Jee Leong Koh’s Equal to the Earth

Equal to the Earth by Jee Leong Koh
Bench Press, 2009 (95 pages)

As a man educated in Singapore, the United Kingdom and the USA, the language of Jee Leong Koh faces three directions. This turning could produce confusion, so many influences and experiences. Fortunately, as a poet, Jee Leong Koh always faces the reader (with his male muse standing gently at his back) and it is this direct quality that makes Equal to the Earth such a compelling debut volume.

In his earlier chapbook, Payday Loans (2007), the author adds a quotation from the gestalt therapist and social critic, Paul Goodman: “the whole book is a more objective poem than any of the poems.” This is a lesson understood fully in Equal to the Earth. Attention is given to parts and to the whole.

Careful structuring allows poems to talk to poems, sections to address sections, until the reader experiences a complex discussion. The final result speaks of care, however, not contrivance. Jee Leong Koh is a poet of care and measurement:

The old branch blossoms in the snow,
pink lips on a low brown bough.
I see your face in the whitewashed hall
And remember home in Singapore.
(“Ten Poems on the Plum Blossom”, ETTE, p.50)

Here, there is a flash of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”, a poetic vortex borrowed from Asian models, then a delicate weighting of syllables and vowels that record the poet’s own voice. Many who have read Jee Leong Koh’s work or heard him read in New York or Singapore, like to talk of his “politeness.” This seems, to me, to be a fundamental mistake. Something of the Asian stereotype insinuates itself with such a judgement. Yes, there is an unquestionable politeness in the opening poem of Equal to the Earth: “Hungry Ghosts, a sequence of 7 poems, is woven from courtly Chinese voices. But these are masks, personae in a rich drama, as in Pound’s Cathay (1915). The voice that emerges in the final poem is dark, but with humour, challenging and robust, expressing the kind of danger a reader of English poetry hears in Philip Larkin. A crack might have an earthquake beneath it:

My father took me picnicking in Hell
in Tiger Balm Gardens when I turned five.
Horseface and Oxhead flanked the door to quell

tourists, returning ghosts, recaptured live.
Small spectator of retribution’s drama,
I shuffled through the dark; (ETTE, p.22)

With brilliant wit, Jee Leong Koh takes the terza rima of Dante’s Inferno and links it to his own mock-epic journey through a garden in Singapore, now called Haw Par Villa, in which he endures the Ten Courts of punishment. The first part of the quotation moves at a moderate tempo, speeds up at “when I turned five”, as the speaker rushes with his younger self past horrific figures. Then, in line 4, the voice slows, becomes suspended, drawing out the seediness of the commercial Asian scene. The word that receives the full force of the reading voice is “drama”, to be followed by the lightly voiced “shuffled”. The reader is left with a weighty image of immensity and a small figure progressing, unwillingly, but humbly (like a Chinese figure in a painting by Wang Hui). This creates much more than uniform and bland “politeness”. It creates poetry with a shifting emotional gravity.

Equal to the Earth is split into five sections: 5 poems, 5 poems, 10 poems, 5 poems and a final 5. Section 1 is a Chinese sequence, as already mentioned: it develops from ancient history into personal history. Section 2 is fixed firmly in North America, but abounds with echoes of Asia. So, in “Taproot”, the speaker observes “a boy practicing a Yao Ming hookshot” (ETTE, p.32) “Lachine Canal, Montreal” looks towards “the dragonguarded shore” (ETTE, p.34). “Wildwood, Nebraska City” opens with a sky “like a Chinese handfan” (ETTE, p.36). “Talk About New York” contrasts the USA and Asia. And the “Great Egret” in “Florida” (ETTE, p.35) is a cross-cultural symbol that joins the symbol of The National Audubon Society of America with the sign of royal officialdom in Chinese art. This section takes cultural and historical hybridity as its theme. Section 3 (the most demanding of the book’s sections) is a portrait of the artist as a gay poet. Sections 4 and 5 investigate modes of desire and the book closes, as it began, with a poem in seven sections, the panoramic “Fire Island”. Sections 3, 4 and 5 have to be read from the perspectives of Sections 1 and 2. If you like, the first section is about spectres, the second section offers spectacle, and the remaining sections view Jee Leong, as a man, through his own spectacles, as a person composed of changing terms: gay, poet, American and Asian.

Currently, there is much debate in poetry circles as to what constitutes “gay poetry”. How forceful does a writer have to be to deserve that accolade? If it is, indeed, a reward! For some, “gay poet” is a deflating term. A poet is a poet is a poet. For others, sexuality equals identity and poetry is nothing more than an expression of that fact. The term “gay poet” must be pinned to the lapel. Ultimately, these simplified extremes become reductive points-of-view for they lack the exertion necessary for dynamic enquiry: neither strives for a point-of-rest and self-comprehension. In Equal to the Earth, Jee Leong Koh faces the issue of his Asian gay identity (in America) as a poet should: in poetry. The poems in this volume are about human experience. His love of men is offered, without apology, as part of human experience. Sexual identity and poetic identity complement and extend one another. As a consequence of this, relationship becomes a significant theme in Equal to the Earth. This theme is felt in memorable poems such as “Blowjob” (which forcibly narrates the sexual choices of two close friends) and “For Lonely” (where the fear of losing love is heard lyrically against the heroism of Chopin’s revolutionary study). And the importance of relationship is felt throughout the volume in the energetic encounter that exists between the voice of the writer and the ear of the reader. It is a voice aware of how difficult integration is, yet always striving for integrity.

The voice of Jee Leong Koh is characterised by tension, the interplay of feeling and form. From these two bodies, as with two bodies in love, a sexual, artistic, cultural identity is born. As he phrases it in “Approaching Thirtyseven”: “In the interval between sex and poetry lies death.” (ETTE, p.59). In the intersection of sex and poetry there is life. Identity is praxis. Technique in this volume is never separated from emotion. Intuitively, like Thom Gunn, Jee Leong Koh knows when free-verse, or rhyme, or word-pattern is the correct method. He clearly does not believe in one way of writing. So, Equal to the Earth selects free-verse for fluid, psychological masks; employs the love sonnet in “Thank You, Thank You”; uses rhyme to discipline “Chapter 6: Anal Sex” and includes artful quatrains, for ironical distance, in “Natural History”. “Glass Orgasm” is a pattern-poem that recalls Greek pastoral poetry and “Cold Pastoral” provocatively fuses a sestina from the tradition of amor cortois with a poem about masturbation and Keats’ belief in truth-beauty. (Only occasionally, as with “Pick-up Lines”, does the poetry become too exhibitionist and disturb the conversational balance between poet and reader). Thom Gunn came to America, like Jee Leong Koh, as an outsider. Gunn’s poetry continually sought to unify the openness he found in American verse with the closed forms of English poetry. Form, for Gunn, was intimately connected to his desire for cultural and sexual definition. What should remain? What should be cast adrift? The same point ought to be made about Jee Leong Koh’s approach to technical issues. His experimentation with form is a quest for personal integration, not aesthetic decoration. The author’s desire for integration, within himself, and within the world, achieves its fullest expression in the final section of “Fire Island”:

The beach, burning up the air, was empty,
sucked me to it,
to the body
and I entered it. I opened my eyes
and I knew something that rises and flies
from the Ocean had penetrated me.
(ETTE, p.91).

Eroticism and mysticism merge in a moment of gestalt, wholeness of being.

Equal to The Earth is a significant volume of poetry. It contains the evocative “Brother”, previously anthologised in Best New Poets (2007). It also re-works the moving “What’s left”, which was published in Love Gathers All: The Philippines-Singapore Anthology of Love Poetry (2002). (This poem’s use of limited rhyme, as in a villanelle, captures perfectly a sense of life’s repeats and circulation). The kaleidoscopic sequence “Mermen”, first published in Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia (2008), is another strong inclusion. Throughout this volume, there are images of unforgettable precision:

…Blown like that, I hung to you
too long, mistaking loneliness for love.
(“New Year Resolution”, ETTE, p.60)

Even the osprey, which nests in feathertips of trees,
must bury itself in the lake, wings held up
like an archaic angel landing on a gravestone…
(“Florida, ETTE, p.35).

Already he wears a fine powder to whiten his face,
      accentuate his swallow brows.
(“The Scholar Minister Gives Career Advice”, ETTE, p.14).

Writing about Chinese poetry in Feeling and Form (1953), the critic, Susanne K. Langer, identified a mode of distillation, one in which there is harmony between the “perfectly convincing virtual event” and the “emotional factor” (FAF, p.216). This is a brilliant definition of poesis and many years on: the poetry of Jee Leong Koh.

Equal to the Earth shows many years of craftmanship. The volume is attractively set-out with illustrative black and white photographs. The text has been scrupulously edited. The book navigates skilfully between the world of poetry and the world seen poetically. Equal to the Earth is a work of love by an author who endeavours to go beyond engagement and so speak as a whole being to his readers.

Andrew Howdle is a teacher in the UK, with 25 years experience, an Equalities Consultant and also an Eductional Drama Consultant. He holds a BA degree from the University of Manchester in English (Literature and Linguistics) and a research MA from the University of York. His specialisms relate to Renaissance poetry and Contemporary Poetics. He has run a poetry blog since April 2006 and is the author of Test Case for All, Equality, Empowerment and Excellence in Education.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761