A Cha review will often cover two books at one go. This allows the reviewer to do a compare-&-contrast between two writers. In the current issue, Two Baby Hands is reviewed alongside with Equal to the Earth, by ex-Singaporean Koh Jee Leong.
I know Jee Leong. Not well, but we've met. In fact, some years ago, a publisher proposed that we combine our poems and do a book together. Jee Leong wasn't keen - he wanted to do his very own book - so that idea did not materialise.
Country of Origin/Point of Departure: Gilbert Koh's and Jee Leong Koh's Poetry
Two Baby Hands, by Gilbert Koh, and Equal to the Earth, by Jee Leong Koh, are two new volumes of poetry by Singaporean writers with very different aesthetics. Gilbert Koh writes of individual and social experience in simple lines and language that feels more than it says. Jee Leong Koh is an expatriate poet who uses the rigidity of form to contain poetry that otherwise knows no bounds: love, sex and selfhood are all exposed, and equally explored.
In Two Baby Hands, Gilbert Koh writes to expose and record life through language that hints at complexity through imagery. A repeated motif of Koh's is the conceit of the photographer, and this clearly captures Koh's process:
Smile, I commanded
and I caught forever
when something on your face
Koh lingers on small moments, understanding when to render minutely, and when to pull away. When he writes "something on your face," he deliberately shrouds his sentence in an inscrutability that a more realized emotion such as "anger," "sadness" or "disgust" would have destroyed. The short but varied lines in the poem suggest the zooming motion of the camera, and that last abstract noun—"happiness"—becomes even more indefinite in his use.
This idea of the photographer also pervades Koh's perception of the social world and his observations of modern life. In "The Schoolgirl Kills Herself after Failing an Exam" and "National Leadership," Koh examines the darker side of cultural attitudes that prioritize a narrow view of educational achievement as a prerequisite to any social advancement. In "National Day Parade," Koh slows down a moment of national celebration and collectivism to ask what these moments achieve for the individual. In "The Couple Next Door" Koh recreates the "good neighbor" who witnesses domestic violence in a typical metropolitan apartment complex:
Her eyes avoid mine. I let the walls stand.
I will be the stranger who sees and hears nothing.
I believe we both prefer it that way.
("The Couple Next Door")
"I let the walls stand" is an incisive line because of Koh's choice to shift a sentence syntax that would most naturally have an inanimate subject, i.e., "The walls stand," to a construction that denotes his complicity in this situation, "I let the walls stand." The next line makes the speaker even more active in an otherwise passive situation. The speaker chooses to "be the stranger who sees and hears nothing" as though in a role play. The final sentence stresses the speaker and neighbor's mutual conclusion, but says nothing about what is at stake, what should be done, what the truth is of that moment. To end the poem on this brittle line, forces the reader's thoughts in all the directions the "good neighbor" avoids.
Even as Gilbert Koh pays careful attention to those intersecting his everyday routes in Singapore, his gaze is most powerful when contemplating the people for whom he builds his life. Tellingly, the title of his book is taken from a poem about his infant son. "Without You" is a simple and beautiful love poem that could be about anyone. The occasion of this poem is a train ride, suitable because of its universality and depersonalizing aspects: "outside blackness/ is screaming past the windows". A thousand different narratives surround him: "hands eyes strange footsteps mouths/ speaking words collapsing / here and now", but the speaker ignores these. No longer a photographer with an eye for the unusual moment, Koh drops all distractions to focus on romantic longing. The origin and destination is just "elsewhere" because until he is arrives, there is no detail, just anticipatory feeling:
and I'm alive, suspended,
hurtling through the blackness,
nowhere without you.("Without You")
If Gilbert Koh's attitude towards art is that of a photographer, then Jee Leong Koh's is that of a shameless model. Jee Leong Koh reinvents life by throwing himself onto new backdrops. At the same time, and perhaps more revealingly, Jee Leong Koh is a conjurer, playing with forces that his lines struggle to restrain ....
Jee Leong was an example of the PAP's Model Citizen and Ideal Success Story. He had good academic grades; performed well in NS and became an SAF officer. He got an PSC overseas scholarship and achieved 1st Class honours at Oxford. Jee Leong rose quickly in the civil service to become the vice-principal of a secondary school, at a relatively early age. (I know some of these details, because my brother, who is also in the Education Ministry, knows Jee Leong too).
However, in Jee Leong's story, there was also a twist. A rather big twist, which would have made him, in the eyes of the PAP, a Non-Model Citizen and Definitely Not A Success Story. It seems to be the reason (or at least, a reason) why Jee Leong emigrated from Singapore. If you read on, you will know what it is:
Equal to the Earth, Jee Leong Koh's second book, presents dynamic yet challenging poetry, and Koh's ordering and sectioning of his work is a crucial part of the way it should be accessed. Most poetry volumes can be enjoyed by opening them at any point, but the best way to appreciate Koh's work is by starting at the beginning and moving through to the end.
Jee Leong Koh uses formal schemes well by emphasizing their confining aspects, and his opening poem "Hungry Ghosts" is in seven sections that describe an entire history of homosexual love. The third section, "The Emperor's Male Favorite Waits Up for Him" omits any direct expression of lust, but the lines drip of male longing held within austere language, mimicking styles of the period:
The Peach Terrace glints under the autumn moonThis historical trajectory is followed to the moment of Western incursion, and in "The Connoisseur Inspects the Boys," a Western man ogles several Chinese prostitutes.
pink as skin seen
through red silk gauze.
("The Emperor's Male Favorite Waits Up for Him")
However, this history is connected to the present-day, and at the end of the poem sequence, the modern narrator is introduced as an inheritor of this past of illicit love and sexual exploitation. His father shows him this history as a venture to the Gates of Hell, and this section has constrained parameters written in an ABA rhythm that boils with emotion. When the author turns to male love, the inevitability of this development is clear, but so is the misunderstanding. The poem ends in America, miles from the pain of family, but unsettled:
I am left standing beside the golden shock
of cattails tall as I am, gazing across
... Then a burst
of knocking, from the thicket, the smart stabs
of a woodpecker tapping in a bowl of bark.
I should go. Winston's coming up.
In these lines, homosexual love is finally naturalized in a vivid, descriptive language structured in formal meter that is Koh's true and modern voice.
This first sequence charts Koh's identity formation by tracing the narrator's debt to the past as well as his inevitable need to leave Singapore. In the second section, his poems canvass America, and are energy filled with exploratory energy, but also the emotional displacement concurrent with this choice:
Since citizenship doesn't follow coming out,
but childlessness does, we understand our whereabouts
are recognizable but never familiar.
Jee Leong Koh uses formal structures to hold surges of desire, anguish, and imagination. His repeated trope of the ocean embodies humbling and vast depths of feeling. The symbol is key to understanding the overpowering, at times magical forces of the Earth that Koh describes.
The phrase "equal to the earth" is evoked forcefully in "Blowjob" which follows a man/elusive sex object who works with machines harnessing the crude oil beneath the sea floor: "You master the force compressing bones / to crude trapped in the earth's scrotum". The character in this poem is homo-erotic but heterosexual in his relationships, inscrutable but thrilling in the intensity that he represents.
Thus energy and mystery begin to describe Koh's project, but his message is driven home in another poem, "Raznovmenie, or Nonmeeting," previously published in this journal. "Raznovmenie" is written in forceful triads that think that love is defined by its remove as well as intimacy:
The way Koh explains love's power, even in physical absence, through allusion to Tsvetaeva and Pasternak is extremely effective. The Soviet poets Tsvetaeva and Pasternak maintained an artistic and romantic connection entirely through correspondence. Koh draws on their pain and even the absurdity of their relationship, filled with writerly energy but starving from a lack of any real and physical connection. As unsatisfying as this may seem, "the writing of non-meeting" only emphasizes the unearthly strength of love in the words themselves. The poet writes to dominate the lines, but the writing sometimes dominates.
you're exerting a force equal to the earth's
a capsule taken, paradoxically, by spitting it out.
This is not so ridiculous as some may think.
for didn't Tsvetaeva and Pasternak live like this,
not on one planet, but on two hurtling asteroids.
We have nothing, Marina wrote Boris, except words.
("Raznovemenie, or Nonmeeting")
Jee Leong Koh and Gilbert Koh view Singapore differently—one as a country of origin and a central focus; the other as a point of departure and a backdrop to a new flowering of identity. Their volumes are equally promising and rigorous in the different directions they take, and together only suggest that the country's poetic climate is not easily reduced.