Tuesday evening was full of surprises for us. Surprise that our usual venue was closed for redecoration so we took refuge in The Mitre. And surprise that a poetry collection by a complete unknown (well until she won the T S Eliot prize that is) turned out to be so good.
The overarching themes in this collection China, Chinese culture and Chinese customs intermingled with personal reminiscences. Sarah Howe is Anglo-Chinese and was brought up in Hong Kong for the first seven years of her life before moving to the UK. This gives her the outsider’s eye and ear for detail. In Crossing from Guangdong her description of the border guard at the checkpoint is particularly well-drawn “The lichen-green uniformed official, with his hat brimmed in black gloss, his elegant white-gloved hands, his holstered gun, slowly mounts the rubbered steps, sways with careful elbows down the aisle.”
[There were barnacles……] is another very well-judged short poem. To say of such prosaic creatures “And when the russet tide came they opened themselves like unfamiliar lovers” is spot on; the reader has a very clear sense of the barnacle’s tentative response to the inrush of water.
The third poem we looked at closely was Tame – a rather gruesome fable based on the Chinese proverb “It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters.” We thought this felt like the reworking of a Grimms fairytale in a Chinese setting. Once we had discovered the story of Sarah Howe’s mother (see this TED talk ) Tame had an added poignancy.
There are some poems in the collection where she overreaches herself and she has been roundly criticised by the old guard. But taken as a whole this is a refreshingly different debut collection which we thoroughly enjoyed. Hat tip Ruth for suggesting it.