Unlikely parallels bring two Harlem stories together
By Thow Xin Wei
Connor & Seal: A Harlem Story in 47 Poems
Connor & Seal: A Harlem Story in 47 Poems traces the relationship between two fictional characters: Connor, "a native Nebraskan and fledgling grant writer" and Seal, "a financial analyst from Kingston, Jamaica". "A Harlem story in 47 poems", this work takes inspiration from Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah, a collection of poems "loosely based on the lives of [her] maternal grandparents".
As with Koh Jee Leong's other works, an exploration of the texts he has drawn reference from – especially if explicitly referenced – is often productive in engaging with what is at hand. Dove's Thomas and Beulah is divided into two sections that, in Dove's instructions, "tell two sides of the story and are meant to be read in sequence". Each half reveals the strikingly different perspectives on the relationship from each side: the earnestness of Thomas' courting of Beulah in 'Courtship'and 'Refrain', for example, stands in stark contrast to her reception in 'Courtship, Diligence'. Learning of Beulah's side only later – having followed Dove's instructions and read the poems in sequence – heightened the poignancy greatly for me. As one reads and re-reads, the growing awareness of "disconnection", as Maggie Sale puts it, between two lives that are pressed close together by a long marriage and being black in a largely white Midwestern town – is part of what makes the work so compelling.
Beyond this exploration of a single relationship, Thomas and Beulah has also been noted for its engagement with social history. Specifically, the historical background for Dove's grandparents' lives is the Great Migration of the 1940s, a period which Dove has remarked to be "the first time that blacks in [America] had any chance, however stifled, of pursuing 'the American dream". In Thomas and Beulah, both personal history and social history illuminate one another: as Pat Righelato notes in Rita Dove and the Art of History, Dove's "artistic enterprise" was to "[focus] large-scale cultural change through the familial and intimate". She continues:
Part of this engagement is her inclusion of a chronology at the end of the volume. Spanning the years of her grandparents' lives from 1900-69, it interweaves events from their personal history with those from a broader historical backdrop.
Koh preserves Dove's structural bifurcation of the text, with each half dedicated to the perspective of each side. He also follows her chronological approach in ordering the poems, and includes a chronology—in his text a 'timeline' which begins in 1983, the year of Seal's birth, and continues past 2020 (how optimistic this must have seemed at the time of writing!) into a future of "techno-queer bots, state-sponsored violence, and individual resistance", ending in 2066 with Connor's death from "a mysterious new virus".
Here a key difference emerges: Dove's chronology is at the end of Thomas and Beulah, and if we have followed her instructions to read "in sequence" we are likely to reach it last. It is tempting to consider this in the light of comments she provided in a later interview in William Walsh's Isn't Reality Magic, when asked her feelings about her strengths:
In contrast, Koh's timeline is placed right after the contents page and foregrounds itself more clearly in the work — it is not so much a puzzle piece as its overarching frame. This is, perhaps, inevitable, given how Connor & Seal must bring its readers, alongside its fictional characters, into an imagined future, rather than a historical past. Overall, his vision of future events feels plausible in our current moment: reading, especially, the entry of Connor's death "of a mysterious new virus" in our time of coronavirus gives one pause. However, this creates an effect distinct from that of Thomas and Beulah: rather than recorded American history, Connor and Seal are located within a series of conflicts and struggles that, I suggest, reveals Koh's argument on what drives that history. To put it another way, if we consider Dove's work as situating a particular narrative in its socio-historical context, I suggest that we take Connor & Seal as placing its titular couple within a larger dynamic of social conflict.
Koh's vision of the future reads to me as a sombre one: while we may regard Connor and Seal's marriage in 2020 as part of a milestone in the long arc of the moral universe, this "happy ending" is really the mid-point in the narrative and is followed by a series of mass protests whose Sisyphean repetitiveness is emphasised by their regularity, occurring in the timeline once every ten years, and differentiated only by the level of violence. Progress, it seems, requires constant effort and frequent reassertion, and a linear departure from "social inequities" is not guaranteed. This scepticism surfaces in poems such as 'I Don't Believe in the Long Arc of Justice' and 'Returning from the Women's March in DC': the former considers the individual fear of death and the desire for small, familial comforts in the aged residents of the Martin Luther King Jr. Senior Centre (a real-life institution), the urgency and intensity of which reduce broader social concerns to details on a frame. Meanwhile, the latter undercuts the solidarity of the Women's March with the depiction of a graphically violent catfight to which Connor, as a bystander, asks himself:
While Koh's venture into the future allows him to craft inventive new ways of exploring and expressing his themes, I have to admit a certain ambivalence towards it, finding its fictional nature getting in the way of an engagement with the characters. There seems to be a double standard on my part here – after all, as Righaleto points out, Dove herself fictionalised details to better convey an "essence", and the actual details being so far removed from me makes them, in some ways, as good as fiction. But the invocation of recorded history in Thomas and Beulah, together with Dove's real existence as the pair's descendant, does confer on them a realitas missing from Connor and Seal – the difference, I suggest, between looking at an illustration and a photograph.
Another moment in Connor & Seal where I appreciate the technique but find myself left cold is in the device of Newton, the "boy bot" that is the 'New Boy in the House'. This character allows Koh to explore the dynamics in an ageing relationship between aged parties: cooling marital relations with the resurgence of hot-blooded desires; the physical seductiveness of youth touched with nostalgia and loss. These apply to people regardless of sexuality, and relate to what I find is the most compelling thread within this work: the anxieties over "age, and then only the end of age" (to steal a line from Larkin).
Writing him as a science-fictional boy bot, rather than a real boy, has its advantages: the poems achieve particular resonance with those familiar with how gay socialising, relationships and sex are often tied to the Internet technology that at once make these connections possible (given the social milieu), yet also shape that connection in particular ways. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeonly old queen, one could argue a tendency towards the shallow and the sexual in current platforms such as Grindr and Twitter, a trend that is driven by the easy proliferation of images (and the catfish that use them), as well as the replacement of personality by user profiles filled with menus and socially coded entries. Boy bots can be read as an imaginative depiction of our current objects of online desire: replicable vessels for our primordial desires (see the poem 'Tom's a-cold') that can be turned off at the press of a button once we are no longer turned on – as simple as clicking to block someone.
Yet, like my earlier reaction to the timeline, while I appreciate the technical aspects at play I find myself somewhat estranged from the character. At the end of the day, Newton remains for me a device and not a real boy: this is most obvious to me in the poem where Connor is planning on pulling the plug on his robot – not out of a desire to move on to the next upgrade, but because the model has been decommissioned. Thinking of his boy bot, he muses:
To me, this is ultimately caricature – while the exaggeration does throw the features into sharper relief, I am also constantly aware that I am dealing with an illustration, not a photograph.
Reflecting on my reactions so far, perhaps I would have been more moved by a longer, more novelistic account of Connor and Seal – and I say this not to wish for something that is not Koh's purpose in the work, but merely to highlight some challenges Koh has taken on in adopting Dove's form, as well as the tropes of science fiction. I have probably also given the impression that all the interest I have in Connor & Seal is cerebral, while remaining unmoved by anything else. Happily, this is not true, though I will say that the aspects of Koh's work which I personally prefer hit me more in the last four poems of Connor's section, before coming to the fore fully in Seal's: his ability to strike through the gut in tightly disciplined images unafraid of – but not limited to – energetic descriptions of the body and sex. As in this work, like Thomas and Beulah, I find that much of the pleasure comes from the gradual unfolding of the text as a whole. I will restrain myself here by saying that in Seal's section – despite parts of it technically happening in Koh's constructed future - I find expressed much of the bewilderment, sadness, and frustration I have felt, at times, living and loving right now, in our "long decline of empire".
The stylistic division of delicacy/strength that appeals to either head or gut is not new in Koh's work. In a passage from The Pillow Book, written in 2012, the persona – we can probably take this as a version of Koh himself – comments:
In that work, delicacy and strength, subtlety and power, "meet and tumble, drunk, in bed" for the poetry to emerge. A rather different dynamic appears at play here, where Connor's section appears mainly as delicate art employing a variety of forms and pastiche, in 'Art Show at the Center':
Meanwhile, Seal's is all brute force, each poem bound into three quatrains, flogging the metaphor of the sun until the aftercare of the closing couplet. Sub bottom and bull top placed together in a "win-win" yet somehow apart, even after becoming "two old faggots" on a bench.
This stylistic cleavage is, perhaps, a consequence of the two-part structure Koh has borrowed from Thomas and Beulah, which emphasises the separation between the two sides. Taken pessimistically, one could point out how the form reflects a "disconnection" and isolation that is inherent in the human condition at every level: between individuals, genders, ethnicities, states and citizens, and nations. But one should also see how the formal division allows for a sustained and dedicated exploration of each side, allowing us to gain a sense of the richness within. Sale, for example, suggests that it is this "richness of individual lives" that allows us to "[mediate] the sadness of disconnection".
But I suggest that this act of engagement is more than consolatory: it is through giving full attention to another, to commit to understanding them on their own terms even as we take them within a larger context, that we can bridge the disconnect meaningfully with dialogue, not violence. Here, I am thinking of David Graeber's comments in Dead Zones of the Imagination: On Violence, Bureaucracy, and Interpretive Labour on violence as a communicative act:
Connection without understanding, regardless of whether one belongs to the "sneering lefties" or "godly righties", opens up the possibility of violence, physical or metaphorical.
This effort to understand is not made out to be easy: in Seal's frenetic musings in 'I have been barking at the sun the bone', he asks:
Where does one find the time for this in this age where so much commitment is demanded so urgently; where does one find the motivation when there is no new thesis in the dialectic, but only an endless dialogue?
Despite the effort required, however, the overall architecture of the book encourages us to take the act of understanding and the dialogue it engenders positively. Here I want to turn to the image of the mandolin, a recurring motif in Thomas and Beulah that appears in Koh's epigraph to Connor & Seal. This instrument is double-strung: that is, each note has two strings that are plucked together. In doing so the sound produced is louder and more resonant than with one string alone. But I am also thinking of another double-strung instrument I happen to be familiar with, the Javanese siter, where the two strings for each note are deliberately tuned slightly away from each other, in order to create a fuller sounding pitch when struck together.
In Connor & Seal, as in Dove's work, there is the sense that each side that should be considered both separately and together: not just the two sides of a relationship, but also White and Black, male and female, state and citizen, personal and social. Doing so allows each to produce a sound that is more than the sum of their individual part. Reflecting on this in the light of Koh's perspective on human struggle and conflict is, I suggest, instructive: there may not be a long arc towards a single note of justice, but we can continue to engage in a constant process of understanding each individual string, sounding them together to create a harmony that is richer and more resonant.
As in any review, I have inevitably left much in this work untapped. Readers more familiar with the American context – particularly Harlem – will be better-placed to comment on this aspect; there are also questions of ethnicity and empire that warrant exploration. Additionally, considering Koh's own lived experiences of migration and America will also, I suggest, be a productive avenue. All in all, this is a work that benefits from a patient, sequential reading in its entirety as a Harlem story, rather than 47 parts.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 4 Oct 2020