Mona Arshi – Small Hands

Full Disclosure: Had not previously read any of Arshi’s work. Review copy provided by the Forward Arts folks.

Review: Arshi’s first collection won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in an extremely strong field. As with many poets before her, Arshi’s non-academic background has been pawed over like a curiosity from another world, but her previous career has only a cursory impact on her work (one poem concerns Diane Pretty, who fought for the right to assisted suicide, another Shafilyah Ahmed, a victim of honour killing). Arshi is a poet, which is more difficult to make copy out of, but much less distracting from the poems.

Small Hands is a beautiful, minimally-designed and tiny edition – even the font is noticeably smaller than the industry norm – and Liverpool University Press have done an excellent job making the physical object match the work inside it. The collection is full of curious, shifty poems that seem intent on approaching their subjects sidelong, or from multiple angles at once. If this approach sometimes makes it difficult to get an accurate read on the poem’s message, it does make for work that seems to offer up something different with every reading.

For a taster, here’s ‘Taster’:

‘I taste it because it might taste of honey. I taste it because my brain is a hive. I taste it because I’m properly assimilated. I taste it because I was an only child and refused to share the oranges in the playground. I taste it because I never travelled. I taste it because I’ve travelled to the frozen tundra of the Northern Arctic.’

Several of the book’s poems operate in this kind of mode; there is a central theme, image or refrain around which the poem eccentrically orbits, creating some kind of understanding through irrational connections as much as logical progression. Here, the poem’s excessive ‘because’s push towards its sublimated question, and what it is exactly that’s being tasted (the world? truth? a pebble of quartz?) is left in all its multiplicity, mystery (‘I taste it because nothing is as holy as intimacy because I want it to purr and stink inside me’) and mundanity (‘I taste it because Auntie Naveen’s best friend tasted it and she never looked back’). The poem manages to have its cake and taste it, performing the very act of sensual inquiry it figures as an answer to its own question, as much an abstract sensation as an everyday habit.

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In fact, ‘small hands’ might also be a useful way of thinking about the book’s individual poems, how sensory information is often the prime source of meaning, their preoccupations with tenderness and intimacy. Small Hands seems particularly interested in the boundaries between people, the complex play between love and a less empowering kind of desire, the will to give everything to someone and the need to retain one’s agency. The strange, excellent lyric ‘The Found Thing’ encapsulates this complex dynamic:

‘It infiltrated, left a trace in my mouth
and I wanted it. Emboldened, it began
to colonise all those tight spaces.’

The unnamed ‘thing’ becomes the speaker’s ‘constant mute companion’, then:

‘One morning it was just not there.
I searched and searched, panic rising up
in my throat, and I couldn’t manage
to say what it was I had lost, and how.’

The loss of being controlled is rendered as painful as being controlled in the first instance. In ‘Hummingbird’, the speaker offers up their body, part by part, the generous, loving impulse compromised by some gruesome details that hint toward the violence necessary to enact such a totalising submission of both body and personality:

‘Slide open the bone-zip of my spine,
anoint each rigid peak. Take my limbs

And fold me over. Here’s my mouth, hummingbird,
linger there, and hold my breath.’

Acknowledged in the poem is an apparent fear of the loss of bodily autonomy, alongside the clear delight in the act’s sensuousness. As with ‘The Found Thing’, there is a complicated power dynamic in play, the fear of being ‘colonised’, of the desired body’s capacity to ‘Be God’ over the desirer. These poems are alert to the beauty of the world, but keenly mistrustful of it.

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They also, I think, throw some light back on the book’s opener, ‘The Lion’, a strange, symbolic-ish story about another creature described as being ‘like God’, whose relationship to the speaker is framed in both sexual and paternalistic terms. Again, the speaker stands somewhere between physical desire and an awareness of its incapacitating or dehumanising effects:

‘Although
you can never master the deep language

Of Lion, I am made dumb by the rough
stroke of his tongue upon mine. […] Sometimes

I think all I am is a comfort blanket for his

arthritic mouth.’

In this instance, however, the Lion does not have complete or final control. He is described in terms of decrepitude – ‘I hear the crackle of his bones’, ‘How unstable and old he is now’ – and the poem ends:

‘He starts undressing me under the sweetening stars.

Please girl, he mews; this might be the last time
I will see how the thin light enters you.’

The precise positioning of the italics is vital. ‘Please girl’ is the only direct speech in the poem; the final lines are the speaker’s, and their finality, their intonation of departure and, implicitly, the freedom that comes with it, are a subtly powerful statement.

There are a number of poems in which a domestic space is itself rendered as a kind of cruel and unusual container, a space of social surveillance and moral disapproval. ‘What Every Girl Should Know Before Marriage’ and ‘Bad Day in the Office’ are absurdist riffs on the arbitrary impositions of home life, the state of constant threat that it seems to promise:

‘Things you should have a good working knowledge
of: mitochondria, Roman roads, field glasses, making
rice (using the evaporation method only)

When your mother in law calls you smart,
it’s not meant as a compliment.’ (‘What Every Girl…’)

‘That estate agent arrived for the purposes of the valuation.
He dandled the babies on his lap and placed his index finger
on my bottom lip. There’s some paperwork somewhere.’ (‘Bad Day…’)

There’s a comic atmosphere to these poems, and their sudden tonal shifts are pretty funny. But it’s also underpinned by an awareness that the humour is working in friction with a less amusing truth, a threat of having one’s selfhood undermined by family and respectable society alike. In both poems, the speaker is in a position of powerlessness, and the poem’s wry expression of these criticisms, controls and abuses seems a kind of defence mechanism, a not-waving-but-drowning that indicates suffering through its absurdity. The last line in ‘Bad Day…’ is not the speaker’s words but an advertising blurb which has been ‘eye-balling me’: ‘We promise, you’ll never look back’.

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Between the glowing specificity of the poems’ vision and its often bleak humour are several short, painful elegies for Arshi’s younger brother. The matter is approached with a kind of euphemistic obliqueness, a heightening of poetic strategies employed elsewhere in the collection; the plainly-titled ‘Phone Call on a Train Journey’ begins with the flinching lines ‘The smallest human bone in the ear / weighs no more than a grain of rice’, the kind of trivia one might fixate on in the face of unfaceable grief. The book’s title poem is an act of mindful quietness, ‘passing our palms over creases’, ‘Someone will place his hand on my head’, ‘She’ll be tapping the glass: / only her knuckles illuminated’; the poem is composed of a series of attempts at providing comfort, its use of future tense hinting towards their insufficiency. The poem ends on the mother’s knuckles at the window of a room ‘swollen with light’, an ambiguous figure that trails off toward an inexpressible future.

Small Hands is an assured collection, full of neat phrases and imaginative generosity. As with many first collections, there are a few pieces that seem to reiterate ideas formed elsewhere about sensuality or intimacy more than provide a new angle (I’m thinking of ‘Ode to a Pomegranate’ or ‘The Bird’), or when the poem seems occasioned by a conceit that doesn’t quite seem to satisfyingly develop (‘Wireman’ or ‘Mrs M Unravels’). But when these explorations pay off, they do so with real style, such as in ‘Barbule’, probably my favourite single poem in the collection, a series of hypothetical definitions for a word that google tells me means ‘one of the processes that fringe the barbs of a feather’:

‘An opening or an opening of an opening. […] The first blind rooting tips of a shoot. The effect of moonlight on an oblong pond and an early word for virgin wool. […] The foul breath of an exotic bird, most commonly the peacock.’

It’s a relatively simple effect, but beautifully executed, and it’s moments like these where Arshi’s capacity to translate sensory information into language that Small Hands seems at its most powerful.

Tl;dr: Small Hands is a cracking wee book (physically speaking), and there are poems in here to really savour. Well worth picking up.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin – The Boys of Bluehill

Full Disclosure: First encounter with Ní Chuilleanáin’s work, though a couple of esteemed colleagues have recommended her previously. Most statements below should be read with a silent ‘I think? Maybe?’ Review copy kindly provided by the Forward Prize folks.

Review: Of all the poets to approach with little prior familiarity, Ní Chuilleanáin might at first seem a daunting prospect: all available reports online speak to her tendency towards the oblique, the riddling or parabolic, poems that seem impossible to locate in time or place with anything approaching confidence; certainly I read with the awareness that I was very likely missing a lot of resonances with her earlier work. I think there’s something much more important to these poems, however, than a distillable autobiographical self or self-figure. Ní Chuilleanáin perhaps avoids these blurbifiable factors to allow the book’s philosophical concerns to take centre stage, and poems set somewhere Ireland-ish at some time in the recent-ish past ramify into nuanced, topical and at times radical discussions about bearing witness to trauma, and how power is wielded against such witnessing, from the intimately personal to the governmentally mandated. As Aingeal Clare puts it, her poems ‘are exercises in historical memory, providing invaluable points of entry into the larger forces that shape our lives today’; even if food banks and austerity measures do not literally appear, the kind of mentality that occasioned them does.

On the other hand, Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems are, if not exactly hermetically sealed, then at least uncommonly tightly bound (sometimes literally – the second poem is a weird riddle about a disused printing press and, yep, bindery; the poem’s implications are not necessarily warm to the world of publishing. Maybe). The collection’s closing poem, ‘The Words Collide’, seems in part a little parable for the reader who has, perhaps, just finished an unusually demanding book of poems, a provision of tools for a second reading. The poem features ‘a tough small woman forty years old’ trying to convince a scribe to write a dream to an unspecified compatriot, ‘the only one / who will get the drift’. The richness of the dream –

‘Among those beloved exiles
one sighed happy, as a curtain
lightened and the grammar changed, and the wall
showed pure white in the shape of a bird’s wing’

– is countered by the brute unimaginativeness of the scribe, who in the poem is the only one capable of accurately conveying her obviously urgent message. His refusals become ever more ludicrous and contrived:

‘It will weigh too heavy, it will cost too much,
it will break the strap of the postman’s bag,
it will crack his collarbone.’

Of all the book’s parables, ‘The Words Collide’ is perhaps the most straightforwardly decipherable, or reducible to its component parts (although a parabolist once noted that such poems can never be wholly distilled without residue, and that residue is where the poem lives). The woman’s esoteric, ostensibly harmless message (her toughness and persistence hint otherwise) is still regarded as suspect; those with the power to relate it to its sole capable interpreter are desperate to supress it by any means necessary. The poem acts (maybe) as a kind of translator’s footnote: read me again, but carefully this time.

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As is hopefully clear from the above passages, The Boys of Bluehill also manages to convey a real sense of humour, a warmth and understated sharpness unapologetic for its subtlety. The poems’ dramatic and ironic movements come in small fluctuations in tone that underpin the poem’s central concerns. A poem with the unassuming title ‘Juliette Ryan and the Cement Mixer’ begins, tongue-in-cheekly, ‘The world is beauty and order, / beauty that springs from order’, and tries to render understandable the self-destructive impulse to touch cement mixer blades like ‘velvet […] or the skin of a muscular chest’. ‘Somewhere Called Goose Bay’ is set (maybe) in a small town in Labrador, on the rural west coast of Canada. The poem’s laconic observations of the locals and philosophical concerns about the divvying up of land into political spheres gives the lyric a distinctly, beautifully, Bishopy undertone:

‘I am stranded
in the pilgrim hostel where the only advice
I have been given is not to comment
on the goat’s hair in the butter, if indeed
it is fair to call it butter. Presently
a spruce old woman – I have seen her photograph –
is to come and inform me about the last four
millennia.’

Something in the poem’s vocabulary redoubles its air of mid-century leisure, while pressing on – however archly – with the poem’s (and the book’s) preoccupations about the possibility of knowing or understanding the past and how it unsettles the present:

‘there is nobody here except me
and the man who stands by the door. I’ve asked him
why it should be goose, he said what is a goose?
He says, Eat it up. You’ve surely paid for it.’

The twisting of tenses here makes the man’s gnomic response even more confusing, given the presumably straightforward ‘real’ answer. But the human impact on the landscape, the colonial act of naming (Labrador is just north of Newfoundland, the prototype British colony in the Americas) and its erasure of the past connects to concerns about truth-telling that are at the heart of the collection.

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This in mind, the opening poem, ‘An Information’, is an almost supernaturally well-wrought piece that aggregates many of the book’s recurring motifs and images: hidden places, wedding music, moving water, open or closed hands. The opening line is a perfect tonal encapsulation of the whole book: ‘I returned to that narrow street’, its intonations of an unwelcoming and uncertain home, a painful memory. The poem’s narrative seems straightforward: the speaker asks an unnamed ‘you’:

‘what did you say when you went out
so the crowds that danced at the wedding
would not know your whole story? […]

did they guess, in the shop where you got the duck eggs,
that you had a guest?’

The poem’s title seems to destabilise the apparently straightforward narrative about hidden pregnancy, or even raise questions about whether the episode should be read literally at all; given the undeliverable message of the book’s last poem, does the unusually singular ‘information’ here also carry symbolic weight? In any case, the poem’s closing passage also makes a shape to be repeated later in the book:

‘Open your hand,
let it fall down, whatever you were holding, […]
do not look back to see whose hand
finds it, or where it is hidden again when found.’

The poem’s ultimate gesture, its offer of some manner of closure or healing, I think, is the promise of a network of solidarity, a promise that others will – like the letter-writer’s friend – find, understand and pass on what is necessary to keep the truth in currency. Such is the care with which this promise is made, however, that I cannot be entirely sure of it.

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Though I mentioned the book’s wit and warmth, it would be disingenuous to pretend it doesn’t also carry a throughgoing preoccupation with death and the erasing effects of time. As Patrick Crotty notes in Poetry Review, Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems ‘resist particularity of time and location, as if distrustful of that same world’s claim to substantiality’; what is absolutely substantial is the feeling of lateness, of irretrievable time, that colours much of the book, particularly in the book’s elegies. In ‘For Eamonn O’Doherty, 1939-2011’:

‘even his shadow is hairy, has teeth and warmth. […]
an apple falls and rolls, fetches up at the root of the tree.
The shadow’s vast hand reaches, there’s the sound of a bite:
they still belong to him, they still have the taste of apples.’

The figure retains a disturbing amount of agency and sensual life; death seems only to have turned this vitality into something at once homely and unheimlich. In ‘Two Poems for Pearse Hutchinson’, the poet and translator’s death provides an occasion to think on the ‘small languages’, ‘Welsh, Galician, Platt-Deutsch’ and their threatened survival:

‘I could see the small languages clustering
like swallows on wires but then caught like the birds
beating their wings madly against the mad cage
of the imperial tongue.’

Galician has deep connections with Portuguese, but also contains a great many loan-words from northern Celtic languages; Platt-Deutsch is spoken in northern Germany and the eastern Netherlands and is descended from Old Saxon. Ní Chuilleanáin’s point is, I think, that small languages contain an inherent fluidity, a potential for subversive indeterminacy and flexibility that crosses arbitrary political borders and refutes imperialist narratives of purity. As the first of these two poems explains,

‘there was only one reader, and this time
he has not waited to explain
the rules of the game, which will not be played again.’

These lines might be among the book’s most affecting, bringing a sense of joy and confusion and playfulness into the elegiac frame, while implying that, despite everything, the game will go on. In The Boys of Bluehill, loss is very much an active, even vitalising force that raises questions about the passage of time, whether it really has the ability to fix pain or sadness in the past at all; in ‘Stabat Mater’, suffering ‘shivers because it feels your touch, / it’s alive’; in ‘Direction’ the speaker’s father ‘in the time / since last I saw him he has moved and changed more than in all of his life’; in ‘Teaching Daily in the Temple’:

‘the phrase I missed
still there in the coded
labyrinth I must infiltrate again,
the language of the scroll construe, hunt down
between those hedges an escaping prey
before night falls on the phrase, on the lips
that move in the grave.’

Though undoubtedly a difficult and often puzzling book, The Boys of Bluehill is also tender, hilarious and often dizzyingly open-hearted, keenly aware of its contemporary contexts and the histories that inform them. There is a hell of a lot more to talk about here, like Ní Chuilleanáin’s preoccupations with monasticism, with folk music (the title is shared with a traditional Irish hornpipe), the ecocentrism and geological scale of some of her poems that seem to connect her to Kathleen Jamie’s work, her thoroughly weird metaphysical conceptions of time. But as I have a far more mundane understanding of the latter, I’ll wrap up here.

Tl;dr: The Boys of Bluehill is a stellar work, a book that promises to open up and open up. Read it several times. Take notes.

Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade

Full Disclosure: Met Howe at this year’s Sabotage Awards on a panel regarding the Culture of Criticism. Review copy provided by Vintage Books.

Review: Loop of Jade is Howe’s first collection, in part an account of the poet’s journey to Hong Kong and China to learn about her and her mother’s past, in part a set of imaginative lyric adventures taking in Kung Fu-tzu, Pythagoras, Titus Andronicus, LA Confidential, Cormac McCarthy and Chinese political blogging, amongst others. I’ve slated writers before for wielding their education like an overseer’s whip; Howe’s poems are close-read and empathetic explorations into each text that recognise their value as real-world artefacts above and beyond their capacity to bestow literary authority. The giddying breadth and scope of attention the book achieves is held together by Howe’s calm-but-engaged, precise-but-emotionally-present narrative voice, its open-minded, casually unshakeable dedication to presenting uncomfortable and occasionally devastating stories and ideas, turning them to the light and making them shine. Loop of Jade also features some of the most sure-footed long-line narrative poetry I’ve read: she’s up there with Longley for loading up a line and keeping it airborne.

RHAPSODISING MUCH. So that para’s an attempt to get to the heart of a book with so many overlapping ideas and interwoven narrative strands (the epigraph is from Borges, for pete’s sake) it’s hard to know where to begin. The Borges poems, concerning ‘a certain Chinese encyclopedia’ and its weird classifications of animals, form the a kind of formal backbone and a kind of parallel stream to the book’s more historical-biographical (or geographical) work, as themes and ideas from one overflow into the other. The overriding sense is being taken on a strange and unpredictable journey by someone who knows exactly where they’re going. If you’ve the time I’d recommend reading Howe’s diaries for Best American Poetry, both for its insights into the book’s themes and a straight-up fascinating bit of travel writing.

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The book’s opening and title poems both concern Howe’s mother, so I think it makes sense to start there. ‘Mother’s Jewellery Box’ is the first of several short-lined, impressionistic lyrics that act as breathing spaces between the more narrative-intense poems. This one is kind of a way in to the book, an exercise in seeing the way the book sees, magnifying the poem’s small, shining things and drawing them together with ‘lupin seeds’ and ‘horseflies’ eyes’ as items of equivalent worth. A sceptical reader might be put off by the poem’s niceties, even kitschness; the poem serves as an important bridge from the everyday to the collection’s special worlds, and the poem’s ostensible free-floatingness alters drastically as its images gather meaning across the book.

The poem ‘Loop of Jade’ itself is just incredible. Gunna put that out there. It’s an astonishing piece of writing, an intimate portrait of Howe’s mother, her life, her habits of speech, her struggle to speak and to be understood when she does; also, quietly, the poet’s own feeling of distance from the roots of these qualities: ‘like watching her wade, one dredged step at a time, out into a wide grey strait – myself a waving spot, unseen, on the furthest shore’. One of Howe’s great skills, I think, is maintaining a precise, almost disinterested narrative tone, to the extent that when a disturbing detail appears, its delivery in that same unflinching voice makes it all the more stark. So when she relates her mother’s story about her childhood tenement building, its communal toilet beside its communal kitchen, the impact on the reader’s imagination is visceral:

‘How despite themselves her eyes would follow to the nearby drain, as it sprouted – here she giggles, shivers – the glistening bodies

of cockroaches, like obscene sucked sweets.’

And this is another great ability, to house two apparently conflicting but wholly coherent details in the same lyric space; it would be easy to say the cockroaches were just horrifying, or kind of funny, but by doing both the mother’s perseverance and relief are both recognised and respected, two aspects of one response. Elsewhere in the poem is a long consideration of her mother’s speech patterns, a hesitancy implicitly prompted in part by her traumatic childhood and partly by her foreignness to the English language:

‘in her early forties, in a new country, she spoke more slowly than now, and with a subtle, near-constant nasal hum, more of a nnnnnng – so natural to Cantonese –

but which filled the gaps between her otherwise fluent English like the Thereminy strings in a Mandarin film score.’

The poem also puts the reader in the mother’s shoes (and it’s worth noting that Howe notes the strangeness of the word ‘mother’, only using it ‘at an immigration office, perhaps, to total strangers, or inside the boundaries of a poem’), by setting part of it in her voice; the section enacts these hesitations formally, challenging the reader to keep pace with hers, to render a physical voice on the page. It’s an unassumingly beautiful moment, and noticeable that humming itself is a recurring feature of the poems, like the cicadas in ‘Pythagoras’ Curtain’, the factory machines in ‘Faults Escaped’. The concluding section brings the jewellery of the title into focus, a bracelet blessed to protect the child wearer. The closing line manages to be both heartbreaking and clear-eyed, an acknowledgement of her mother’s faith and a sincere questioning of it. It’s too powerful to spoil here.

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PHEW right, believe it or not there are other poems in the book. Like I said up top, Loop of Jade consists largely of unusual, often pretty funny, lyric adventures, often with a fable-ish sting in the tail. Which all sounds rather tame, but taken en masse the poems have a genuine bite behind the calm, articulate front. Take ‘Embalmed’ (a poem with an epigraph from Chairman Mao about the mass murder of scholars) in which the smell of the thoroughly mortal Emperor’s rotting corpse is masked by piles of fish, or ‘Innumerable’, a deeply powerful piece about attending race day at Hong Kong’s Royal Jockey Club in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square:

‘On rainy race days the turf workers, still bamboo-brimmed, would wear transparent macs dotted with drizzle and the determination of a search party. Where they pressed the clumps back down, you would never know.’

On their own, they are strong pieces; the latter particularly conveys a powerfully empathetic political message through image alone. Over the course of the collection, this facility for conveying radically challenging political thought (note the implication of contemporary Britain in the Jockey Club’s ‘Royal’ moniker; caustic governmental policy is not a foreign concept, and for more on Britain’s history of economic violence against China, read Howe’s essay on Jardine, Matheson and the opium trade) almost subliminally is one of the book’s great strengths. Power structures are noted and critiqued, the poet’s own position as authority is constantly under scrutiny; ‘Sirens’, a poem that redresses the poet’s misunderstanding of a line from Roethke (and when did you last read a poem where the poet so enthusiastically acknowledges their fallibility?), also addresses the misconceptions and potential abuses of the elder poet’s relationship with his student:

‘A tutor watches a girl click-to the door
of his study with reverent care, one winter evening –
And understands Horace on reining in fantasy.’

An awareness of one’s power over someone is one thing, refusing to exploit that power quite another. The poem lets no poet off the hook.

A struggle to find a voice, or means of expression, also appears repeatedly. The beautifully measured ‘Having just broken the water pitcher’ begins with a provocation from 13th century Chinese scholar Wumen Huikai: “If you cannot call it a water pitcher, what do you call it?” The poem then reads into the developmental similarities of kanji script and the punning that allows Chinese bloggers to circumvent official censure:

‘He ponders how strange it is (how useful…) […]
that sensitive words (as in filters,
crackdowns) sounds exactly like breakable
porcelain
. Done typing, he clicks Submit.

Recall the old monk’s koan, the correct
reply to Master Baizhang’s question:
His pupil kicked over the pitcher and left.’

An apparently absurd or childish gesture can point towards a resetting of the terms of debate, a radical rethink of the question, or of the system of power that poses it. Similarly, the single densely packed sentence of ‘Banderole’ takes in the act of providing a voice to a character in a painting. The ‘boot-faced shepherd’ in the face of heavenly glory is granted ‘a Latinity beyond / his own lacked letters’ by a ‘tawny scroll’s / unfurling coil’. The artist giving their subject an inauthentic voice is as important to the poem as the act of making the ‘mute canvas speak’: the act is only partly a failure, only partly a success. See also ‘That from a long way off look like flies’, in which a dead midge squashed in a book becomes ‘a glyph in a strange alphabet’. The poem features perhaps my favourite line in Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus’, ‘how, if that fly / had a father and a mother?’ The play intends this as evidence of Titus’ ill mental health; the poem, in the line ‘At empathy’s darkening pane we see / our own reflected face’ suggests the act is not so very unusual, that it in fact requires far more conscious empathetic effort than simply ‘scrap[ing] her off with a tissue’ (note the personal pronoun), confronting the difficult what ifs of our activated mirror neurones.

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There’s a lot to admire in Loop of Jade: its surprising angles and insight woven into a warm and careful register, its acknowledgement that kindness and care are subversive political acts, its determination to foreground humanity wherever possible, even in the face of great cruelty. ‘Stray Dogs’’s account of Ezra Pound’s imprisonment in custody of the Allied forces manages to focus on a thoroughly human need to exercise his mind without losing sight of his own acts of racist violence. The poems’ formulae are never simple. Nowhere is this clearer than in Howe’s poems about home, her physical pilgrimages (see Raleigh’s ‘give me my scallop shell of quiet’, referenced twice in the collection) and empathetic journeys. Always at arm’s distance to the place she spent her early years, she is at pains to do it justice on its own terms, to get her own self, her own ego (though there are few books where that word is less appropriate), out of the picture. The closing poem, ‘Yangtze’, ends with the image of the forest ‘persisting’ under the surface of the Yangtze river, the trees’ ‘Roots rot deep in the hill / where buried rock / is still dry’:

‘Windows film,
doors drift open
in the empty concrete
shells of houses
towns that once
held hundreds
of thousands
slowly filling with
what, what is it
they fill with?’

The book asks direct questions only infrequently, often in moments of rhetorical intensity like this one, where the submerged city becomes a reflection of loss, of lost home, a lost ability to belong to a geographical place, even the poet’s ability to accurately describe it is ultimately out of reach. It’s a perfectly fitting end to a book that refuses simple answers to complicated questions.

Tl;dr: Absolutely read this book, several times and slowly. I hope it gets the attention it deserves, and, unless there’s a truly spectacular work in the Forward list I haven’t read yet, must be a strong contender.