The Poetry Shelf: ‘Crossing from Guangdong’ by Sarah Howe

I first read Sarah Howe’s collection of poetry, Loop of Jade, last year and I came back to it many times in the subsequent months. It has quickly become one of my favourite collections of poetry and I’m sure I will keep reading and re-reading it for many years to come. I fell in love with the second poem of the collection, ‘Crossing from Guangdong’, the first time that I read it but over the past year it has come to mean much more to me than I ever expected. Through all the ups and downs of life, the first line of this poem has been in my mind, being quietly mulled over until it came to mean something more personal to me than simply the first line of a poem I like. As I thought about which poetical work to look at next in my series The Poetry Shelf, it didn’t take me long to decide on ‘Crossing from Guangdong’.

It is always interesting to me that ‘Crossing from Guangdong’ is not the first poem in the collection, since this seems to me as though it is the starting point of the journey Howe takes the reader through as she rediscovers her family’s past in a very tangible way. Thematically, this opening line bookends the final stanza of the last poem, ‘Yangtze’, in which Howe muses on travelling and concludes that ‘journeying is hard’ (‘Yangtze’, l.58). ‘Crossing from Guangdong’, by comparison then, is somewhat more optimistic, filled with the imagined past contrasted with the reality of the present. It is the beginning of her exploration, her journey, and it starts with the haunting acknowledgement that ‘Something sets us looking for a place.’ (‘Crossing from Guangdong, l.1); no journey, hard as it may be, is taken without a reason. The rest of the collection will explain Howe’s reason for making this particular journey to Hong Kong; yet the reader is left with the more personal question of what sets them looking for places, whether that be physically or in their memories. Deeper still is the question of what has set them on the path they are on and if there is something they are still looking for.

The present is occupied by a journey described as ‘this strange pilgrimage to home’ (ibid, l.50), in which the speaker (who the reader presumes is a representation of Howe herself) crosses from the province of Guangdong to Hong Kong. The journey is told in a dreamlike fashion, yet vivid, so that the reader too is transported to the familiarity of eyes that ‘snag on every flitting, tubular tree,/their sword-like leaves.’ (ibid, ll.19-20) as one tries to sleep; to the realisation of having reached a border by the bus sinking ‘with a hydraulic sigh’ (ibid, l.51); and to the long seconds of an official looking between a passport photo and the person in front of them in ‘half recognition’ (ibid, l.67).

Just as would be expected on a long coach journey, the reader is also taken to a walk through the wandering mind of the speaker as she reflects on the recent, distant, and not-experienced past. The recent past is seen through her memories of brief interactions with people she has met since arriving, linked only in the connections she makes between them in her own mind. The passport-checking official, the waitress in Beijing, the old lady in Datong: they have little in common except for the fact that the speaker felt an unexpected connection to them, ‘something like finding family’ (ibid, l.68).

The distant past, the speaker’s own memories of having lived in Hong Kong, more directly interact with the present. As the coach draws into the city, the comparisons between past and present become clearer. ‘And what has changed?’ (ibid, l.102); as anyone who has ever returned to a place from childhood will know, the answer to that question is both everything and nothing. The speaker acknowledges this, noting that the city is ‘so much taller now than when I left’ (ibid, ll.109-110) yet exclaiming in the next line ‘suddenly, I know’ (ibid, l.111) as the memories line up with the space in front of her eyes.

The imagined, or not-experienced past, is one of the most interesting aspects of the poem for me. Throughout the entire collection of poems is the running thread of the mother-daughter relationship as the speaker re-treads her mother’s steps. Both mother and daughter have memories of the same place yet the daughter cannot hope to relive the memories of the mother; all she can do is imagine the past based on the stories that she has been told. Howe portrays these moments brilliantly, breaking up the brief images of the not-experienced past so that they appear as pictures that can never form an entire story. In some way, the speaker is attempting to keep something of her mother alive by reliving these once-told memories, but this very attempt is brought to a sad conclusion as the sight of the ferry reminds the speaker that her mother ‘can no longer see’ (ibid. l.120).

Delving into this poem once again has reminded me just how much depth there is to it. The journey Howe takes the reader on is not just the physical journey from Guangdong to Hong Kong, but a wander into the past as the speaker attempts to bring the past back to life. It is one of my favourite poems, and it has been a joy to spend so much time reading it and writing about it once again.

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