Belonging and Displacement: Three Debuts
‘The River’ by Jane Clarke, ‘Loop of Jade’ by Sarah Howe and ‘The Art of Scratching’ by Shazea Quraishi
Review by Roy Marshall
All three of these first collections deal to varying degrees with themes of belonging and displacement, with leaving and searching for home.
Jane Clarke revisits rural Ireland in subtle, unsentimental poems. In ‘Honey’ a sheepdog is an asset to Clarke’s father, a farmer, and also a pet to dress up ‘like their teacher / in their mother’s headscarf and glasses’; however, when thirty ewes are driven into barbed wire, the dog’s transgression is met with a brutal response. Similarly, in ‘Rhode Island Reds’, the chickens, ‘Haughty empresses of the byroad’ meet an abrupt end when a child witnesses her mother selecting one and deftly wringing its neck.
In ‘Daily Bread’ a woman’s ‘Blue veins lie like rivers on the map of her hands’ and she ‘flicks a lock, silver-grey frost / in December, from her high cheek bones’ before cutting a ‘deep cross’ in the dough. This graceful description gives a sense of a spiritual dimension to work, a connection made explicit in ‘The Blue Bible’ where stories read to children maintain their relevance, being ‘for people who worked the soil, watched over flocks of sheep.’
In ‘The Harness Room’, Clarke asks why she has always loved this place: ‘Is it for the naming of things: the clippers / and shears, the grape and the rake stacked at the hearth.’ It’s impossible not to think of Seamus Heaney, and like Heaney, Clarke’s superb handling of the language brings the reader closer to the lives of the people in these poems.
Clarke acknowledges that lives lived in such a landscape can be subject to stagnation. ‘The Globe’ sits in Clarke’s schoolhouse, its obsolete names, ‘Rhodesia, Ceylon, Abyssinia, Siam’ indicative of a place left behind in a colonial past, a place that expects its children to become missionaries in countries long since changed by the demise of empire. Political and ecological themes are explored overtly in ‘Who owns the field? , a modern take on a folk ballad, and in ‘The Catch’, in which the speaker is awestruck by a box of moths in her garden.
‘White Fields’ reveals how failure to articulate emotions can lead to loss of intimacy, and in ‘The Suitcase’ ‘despair is ‘ a neighbour / of love’ and currents of disappointment and feelings of entrapment flow close to the surface.
Clarke also contrasts the value of experience with the lack of solace offered by material goods. In the heart-breaking ‘all I will need’ a mother, who has begun to ‘number her days’ asks her daughter to choose
from her pieces of silver
as if all I will need
beneath a linen cloth
in the sideboard drawer.
This book will no doubt fit into Ireland’s poetic tradition so seamlessly as to seem to have always been there. However, the themes of Clarke’s tender, musical poems are universal, and The River is a book of profound and enduring beauty.
In Loop of Jade Sarah Howe embarks on a search for a country she left as a child, migrating from Hong Kong to an England that had always been referred to as ‘home’ by her father. A PhD in renaissance literature, Howe draws extensively on her learning. However, it is not necessary to be familiar with Howe’s references to enjoy this book which ranges from long narratives to impeccable metaphysical sonnets and lyrics of great delicacy.
The opening ‘Mother’s Jewellery Box’ is an exquisite imagist poem in which we encounter the exotic (at least from a Western perspective) object of the title. This is followed by ‘Crossing from Guangdong’, written in disarmingly ‘plain’ language.
Something sets us looking for a place.
For many minutes every day we lose
ourselves to somewhere else
Familiar cultural touchstones such as the ‘humid strains of Frank Sinatra’ become ‘unexpectedly strange’ and the speaker’s unfamiliarity with Asia makes it difficult to decide if even ‘the single, glossy orchid’ is real. The concept of ‘honouring’ the past might seem very old fashioned, but by recording her mother’s early life with great empathy and clarity, Howe is preserving aspects of its culture, utilising her learning and craft to shed light.
‘Embalmed’ is a horrifying examination of the excesses and atrocities, but even these are put into context by a quote from Chairman Mao; ‘The First Emperor? He buried alive 460 scholars. We have buried 46,000!’.
‘Tame’ is an uncompromising tale of infanticide and domestic abuse which elegantly fuses elements of Greek myth to create a fable in which both the wife and the unwanted daughter of a woodsman respectively transform into a tree and a goose. However, the familiar story of liberty through metamorphosis evades the young woman who, due to the ‘obligation to return’ is unable to escape her fate.
‘Loop of Jade’ entwines a classical Chinese story with memories from both Howe’s own and her mother’s childhoods. It is a multi-faceted and hypnotic piece in which Howe’s skilful rendering of her mother’s voice is interrupted by Howe’s own interjection; ‘I can never know this place. Its scoop of rice in a chink-/ rimmed bowl, its daily thinning soup.’ The poem ebbs and flows impressively between an identification so strong that it is difficult to differentiate between mother and daughter and a kind of compassionate detachment.
‘Sirens’ evolves from the definition of ‘pickerel’, a word which can either mean a young pike or a small wading bird, and takes in Homer and Horace in its exploration of the portrayal of female sexuality in classical literature and art, one of many brilliant examples of Howe’s ability to take her reader smoothly through a complex series of ideas.
‘Having just broken the water pitcher’ manages to link a Chinese monk’s koan to the thoughts of a blogger in a modern city. For its rich interweaving of historical texts with contemporary concerns, for its elegance and integrity, for its fierce control of its love poems and for so much more, I can’t recommend Loop of Jade highly enough.
Like Howe, Shazea Quraishi has a diverse background, having been born in Pakistan before living in Canada and Madrid and eventually settling in London. Many of these poems give voice to people facing fear and hardship, and this is certainly true of Edith, an eight year old girl in ‘Mwanza, Malawi’ who suffers hunger in her waking life and nightmares when she sleeps. In ‘Fallujah, Basrah’ deformities suffered by children in the aftermath of bombing are detailed by their mothers, and these voices are authentic and dignified.
At the heart of this collection is the ‘The Courtesans Reply’, a sequence drawing upon Sanskrit texts to explore themes of gender, power and sexuality through the voices of courtesans. These voices are distinct and individual, and the reader glimpses this world through veils and curtains. As the women suffer internal conflicts over their need to be needed and the transitory nature of their relationships, it is difficult to know whether they feel in control or whether they must maintain the disillusion of power in order to make their lives bearable.
‘The Sixty-four Arts’ lists accomplishments to be learnt by courtesans, and there is a sense of the effort involved in learning skills which include ‘training fighting cocks, partridges / and rams’. It seems that the women’s social standing may come at the expense of becoming a sort of human version of Swiss Army knife, and it is possible to interpret the final lines as being laden with irony
Such a courtesan will be honoured by the King, praised
by the learned, and all will seek her favours
and treat her with consideration.
The sequence is compelling and combines its sources effectively. However, it seems a shame that Quraishi didn’t go further, perhaps exploring other aspects of the women’s lives, and I would have liked to read more of these poems.
The final section contains the ‘The Years’, a diary style recording of the author’s time in Canada, but I felt neither the language nor imagery raised it above the plainly anecdotal, and the last section feels a little anti-climactic, containing too many pieces which don’t carry enough emotional charge to make them extraordinary.
Quraishi utilises fable in the opening poem, ‘You May Have Heard of Me’ The speaker is the daughter of a bear, who, after leaving home, ‘walked taller, balanced better’. Yet in the closing lines we find her in an alien and hostile city with its ‘tall, black gates with teeth’.
Here, you find me, keeping my mouth small,
hiding pointed teeth and telling stories,
concealing their truth as I conceal
the thick black fur on my back
The Art of Scratching has many qualities. However, Quraishi might perhaps scratch a little deeper and I hope that her next collection will be imbued with a confidence and belief that allows her, should she wish, to trust her audience, to show her pointed teeth and roar.