Lingering Voices of a Fatherland
By Al Lim
Inspector Inspector is a haunting meditation on death and desire through a father's voice and legacy. Jee Leong Koh's second book at Carcanet Press intersperses several sequences – palinodes written in his dead father Koh Dut Say's voice, gratitude to his poetry mentors, poems based on his sex diaries in New York City, inspections during the Covid-19 pandemic, and life interviews with diasporic Singaporeans. The collection ends with a eulogy – a response to his father's death.
The collection turns on the palinode, a poetic form premised on retracting a poet's earlier poem or statement. Here, Koh draws from poet Monica Youn's Blackacre (2016), which begins with a palinode. Youn explains that her palinode simultaneously destabilises the playful theme of desire present in her previous collection Ignatz and creates a starting point of suspense/suspending for her collection, like the Hanged Man tarot card. The palinode invites a complicated web of affect, especially when death is involved. The form asks: what statements can be retracted or reproduced? What feelings accompany this liminal position of taking back? Who gets to speak over? And to what ends?
Koh channels the palinode form by speaking on behalf of his father. He wonders what his father would have wanted to retract, infusing the poems with his own regrets and longing to hear his father's voice once again. At once, these poems present a refracted mirror of his father while functioning as acts of ventriloquy.
The first few poems attend to what was an embodied male presence. In 'Palinode III', Koh's father is projected to say, "All the time / the air sacs // in my lungs / winked out." It evokes the setting of being next to a hospital bed, watching the laboured breathing of a loved one, as time suspends its usual passing. Later in the poem, his father remarks:
Short lines portray hesitation; breaths are measured as air moving out of the lungs. Moreover, there is a troubling of his father's lack of regrets through these poems, as Koh retracts these statements of surety on his father's behalf. The sequence then moves towards ethereality and disembodiment. Memories and musings are echoed – watching his son bandaging his biceps and thighs with measuring tape ('VI'), having his ashes dissolving in the sea ('X'), and speculating about changing zodiac signs ('XI').
These gradations of male disembodiment stand in productive tension with another palinodic tension that appeared in Koh's first Carcanet book Steep Tea (2015). The previous book was centred on female presence in comparison to male absence in this collection, though the two are interlinked. In 'Palinode I' and 'II', Koh channels the voice of his father to assuage the regret and guilt that his mother may have been feeling during the cremation, potentially wondering why he had spoken to her sister last instead of herself:
He concludes the poem by noting that "your mom / is always hungry." This line evokes a sense of intimacy with his wife, knowing her habits. It also suggests an unquenchable desire with his departure, as there will always be hunger. It also rejects the trope of Koh's dad as a hungry ghost. As Koh recalls in Equal to the Earth (2009), "My father took me picknicking in Hell / in Tiger Balm Gardens when I turned five." Here, Koh was told to "Eat. Don't waste food." The invocation of eating is one of care. Even through these lines of regrets, his father seems to be calling for his family to remember him through eating and by nurturing themselves.
Hunger is felt differently across generations. In 'Palinode VII', Koh unpacks a class-based differentiation between father and son. His father references eating sweet potato and being hardened by the war; he was tied down to duty in Singapore:
Sweet potato as sustenance during a historic time of hardship is vastly different from the next generation's ability to experience success, escape the draft, and write poetry books. Of course, poetry has been referenced by Singapore's political father Lee Kuan Yew (1923–2015) as a luxury one could not afford in 1969. But between now and 1969, Singapore's conditions have changed drastically; the national body of independence is not the national body of the subsequent generation, despite their similarities. These mimetic qualities are conveyed in the poem 'Likelihood', where Koh compares his experiences to LKY's:
Koh identifies a similar struggle to LKY's in negotiating one's internal politics amid a globalising landscape. There is a sense of being cast out as a foreigner or navigating an alien landscape here yet needing to figure out ways to necessarily survive. Thus, the necessity of sweet potatoes during the mid-20th century is not the same necessity for many Singaporeans today – both in Singapore itself and for the Singaporean diaspora.
As Koh observes, there has been a seismic, socioeconomic, generational shift in Singapore, one perceptible in the changes between father and son. Singapore has transformed into a world of crazy rich Asians. In a poem from interviews with overseas Singaporeans, "the Father" Koh writes:
Social mobility and an array of choices reinforce signs of Singapore's national transformation. Not many other countries afford the types of choices in such a narrative: to move from a no-name school to a top-tier high school, to be able to do arts to support local faculty, and study at Parsons in New York City instead of the Ivies.
Yet, Koh's advice is to "Quit the country soon as you can" in 'To a Young Poet'. This poem is inspired by Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (1929). I did not read Koh's poem as paternalistic or conceited despite being didactic or advisory, but as an exercise in reflection at its best. The poem asks a young poet to strike out on one's own: paying heed to the lessons of leaving while wearing "a secret smile", taking risks of sleeping with whoever asks, and sitting with "seasons of great loneliness". His sequence 'Ungovernable Bodies' engages with his own advice writing about queer sex in 2006/7 New York City, where Koh transforms prosaic diary entries into sonnets. Elsewhere in the collection, Koh also writes about the challenges of diasporic life – having to start over, negotiate racial discrimination, distance from family, and forms of belonging. Amid these challenges, it is easy to become cynical or work to forget one's roots. But I do not think that Koh would advise severing one's connections to one's fatherland. As a Singaporean finding myself often in diasporic situations, these lines resonated with me:
Koh's advice is an orientation towards curiosity and openness, finding sustenance in the process of creating new connections.
The collection brings together years of craft in layered simulacra of personal and national bodies. My only complaint about this collection is directed towards its titular sequence. The dense paragraphs that bring up elements of the pandemic stand in stark contrast to the short lines of the palinodes. However, this contrast feels like a misplaced knot in the broader tapestry – an unwelcome interruption. In a way, it mimics how Covid-19 has disrupted much of our lives. Perhaps, it is pandemic fatigue speaking, but I feel that the banging of pots for essential workers, Zoom backgrounds, contact tracing and the robotic dog are images on a register without the reflective nuance that the rest of the collection present. In Jonathan Chan's review for QLRS of Shirley Lim's In Praise of Limes, he proposes that her Covid-19 poems detract from the maturity, wisdom, wonder and contradiction of much of her collection. There might be something about writing during the pandemic that requires a separate time and space to publish or revise, as the pandemic period has often forced a contraction of reflection that life elsewhere is full of.
To return to where I began this review, the collection's last poem, 'The Reply', is not a eulogy. According to Koh:
"Father" is the incomplete answer to Koh's question of kinship and national belonging, drawing in its accompanying anxieties. The generational picture of a refracted mirror is held up as the body bloats and is sent into the fire; his ashes in the sea present a picture of life, of haunting, and of living with the enduring love of one's parents.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 1 Jan 2023