Fine specimens jostle with flawed gems
By Nicholas Liu
Equal to the Earth
Koh Jee Leong's debut collection — discounting his intriguing chapbook of sonnets, Payday Loans (Poets Wear Prada, 2007) — can fairly be described as overdue. Koh is no journeyman poet, and the best of these poems make important contributions to the Singapore lyric, such as it is. (One dares to dream that had this book been published sooner, we might even have been spared some of the past few years' more dismal entries in that overcrowded genre.) His liberal use of poem sequences and rigorous forms is also welcome, both being fairly thin on the ground here. Regrettably, the less accomplished of his poems lack grace as well as that beauty which comes with certain sorts of awkwardness. When technique fails in this way, there is very little to hold one's attention, for Koh's poetry, although highly literary, is not in any sense difficult. He speaks a language any experienced reader can understand; you can gobble up a poem of his in one go, which is all very well when the poem is good (which is often enough), but makes it all too clear when the poem is insubstantial.
A caveat: I shall spill little ink on what Koh "means", what his "concerns" are and what "message" his poems convey. They are like most meanings, concerns, and messages: compelling, absorbing and valuable when they translate into compelling, absorbing and valuable poetry, but worthless when they do not. Where such ideas are concerned, Koh is far from subtle. This is no insult — Milton was not subtle — and the reader who attends to his poems with ordinary care will need no summary.
"Hungry Ghosts", the middling poem sequence that opens the book, contains both the best and the worst of Koh's poetics. We witness his knack for titles: "The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity", "The Scholar Minister Gives Career Advice", "The Connoisseur Inspects the Boys". The naming of poems is an underrated art; here, it allows Koh to imbue his sequence with a sardonic, critical—and, in part, self-critical—charge even before it properly begins. His thoughtfulness pays dividends from the very first poem, "The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity", which appropriates the persona of Sima Qian, who was made a eunuch for offending the emperor:
I do not excerpt this as an example of a successful poem — Koh has many better ones — but of an otherwise unsuccessful one redeemed by Koh's canny use of titles and framing. It is not badly written, but so much of it is mere retelling of canonical interpretations, neither expanding nor subverting the historical understanding of the Records and the figure of Sima Qian, that I wonder if Koh might not have profitably replaced his text with a reading list. What stops it from being a total loss, however, is its title, which punctures the speaker's grandiosity and provides counter-resistance to the resistance which the speaker attempts to express. There is a vital uncertainty, too, to the ambiguity of his terms of address — "Dear Heart", "my Heart" — which could refer to a lover, a part of the self or, of course both (and the lover, too, is a part of the self). To whom is he justifying his project, his decision? Is it public utterance or private rehearsal, and what really separates the two? How much does he believe his own explanation? The heard-it-all-before-ness of the poem is almost, though not quite, transmuted into strength, a process repeated, with varying inflections and degrees of success, elsewhere in the book.
Koh's prevailing mastery at the basic level of phrase and line is also visible within this brief passage. "[D]ivulged" is an acute choice. It jars, but in a productive way, miming the disingenuousness with which gossip is usually conveyed in reality: it claims privilege, reluctance, and secrecy, while performing their opposites. "Defame!", too, shows a deft touch, evoking Keats' immortal "Forlorn!" (and Koh's speaker is called back to himself—albeit not from a great distance to begin with) as much as the hammy exclamations of incredulity so common in Chinese period drama. Yet, the poet also reveals his occasional maladroitness in phrases such as the overwrought, underthought "I begged him for my mutilated life", and in the immense missed opportunity of "It will scratch out my shame in Silkworm Hall. It will / revise my name". Consider how much more suggestive the latter would be had Koh written "It will scratch out my name in Silkworm Hall", combining the effacement of that shameful association (Silkworm Hall is where he was castrated) and the inscription of his legend upon the thing that was to disgrace him.
The "Hungry Ghosts" sequence improves as it continues, but the finest poems in this collection lie elsewhere. "Cold Pastoral" is an excellent sestina with, again, a rich and productive title. The reference to Keats is not gratuitous but integral to Koh's examination of how much the orthodox view of ideal, aesthetic beauty (as distant from us and abstracted from — forgive the cliché — lived experience) leaves out. There is an ingenious disjunction, too, between the propriety of the title and the profanity of the poem itself, which mirrors the tension between works of sublime art and the creaturely desire for beauty (expressed in the poem as acts of masturbation) which they inspire:
Koh avoids the pitfall, all too common with sestinas, of merely marking time; each stanza is necessary and develops the idea of aesthetic pleasure as sexual desire almost like a philosophical argument. What begins as a generalised notion of lust is refined into narcissistic desire and, finally, into the need for that which is unattainable and would, we imagine, complete us. The form emerges at the end—through the envoy's repetition of the sestina's terminal words and, thus, its connection to the other stanzas—to give the lie to the conclusion: "the groaning man" is not "far more beautiful, far more truthful" than sculpture, but is in fact a facet of that missing part which we look for when we look at sculpture. Keats is, of course, present here ("truth" and "beauty" are among Koh's chosen words), as is Rilke (along with a response to Rilke: in viewing art, perhaps we have already changed our lives), but the abiding spirit is Michelangelo's:
What Michelangelo asserts of sculptors, Koh suggests of viewers of art.
One would be remiss, however, in not pointing out the significant flaws that trouble the poem. The contrived lines "Or, sick of buzzsaw talk among hard men / and licked by dancing Pan, a lumberjack?" are a transparent attempt to satisfy the strictures of the sestina scheme, diminishing the elegance of the lines that preceded them. "Who is this restroom seer, lover, man?" is cringe-worthy in its portentousness; although some humour seems designed into the line, the deflation of the poem's pretensions, if one reads the line as such, is almost too effective for the poem to survive. Lastly (of the portions quoted, that is), "remember you, O, Jack" is a serious misstep: the extraneous comma after "O", minor though it may seem, destroys the music of the line, dismembers it by forcing the reader to defer its last syllable unnaturally. That the poem still succeeds for me attests to its overall quality.
There are many other fine poems and many other deeply flawed, even frustrating, poems in this volume — some of them one and the same — and it would be foolish to try to say something meaningful of all or even most of them. But if Koh has a programmatic flaw, as opposed to local, incidental failures of nerve or tact, it is that he is less alert to cliché and to tired jokes inadequately repurposed than he perhaps ought to be. "[L]oud and queer" (from "Ten Poems on the Plum Blossom"), "It [the rose] was a birthday gift. It also said: I would / love you always. You said it wilted on the plane" ("Talk About New York" section 4), and "footprints on the beach appear / and then disappear" ("Fire Island") are phrases a poet of Koh's calibre should know to avoid. Still, I would on any day take such commonplaces over the sheer mawkishness of
"Peninsula! A name that conjured vast pictures of home" etc. is hard to bear. For a start, one fears that Koh's balance at the Bank of Keats may well be overdrawn. For another, it's distressing to find oneself in the last place one expected of Koh — an abandoned Thumbootown, pop: zero. As for "straight woman and homosexual man", can he be serious? Can someone who has written poems as taut, as finely tuned as "Cold Pastoral", "Mermen", and "In Alexandria" really consider this good poetry? Perhaps: see, of all things, "her mouth a valve to regulate your gusher" ("Blowjob"). Vigilance, on occasion, deserts him.
Lastly, I shall have to say a little (but as little I can bring myself to) about the stray bits of doggerel that unhappily fill out the book. For instance, "Little Men" extrapolates the self-descriptive names of Mr. Men characters into the real world in the most predictable way. "Spinoza on Love" is equally unimaginative, an extended limerick containing neither point nor humour, although it might make a decent epigraph to an introductory seminar on the philosopher. "Pickup Lines" essays the most uncharacteristic caricatures of literary figures anyone could ask for: imagine the following words in Auden's mouth.
How unpleasant, one thinks, to meet witless Wystan—and, for that matter, Koh's gormless Cavafy ("Letters I wrote to me, 'Dear Constantine. . . .'") and Crane ("Name's Hart, / the Mephistopheles of Helen's art"). One responds to this poem as to its subject: one tries to ignore it and move on. Thankfully, there are better suitors here to move on to.
Make no mistake: Equal to the Earth is, on balance, a very creditable book, and Koh is a gifted poet. It is because he is gifted that one expects better and demands more. I am glad to have this collection, but not satisfied — and that is as it should be.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 2 Apr 2010