EQUAL TO THE EARTH
Poems by Jee Leong Koh
Urban Productions, NYC
"You are not a lighthouse for passing ships. You loom,
a derrick, stapled to the ground, drilling and drawing oil
till it dries. Seen under stars, you are exerting a force equal
to the earth's and burning its fuel for a little heat and light."
Jee Leong Koh's new book of poetry EQUAL TO THE EARTH contains thoughtful meditations on the poet's social, sexual, ethnic and cultural impressions, relationships and alienations – presented in a unique style of wistful desire mixed with muted resignation.
The book's title appears as a phrase in two poems – "Blowjob" and "Razminovvenie, or Nonmeeting". By way of explaining EQUAL TO THE EARTH's overall theme, the title may be interpreted as meaning that the great longing one feels for that which one cannot have is equal, in magnitude, to the greatness of that which one cannot have.
Such has been the nature of The Muse for many a poet, and Koh is an inheritor of that venerable artistic sensibility.
Technically, many of Koh's poems read as non-rhyming prose poetically arranged
into short lines and stanzas. Yet quite a few of the poems make use of clever, complex and well thought-out rhyme schemes. These include "Anal Sex", "For Only", "Pickup Lines" and "Far Ships".
"Fucking you was harder than I thought.
First you objected to the word as crude
expression of a will to dominate.
When pressed, you offered "enter" as less rude,
more like a guest you would accommodate;
and then, I had to study books you'd bought"
The book's five chapters of poems are loosely grouped thematically:
Chapter One begins harkens back to classic Asian Imperial Court accounts. It imparts, if the term "orientalism" may be used, that atmosphere of labyrinthine bureaucracy, court intrigue and officiated virtue. On the surface all is modes of conduct, mannered observances, moral correctness. Yet underneath a more modern sense of romantic and sexual desire simmers.
As if mindful of the cultural heritage that permeates the writer's thinking in his life – Koh begins his book with his ethnic and literary roots. His choice of style here is not so cosmic or typically "poetical" as Zen Bhuddism or Taoism – but perhaps more Confucian in feel.
Heading towards Chapter Two, the subject matter of Koh's poetry fast-forwards to modern daily life. Yet they often keep the same formal, remote, almost polite style. The poetry is now more descriptive of his own life – revealing the alienation of the author as tourist, foreigner, immigrant, world traveler.
Chapters Three and Four contain quite a few poems on sexual relations and social communications – alienated, dense with meanings, and somewhat voyeuristic. Some appear coded in Koh's personal experiences. Many chronicle his travels and encounters as an Asian gay man in the modern world, especially in the West and especially in the U.S. Chapter five takes the reader to Koh's socially estranged experiences on stereotypically (and for Koh, somewhat superficially) gay Fire Island.
Koh is skilled at poetically deconstructing gay sex roles, gay-straight relationships, coming out and even gay sex toys. He also manages to infuse poetic craft into such mundane, municipal topics as immigration, tourism and citizenship. No small task.
Ultimately, Koh remains somewhat of a stranger-in-a-strange-land in many of the book's poems – gently alienated from his topics, his own sexuality and other people. I was several times reminded of Joni Mitchell's conversational, outsider-styled song lyrics while reading this book.
Koh as a poet understands art & sex as forces that both come from the same dark, inner, hard-to-grasp place. He is that kind of artist that struggles within the eternal, pulsar-like oscillation between the Dionysian temptations of creating sex and the studied, Appolonian thoughtfulness of creating poetry about sex. Koh lives and writes in that space created by the tug between the two. EQUAL TO THE EARTH is one of his results.
"I clean the common bathroom not cleaned for weeks,
but the grinning toilet bowl is a loser's trophy.
I'm craving dully for the next hit, the bang of sex
or the wham of sounds transposing into an image.
In the interval between sex and poetry lies death.
The freshman intuits that. Which is why he begs
for the gloved fist to enter him again and again."
EQUAL TO THE EARTH is published by POETS WEAR PRADA, Hoboken, NJ. Jee Leong Koh is the author of Payday Loans. His poetry has appeared in the Best New Poets 2007 and Best Gay Poetry 2008 anthologies, and was nominated in 2008 for the Pushcart Prize. Born in Singapore, he now lives in New York City, and blogs at Song of a Reformed Headhunter