At Home Everywhere and Nowhere
Singapore is never far away as Koh Jee Leong traverses styles and inspirations in his latest collection
By Tse Hao Guang
In any review, the writer, not the book, is the true object of review. In any good review, the writer must first be a reader — of the book, other reviews, things the author has said about the book, previous publications — then an amnesiac — forgetting almost everything, that is, except what is necessary.
In Steep Tea, the debutant announces himself to the literary world, despite this being Jee Leong Koh's fifth outing: "the first to be published in the UK", the first few words of the front matter declare. This is a book that wants its readers to be from New York, Tokyo, Paris, Singapore, and London, which is not content to be seen by one people in one place and time because it and its author, too, seem to come from everywhere at once. Look at 'Eve's Fault', a sly retcon of the Judeo-Christian scene of primal trauma. It is prefaced by a 16th-century English woman poet, written by a Chinese-Singaporean, UK-educated gay man living in the US, published in the UK, and spells according to US convention.
I might go on in this vein with every poem, especially 'Attribution', but two things are worth noting here. First, Eve's fault in the poem seems not to be "too much love", as the epigraph declares, because she chooses Adam, "needed Adam's need", instead of God's or the snake's. Koh's own conditions of production mirror Eve's — there are so many traditions available to him, so many personae to assume. And yet, these are accessible only through the English language, the Adam that runs through Steep Tea, "inarticulate, a terrible speller", nevertheless also allowing for multiple literary traditions to somehow sit side-by-side and speak to each other. This commitment to the coloniser's language seems to be one of the deep struggles of the so-called 'postcolonial writer'. Second, God's "joke about the archaeopteryx" will prove fruitful.
It is the tension between, on one hand, Koh's freewheeling use of various literary and cultural traditions in the book, and the vexed search for origins on the other, that drives my interest in Steep Tea. Going back to epigraphs, I wonder how critical interest in the book would change if these had been omitted from the manuscript — that is, if Koh's engagement with women poets remained submerged in the words of his poetry, instead of being advertised as one of its key features. On the Carcanet blog he has spoken of mothers, not muses — which I take to be making the distinction between objectifying female influences (the muse) and being indebted to and using them in productive ways (the mother). He talks about shame there, too, although that is evident in the second half of the book. A debutante ball is also a family affair, after all, and the second half reads as a psychic shift from America/the 'West' to Singapore/the 'East'.
There is a tendency in the first half towards triumph and wisdom — see "Here, take this stone: may it be to you a guide and a poem" in 'Fall: Five Poems', and the teacher who teaches his students, and us, about the sound of freedom in 'Paragraph'. The rest, however, is marked by the theme of failure, from the uselessness of the bean plant thrown "down the rubbish chute" in 'Recognition', to accusations of plagiarism in 'Attribution', to Mary Oliver's (and Koh's own?) inability to make lyrical the life of the scrubbing woman in 'Ashtrays as Big as Hubcaps'. This is the courage of recognising shame. Notice how, in 'His Other House', the men have returned with a vengeance, Koh making masculine the poem of his epigraph-mother, his persona wrestling with versions of grandfather, father, beloved. Even the writers on the shelves are all male. Sister and daughters arrive to intrude upon the dream, ending the poem.
Perhaps, then, the epigraphs might be read as shame over an obsession with men, shame over the shame of the mother, and the poems as a means of facing that shame? What does that say about Singapore, if anything at all? In 'In Death As In Life', the persona's selfishness manifests in his desire to be cremated in Singapore, "the country I left behind". In 'Airplane Poems', the persona draws a link once again, like Eve, between migration and trauma:
An article from The Straits Times is headlined: 'Poet Jee Leong Koh had to leave Singapore to engage with it'. Possibly Singapore is another mother, but I suspect something deeper, that behind the seeming Anglo-centrism of Carcanet, behind the angling of the poems towards an international, urbane, audience, lies the desire to be known as Singaporean, to be proved patriotic after all, to finally face and choose just one creation story, God over Adam.
I am not a betting man, but I'd wager Koh has read Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells. Wells writes that Archaeopteryx is widely used in textbooks to illustrate the example of a 'missing link' between birds and reptiles, contrary to actual scientific understanding:
I'd wager Archaeopteryx stands for that break between origin and evolution, that perhaps-unexplainable sense that there must be a connection between where we came from, and where we are going — that hope of the exile, which Koh calls, gently, a "joke".QLRS Vol. 15 No. 1 Jan 2016