Poem introduction

pickerel, n. 1 – A young pike; several smaller kinds of N. American pike pickerel, n. 2 – A small wading bird, esp. the dunlin, Calidris alpina

Sirens

I see it clearly, as though I’d known it myself,
      the quick look of Jane in the poem by Roethke –
that delicate elegy, for a student of his thrown
      from a horse. My favourite line was always her
sidelong pickerel smile. It flashes across her face
      and my mind’s current, that smile, as bright and fast
and shy as the silvery juvenile fish – glimpsed,
      it vanishes, quick into murk and swaying weeds –
a kink of green and bubbles all that’s left behind.

I was sure of this – the dead girl’s vividness –
      her smile unseated, as by a stumbling stride –
till one rainy Cambridge evening, my umbrella
      bucking, I headed toward Magdalene to meet an
old friend. We ducked under The Pickerel’s
      painted sign, its coiled fish tilting; over a drink
our talk fell to Roethke, his pickerel smile, and
      I had one of those blurrings – glitch, then focus –
like at a put-off optician’s trip, when you realise
      how long you’ve been seeing things wrongly.

I’d never noticed: in every stanza after the first,
      Jane is a bird: wren or sparrow, skittery pigeon.
The wrong kind of pickerel! In my head, her
      smile abruptly evolved: now the stretched beak
of a wading bird – a stint or purre – swung
      into profile. I saw anew the diffident stilts
of the girl, her casting head, her gangly almost
      grace, puttering away across a tarnished mirror

of estuary mud. In Homer, the Sirens are winged
      creatures: the Muses clipped them for their failure.
By the Renaissance, their feathers have switched
      for a mermaid’s scaly tail. In the emblem by Alciato
(printed Padua, 1618) the woodcut pictures a pair
      of chicken-footed maids, promising mantric truths
to a Ulysses slack at his mast. But the subscriptio
      denounces women, contra naturam, plied with hindparts
of fish: for lust brings with it many monsters.

Or take how Horace begins the Ars Poetica,
      ticking off poets who dare too much: mating savage
with tame, or snakes with birds, can only create such
      horrors, he says, as a comely waist that winds up
in a black and hideous fish. The pickerel-girl swims
      through my mind’s eye’s flummery like a game
of perspectives, a corrugated picture: fish one way
      fowl the other. Could it be that Roethke meant
the word’s strange doubleness? Neither father

nor lover. A tutor watches a girl click-to the door
      of his study with reverent care, one winter evening –
and understands Horace on reining in fantasy.


from Loop of Jade (Chatto & WIndus, 2015) © Sarah Howe 2015, used by permission of the author and the publisher

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Recordings

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1Pronouns are for Slackers

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2On a line by Xu Lizhi

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3Crossing from Guangdong

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4Belonging to the emperor

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5Earthward

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6Tame

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7Loop of Jade

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8rain, n.

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9Night in Arizona

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10Sirens

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14The present classification

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16Frenzied

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17Monopoly

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21Others

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22Crocodile

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23Having just broken the water pitcher

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24That from a long way off look like flies

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25Faults Escaped

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26The Walled Garden

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27Islands

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28Yangtze

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