Andy Quan Reviews “Equal To The Earth” by Jee Leong Koh
Equal To The Earth
by Jee Leong Koh
Bench Press, 2009
Reviewed by ANDY QUAN
Poetry is both universal and specific. Its rhythms and cadences can tap into something like an original language. An image or sentence might reach deeply inside of you telling you that your understanding of the world is shared with others.
At the same time, poetry can be the most specific of experiences. The music of a poem may require it to be read with its native accent. A set of cultural, geographical or temporal references may lose a reader completely.
In this way, I find Jee Leong Koh’s first collection of poetry, Equal to the Earth, published by Bench Press, particularly interesting in how it will connect with different readers: immigrants and ex-pats, gays and straights, lovers of language and rhyme. As a gay Asian poet, living outside of the country I was born in, I feel a kindred spirit in Koh, while conscious of our differences.
Koh’s use of rhyme and formal poetic structures is one of these differences. An Australian novelist and critic, Ian McFarlane, wrote in the Australian Literary Review (3 Feb 2010): “Until quite recently rhyme was crime and sniffingly discarded from the poetry editor’s slush pile, preferably with a pair of surgical tongs.” But he proposed that “we are disposed to rhythm and rhyme”, noting Nicholson Baker’s notion “that rhyme provides poetry’s true form”.
I note my cultural bias. My Canadian peers and role models most often wrote in free verse charged with conversational rhythm. So, I’m not inclined to rhyme but was impressed with Koh’s experimentation with rhyme and form, and caught myself noting how subtle rhymes could elevate an idea into song, enlivening phrase and sentence (in the poems “Pedestrian” and “Actual Landing”), and matched at times with gentle play and humour I (“Spinoza on Love”, “Thank you, thank you”).
A few poems I thought weaker had a central idea, and rhyme, but not enough internal energy to set them alight. I wondered if the rhyme patterns were constraining the energy of language, stronger ideas and words unable to break free. But perhaps I’m biased as one of my favourite of his poems was rhymeless, an intimate lament:
we both know, my love, who is no longer my love,
we’re standing at the very edge of Long Island
but, no, neither wild nor desolate is the edge.
I prefer this voice of Koh’s, when he matches the intensity of what he is feeling with something that reaches for something that is all at once, grand, universal and specific. In a few poems, I detect a depth of emotion that is somehow dampened, almost tossed away so as not to hurt as much. A poem to his father, “What’s Left” has the themes of familial betrayal, neglect, duty and resentment, and yet I noticed more the rhyming structure, or the repetition of the “sigh”, his symbol for his grandfather. Which could be the point: an Asian stoicism rather than a stronger reaction, but the poem still left me flat. Similarly, in “New Year’s Resolution”, the narrator battles loneliness by treating it lightly and the conversational language (“your friends sincere and good-looking, sort of”) lacks charge.
I enjoyed the frank, bold narratives of the handful of sex-oriented poems (including “Glass Orgasm”, “Cold Pastoral” and “Chapter Six: Anal Sex) though as a fellow romantic, I worry for a narrator who “mistakes loneliness for love” and is excited by the sound of a man, more than any man he’s met. But lots of us poets are tragic romantics and will sense a kindred spirit in these passages.
What I was most impressed with was the first section of Equal to the Earth, “Hungry Ghosts”, in which the narrator inhabits different men from China’s history who were attracted to other men – it uses Asian imagery and ideas in ways that are not kitsch but instead playful and original and matches it with a voice that crackles with energy. (“…kings are threaded with assassins, / male favorites, butchers, turtleshell diviners…”; “…the graying calligraphy, / the bamboo ribs bound by a belt of twine and worn / by age and use.” p. 13-14)
At the end of this set of poems, unexpectedly, the narrative shifts to the present-day, where the narrator describes a simple walk and a soon-to-occur visit from his male lover. The speech is natural and truthful and charged all at once, the rhymes subtle; this voice I felt I could listen to for far longer than it lasts. I liked it also because it wasn’t reaching for a big idea or a closing line, and yet it was resonant with meaning – aging, parental acceptance, sexual identity, companionship – and in a way that is compact and perhaps more successful than the seven-part poem “Talk About New York” about a reunion with an old friend from Malaysia.
Sign me up for the next installment.
Critic John Leonard wrote in Five Bells (Autumn/Winter 2009) that poets “swim in a current of mutual encouragement” and argues for a “climate of debate” which will lead to better poetry and wider readership (p. 18). At the same time, what is exciting about younger and less established poets is a freshness of voice, an energy and enthusiasm; different than the wise, practised voice of established poets, but valuable in their own ways. So, what I’ve aimed for in this review is balance so that my praise for what I very much enjoyed in the book is made more truthful by pointing out what didn’t resonate with me. Though to each his own, I disclaim.
First books of poetry are often exciting and compelling as they introduce you to a poet’s concerns and give an idea of where a poet will go in his next book. I’ll be interested to see how Koh builds on his strengths: a light touch applied to the right topics, an openness and accessibility, strong feeling and inventive images rendered in original language. Beyond the poems as individual works, I feel a writer who is working hard at his craft, publishing widely, and excited by language.