Koh press-gangs nature into service. Seriously.
By Alvin Pang
The Ocean of Ambition
From its epigraph ("a habitat that / is not always / hospitable, / which hapless squid / swim in and / struggle to surmount.") to its Preface offered to help the "Dear Reader"1 better grasp "the guiding ideas behind the way this book was conceived", it is hard not to notice that this is a book that takes itself seriously.
The insinuation of the cover, steeped in a murky, computer generated submarine blue, could not be more obvious: The Ocean of Ambition is deep.
The latest literary sortie of erstwhile journalist, literary editor and National Arts Council board member Koh Buck Song, The Ocean of Ambition offers a clutch of poems patched together in a pattern made familiar by the likes of Paul Tan and Boey Kim Cheng and indeed by Koh's earlier efforts – a section documenting encounters with the foreign counterpoised with the inevitable string of poems interrogating Otherness closer to home.
It is a strategy that suits the well-travelled Koh; his junkets2 to the Canadian Rockies, African Safaris, ancient South American and Asian monuments as well as other more well-trodden paths offer him plenty of opportunity to evoke and inscribe the historical milieu of his host territory in a haiku or three, often conflating its situation with that of Singapore's socio-political condition. The results occupy the first half the book (and as he points out in 'Barcelona Contours', "after such example, who can stay insipid?").
"Berlin Unwalled" is a particularly startling (and in hindsight, clairvoyant) illustration of Koh's technique of conflation. It begins:
the Reichstag Parliament's sexy dome,
One wonders if it is a particularly Singaporean perspective that associates open government with striptease; political liberalism with salacious nudity (a point, alas but recently affirmed in the literal sense3), and transparency with the invitation to "rape".
Koh is of course being coyly ironic and slyly reproachful of our own petty neuroses, even as he detects in every visage of majesty, from the Taj Mahal to Tiananmen Square, the frays and cracks hinting at overweening ambition and the indiscreet application of power, no matter how they strain / to mask and maintain. ('Tiananmen Square 1995') .
But never a full-frontal thrust; unlike more recent efforts in local theatre and the likes of Alfian Sa'at, Koh (still after all a public servant) snipes from the sidelines with metaphor, allusion and fable; the second section of Ocean, "Conservation" is an extended exercise in pathetic fallacy4, and this is where the books' project reveals its deepest disconnect. The repetitive nesting habits of a spotted dove are interpreted as an uncommon "wisdom not to elect for upgrading" ('Spotted Dove, Hougang'), kittens are press-ganged into service as metaphors for the less than savoury behaviour of sarong party-goers ('Kittens, Mohamed Sultan Road'). A chameleon is not merely a highly evolved member of reptilian descent, but in fact, a complex symbol for politicians
of scaly nature, calloused by habitual
Poetic license of course allows Koh the option of borrowing from Nature to suit his ends; yet one cannot help wondering if his espoused act of "Conservation", his attempt to preserve a pastoral ideal within the confines of Singapore's urban landscape (hardly, despite Koh's assertion in his Preface, a novel theme in local poetry), does not in fact result in the subservience of nature and its inscrutable motives to human moral and ethical perspectives; precisely the pathetic fallacy Ruskin warned against in 1856.
All pardonable misdemeanours were it not for the frank banality of the language. "Sucking upwards mightily" may well be the only mechanism for progress in our fallen state ('Sotong'), but it is a convenient conceit, not quite the same thing as good poetry. The "Heroes" series in the third section, "Control", for instance, are a string of vignettes that would ring bells with readers of Felix Cheong and even Cyril Wong's work, but Koh's portraits lack the former's succinct punch and wit nor the latter's lyricism and subversive bite.
Koh rhymes occasionally and erratically, with a laxity that would make stricter practitioners of form, such as Toh Hsien Min, cringe. What is more disconcerting is that they serve little functional purpose (save in a rare few poems such as the faux sonnet 'The Fragrance of Lallang'). Nor is his language, if that is his intent, colloquial enough to touch the lay reader, laden as it were with classical allusion and the privileged diction of the cosmopolitan jetsetter.
That this book is not intended for the common man is an impression reinforced by its pervasive use of footnotes for common Singlish phrases such as kiasi or stylo5. These interrupt what might otherwise be an earnest rendition of one Singaporean's reflections on the world in which he finds himself. As it is, the footnotes and Preface hint at a certain bossiness, despite the author's espousal of the view that poetry is subject to multiple interpretations.
It is not that Koh is a bad writer – he has, after all, been appointed to some of the most distinguished positions in the national cultural establishment. It is perhaps more a question of intent and sensibility. Unlike Koh-as-journalist, Koh-as-poet is at his best as observer, not as commentator; his poetry, given as it is to proclamation and rhetoric, is still too blunt an instrument to tackle finely shaded political issues. It is when he squirts political ink that his poetics is obscured, as it were:
One longs for the quieter subtleties and modest but earnest insights of Koh's earlier work, which could still be discerned in the lesser nooks and crannies of his last volume, The Worth of Wonder. His latest work, in attempting to display a more public intelligence, runs the risk of drowning in its own unrealised ambition.
 A popular conceit in classical English fiction and poetry of the last century and before, where the author addresses the reader explicitly and in conversational terms. cf. Charlotte Bronte's "Reader, I married him" from Jane Eyre.