I watched the shadowplay
against the blinds
one October –
in the way sometimes
at a pale face across the bed
you hardly see it –
vague as a street
at night, as nature
stripped of accident,
with a gusting stutter
more restless still
for being not
the thing itself.
– Earthward, Sarah Howe
The evening began like this; a stuffy cave of a room, a blinding spotlight, a sparse stage and – after Tim Liardet’s admiring introduction – Sarah Howe reading Earthenware from memory.
The audience was hushed as the clear susurrus of Howe’s voice chimed on words I, a new initiate into the Howe-Hype, hadn’t expected the emphasis to land. Even as we watched, this short poem from a collection that boasts the seven page eponymous poem Loop of Jade was transformed in Howe’s voice.
If there is an experience I can never recommend highly enough, it is to listen to a poet read their work live. Howe, appearing quiet and subdued beforehand, became lit up under the stage lights and by her own poetry. Poems I had read days before and scribbling feverish annotations in the margins beside created new noise as Howe lingered on her lines, allowing them the room to breathe and echo in the silence. Only once before have I ever been so enraptured at Burdell’s Yard and only then by the reading of my absolute favourite poet. Howe surpassed all others.
To hear her speak between her poems, weave stories and context around each one, was an experience I was privileged to be a part of. Howe spoke about growing up in Hong Kong and the transition that was made to assimilate into the UK when her family moved, including an anecdote of her childhood self asking exactly what was Chinese about the playground game Chinese Whispers. Poems such as (f) Fabulous and Crossing from Guangdong, which unfortunately she did not read at the evening and later in the Q&A regretted having not been able to, talk about her struggle with her heritage, referring to herself as ‘Chimera, chimera –’ and referring to a time she ‘counted out the change in Cantonese. /Yut, ye, sam, sei. Like a baby. The numbers / are the scraps that stay with me.’
In the title poem Loop of Jade, which before she read the opening sections Howe described as not quite being a poem due to its form of prose, clippings from a classic Chinese poem, and poetry, she prefaced the poem with talking about her mother, growing up in a difficult period of Chinese history, and the ‘ mother’ who raised her mother. Hearing this history stated so explicitly from the poet herself turned what was already my favourite poem in her collection into an experience I don’t think I will forget. Now, reading those lines ‘I can never know this place. Its scoop of rice in a chink-/ rimmed bowl, its daily thinning soup.’ will call me back to that exact seat in the corner of the front row, looking up at Sarah Howe and feeling her poetry with an intensity words fail a poet to describe.
Now to speak technically, as I am a masters student after all, the most useful part of this whole experience, aside from the buckets of inspiration and stunning language I will definitely be borrowing in my own poetry, was in the Q&A. Liardet and Howe sat on the stage and answered questions ranging from the struggle of autobiographical poetry, Howe’s influences in her work, her poetic history, and her relationship to the incredible title poem Loop of Jade (this last question was my own).
But in answering one of the audiences questions, between the two of the Howe and Liardet came up with a phrase that every poet and poetry-lover should know. Sculpting the silence. Howe’s poetry sits beautifully on the page and the silence that surrounds poems such as the stunning poem Mother’s Jewellery Box that opens the collection;
the twin lids
of the black lacquer box
open away –
In forming her stanzas this way, Howe allows every short bite of line its own breath and moment, giving each moment the gravitas it deserves. She sculpts the silence to create a poem even more moving than it would have already been. But perhaps now I am getting too technical. It is deadline season after all, I’m too used to writing essays right now! Suffice to say Howe’s words and the silence around them resonated out from the stage and echoed in everyone that watched her. It was an incredible event and I for one cannot wait for what Sarah Howe will bring to the poetry scene next.
You can buy Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade here.