Figuring out the past. Concerning the present.
Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Random House)
First Published: 7th May 2015
Date Reviewed: 21st November 2015
I’ve never reviewed a book of poetry before, never reviewed a poem at all. As you may know I’m not a big reader of them – technically I like them a lot, the words, phrasing, beauty – but they often confuse me.
I’m giving it a go this time; Howe’s poetry is on the short-list for the Young Writer Of The Year award and having heard the poet read one of them herself, being able to hear her voice in my head and knowing when to pause, helped me a lot.
So, then, Howe’s collection is about her mother’s early life in China as an unwanted and later adopted girl. It’s about Howe’s own experiences as a young child in Hong Kong before the family moved to Britain. It’s a bit about politics, a bit about history, and a bit about Howe’s relationship with her husband. Many of the poems are also based around the divisions of animals as proposed by Dr Franz Kuhn. (The descriptions are included before the poetry begins.)
And whilst some of it flew over my head, I can still say it’s incredible. Howe makes use of various styles. She writes in one-word lines, she writes in a sort of way that echoes prose more than poetry, she uses long sentences, short ones, indented lines. The style that’s most compelling is the one used in the title poem. This is a poem wherein she’s listening to her mother talk about her life and near the end she writes as her mother speaks, using white space between words and phrases to show where her mother is pausing. You get a really good sense of how this conversation played out in reality.
Howe’s written voice moves through perspectives. She often writes from a distance, the third person. Sometimes she writes in the first; but the best times are when she questions the audience directly, or questions herself, or speaks in a particularly intimate way that defies description. It’s really lovely and makes you feel as though you’re privy to something special.
One of the standouts is Tame – hard-hitting, excellent. This is a poem in which Howe uses a quotation about how it’s better to raise geese than a girl as her base and works a fairy tale from it, dark, brutal ending and all. She wraps around the subject, coming full circle. Another is Innumerable wherein Howe remembers going on a day out around the time of Tiananmen; she contrasts the two and brings them together to show how things can be swept under the literal rug but not really.
About half the poems are stories, the other half tiny glimpses. The glimpses work well, you need to keep your wits about you to discover their true meaning.
The writing is quite flowery as you would expect, and very, very literary. Howe’s writing may require you to use a dictionary and you do have to pause sometimes, more than you usually would, to really make sense of what she’s saying – sort of the first step in the discovery program.
It’s a brilliant collection which I can confidently rate top marks even though I didn’t get it all.
I received this book at the Young Writer of the Year award blogger event.