was a really clever and unique addition to this collection, drawing on a Chinese philosophy that gives the whole book its tone.

On an emotional level, however, the poems I connected to the most were the more personal ones, exploring Howe’s own experiences. I enjoyed the subtle way that she weaved together her story with these deep concepts and pictures that so clearly illustrate her feelings without having to make them explicit. This definitely means the reader sometimes has to do a bit of hard work in order to fully understand her meaning from time to time, but I think that is a great example of a poet trusting that her audience will pick up on those little moments and recurring themes that make this more than just a collection of standalone poems and transforms it into a narrative journey.

This was a wonderful collection of poetry, full of cross-cultural links and explorations, that is grounded in the personal story of the writer. It was a book I very much enjoyed reading, even though it was not always an easy read; the narrative poems hooked me in and made me more willing to do the hard work of understanding the subtleties of the shorter pieces. Howe’s poetic voice is unendingly engaging: unique, modern, and understated; I am excited to find more of her writing to read. This is definitely a collection I would recommend, especially to anyone with an interest in different cultures and cultural identity.

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