Thursday, June 10, 2021

Sinople eye


Dame's Violet (Hesperis matronalis). Frome, 6 June 2021.

[A mainland European species grown in gardens for its flowers and fragrance. Often naturalized in the British Isles and in southern Sweden (Sw: Aftonviol, Trädgårdsnattviol).]

I've been reading Sarah Howe's 2015 poetry collection Loop of Jade. And, what seems to be incurred by that, doing a lot of reading round it too. These poems tend to point away from themselves, in many directions.

It's made me spend even longer than usual on Wikipedia, mugging up on e.g. vernier calipers ("Chinoiserie"), Pythagoras ("Pythagoras's Curtain"), Guandong ("Crossing from Guandong"), the Three Gorges Dam ("Yangtze"), junipers ("Night in Arizona"), exogamy and the Polanski movie Chinatown ("(h) the present classification").

Sometimes I ran across the very expression that is cast up in the poem: "neo-noir" for Polanski's film, and Pythagoras's akousmata illuminating the poem's strange word "acousmatic". Well, no surprise, Sarah Howe is an enthusiastic delver into Wikipedia herself. 


                                                        . . . I read
how the groom's family by Chinese tradition
should gift to her kinsmen a piglet, milk-fed . . .

when quite satisfied the bride's still intact.
I imagine your mother cranking the spit.
Crackling's coy, brittle russet then succulent fat --
that atavistic aroma make me salivate,

you physically sick. So as pet names go, Shikse's
not a bad fit. (I did play your Circean temptress . . .)
Wikipedia says it comes down from Leviticus,
how your God labelled creatures unclean to ingest . . .

This is most of the sonnet "(d) Sucking pigs"; I'd like to have quoted it all, but it's not online yet.  

I was OK on Circe and her swine because it was a story that drove a number of the Renaissance masques I wrote about recently
But I needed Menachem Kaiser's in-depth article "Is 'shiksa' an insult?", originally published in the L.A. Review of Books:
And I also needed Xu Bing's account of the performance piece that's mentioned towards the end of the poem:

The sonnet meditates on Sarah Howe's own marriage; her Chinese background, her husband's Jewish background. 

The information about the sucking pig is decontextualized; whatever the truth of this old custom (who did it, when), it's treated here more as a fancy than a fact. The poem plays with these gobbets of "information", combining them, allowing them to be symbolic and "speak volumes",  applying them like people trying on outfits. 

And yet the effect isn't playful. Our ethnic/national self-identities are constructed by us of precisely this kind of internalized stuff, sucked gobbets welcomed as prejudicial guides to life in ways they really aren't. 

A lot of the poems in Loop of Jade grow out of a painfully diligent search for connection with an elusive heritage (Sarah grew up in Hong Kong until she was eight; her mother was Chinese but being adopted had no family). 

But in this fretting sonnet there's a disgusted glimmering of recognition about how meaningless and divisive and harmful it all is. An insight that's too reductive, an insight on which no-one can finally rest. But an insight all the same. 


No less so is the poem "(l) Others", at least in its final tittering. 

our future children's skeins, carded. 

"Carded" implies a homogenization, a straightening out, of the at-least-four ethnic yarns in the future children's mix. But it's also a new beginning: the poem quotes Darwin, registering the wonderment of genesis or genetics: have been, and are being, evolved. There's a defiant celebration, too, in "They wouldn't escape by the Mischlinge Laws". 

And yet this poem registers a continuing hostility, too. There are always tyrannies around. If it's not our "blood" or our "race" or our "caste", is it the determinism inherent in science's impositions, is it the tribal and public control we seem unable to outgrow? 


A poetic so driven by the play of information must run up against questions of truth. Back in 2013 Sarah Howe discussed this in connection with false memories she had imported into a draft poem, "Loop of Jade" (in the published version, some are changed, some half-changed, some unchanged).

In another poem here, "(e) Sirens", she discusses with the same frankness her misinterpretation of Theordore Roethke's line in "Elegy for Jane"her sidelong pickerel smile. She had always thought of "pickerel" as a fish; now she "discovers" it must have meant a wading bird all along. 

As it happens I'm perfectly sure she was right the first time. "Pickerel" as a wading bird is, as far as I can see, a purely Scottish usage that Roethke wouldn't have known or considered for a moment. The enlightened Sarah's desperate attempt to make a meaningful smile out of a dunlin's "stretched beak" is an imaginative chimera (which, not coincidentally, is the topic of the poem that follows). [That Roethke's poem mentions several other birds is neither here nor there -- yes, it could suggest that "pickerel" is also a bird, but the observation works just as well as an argument against "pickerel" meaning yet another bird.]

But anyway, Sarah's poem has already laughed off its author's pubby "research", confesses it doesn't know whether Roethke's word is fish or fowl. It's not exactly a laughing poem though. A clutch of themes about the elusiveness of truth and meaning run like a central core through the collection. The discourse of the world, its endless glibness and filtering; its information that isn't; the way that, even when we're not being lied to, we still contrive to deceive ourselves. And the temptation to silence that comes from being over-sensitized to the falsity of discourse. Well, what good is silence? 

Greater Stitchwort (Rabelera holostea). Frome, 5 June 2021.

[The above scientific name was proposed in 2019, following some phylogenetic work. Up to then Greater Stitchwort had always been Stellaria holostea. Throughout British Isles. In Sweden it's quite common in the far south, but rare elsewhere (Sw: Buskstjärnblomma).]

It thuds into my chest, this pendent
ring of milky jade --
I wear it strung on an old watch chain --

meant for a baby's bracelet. Into its
smooth circlet
I can -- just -- fit a quincunx of five

fingertips. Cool on my palm it rests --
the sinople eye
on a butterfly's wing. When I was born

she took it across to Wong Tai Sin,
my mother's mother,
to have it blessed. I saw that place --

its joss-stick incensed mist, the fortune-
casting herd,
their fluttering, tree-tied pleas -- only later

as a tourist.

(from "Loop of Jade". You can see a longer extract here.)

This extract comes from towards the end of the poem. The poet's delivery is suddenly afflicted by a striking hesitancy that recalls something it talked about earlier, her mother's hesitations. As if we've finally reached a point loquacity can't touch, where little is reliable. 

Like Roethke's "pickerel", "sinople" is a word with contradictory definitions. It's a colour word but, like the word "livid", can refer to several very different colours. The OED examples for "sinople" are about equally split between green and rusty red. Actually, that kind of works here. The loop of jade itself is I suppose green, and within its circle the shadowed palm of the hand could be a sort of ferruginous shade. For after all, it's the combination of the two that resembles the eye on a butterfly's wing: both the demarcating ring, and the contrasting colour that fills it. (E.g. a Peacock butterfly or a Mountain Apollo.)

But if you think "sinople" might also have attracted the poet by its sino- prefix I think you'd be right. (Sinopoly is in fact the name of a couple of Chinese technical companies.) Sound plays quite an important role in these poems, in their awareness of and participation in semantic leakage. Think of the sequence sick-shikse-Wikipedia in the lines I quoted earlier. 

Perhaps "quincunx" is another example of this questing looseness. It ought to mean the pattern exemplified by the five on a dice: a central spot and four corner-spots. Try as I may, I don't see that you would shape your fingertips into a quincunx pattern to fit them into a ring. The fingertips are bound to be arranged more like five petals, I reckon. 

Saxifrage, garden cultivar. Frome, 5 June 2021.

[A cultivar of hybrid origin, I imagine. The leaves and tufted habit generally resemble Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa), but it has more flowers on each stem than the wild plants -- comparable in that respect to Meadow Saxifrage (Saxifraga granulata).] 

Dave Coates, in his useful post  on Loop of Jade, directed me to Sarah Howe's 2013 series of five meditative travel articles titled "To China" on the BestAmericanPoetry website; well worth reading for their own sake, and they are also (I thought) an indispensable companion to the poetry collection that followed. They're all listed here:

Martyn Crucefix on Loop of Jade:
Naomi on Loop of Jade:

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