sinople eye (Sarah Howe's Loop of Jade)
by Michael Peverett
|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.
our future children's skeins, carded.
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 pendentring of milky jade --I wear it strung on an old watch chain --meant for a baby's bracelet. Into itssmooth circletI can -- just -- fit a quincunx of fivefingertips. Cool on my palm it rests --the sinople eyeon a butterfly's wing. When I was bornshe 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 lateras a tourist.
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: