No Grand New Word
Originality, depth, and other missing things
By Nicholas Liu
Two Baby Hands
Two Baby Hands is not an embarrassing book. It is, however, a disappointing book. There are few outright awful poems in it, but this is in part because almost every line in the collection is already a commonplace in sense, expression, or both, as unobjectionable and uninteresting as a "Yours sincerely". A little experimentation might have produced a few more howlers. It might also have produced a few genuinely interesting poems.
Consider the poem, "Apples," from which the book derives its title. You've read this poem, or one very like it: a word or phrase is spoken (by a child, in this case) and, before you know it, a sub-Saussurean meditation on representation and the phenomenal world has begun. We are supposed to sigh and leave wiser, reconsidering what it means to write. The urge to write this sort of poem is both noble and apparently endemic in poets, and most have given in to it at some point. Alvin Pang's first collection coasted on poems like these, executed well; more recently, Ng Yi-Sheng's Last Boy provided a tolerable example or two. My point is two-fold. One, the formula is proven—attempts at this sort of sub rosa poem-about-poetry can still result in fine work—and two, it is universally known, and thus it is (as in most poems) down to execution to make the thing worth reading. Here is how Koh does it:
It cannot be denied that Koh has some level of craft. In terms of sonics, syntax and emotional arc, this is a poem that feels like a poem, which is something, at least. Unhappily, it is only in such generalities that the poem can be praised. For a start, it is saccharine—if sentimentality could kill, the image of a child burbling and raising his/her hands to the clouds would surely be a WMD—and its specifics lazily filled in. The situation is not at all improved by Koh's choice of shorthand for the phenomenal world: birds, rain, clouds, the sky. A longer poem might well have added sunsets, rivers, and adorable kittens. Need I add that for Koh, declaration must be solemn and freshness sweet? Possibly there is an element of performativity in his selection, as if he were consciously using only the tools one might find in a Fisher-Price My First Poem set (or, alternatively, enacting the exhaustion of existing language), but that doesn't save this attempt from falling far short of "sweet freshness", never mind the ideal of "a grand new word".
At any rate, that last, charitable hypothesis does not survive contact for long with the other poems in this volume, which employ equally pre-chewed language regardless of their (also pre-chewed) themes. Possibly the most remarkable example of this is "Accident", which, converted to prose, reads "And I, gazing at stars, stumbled over you, tripped and fell painfully in love, couldn't get up for ages"—rather like an entry for the Bulwer-Lytton Prize (awarded to the worst first sentence in a novel). The book contains many such infelicities. In "My Father Growing Old" (summary: speaker's dad is old and alone and it is sad), we are treated to such choice lumps of cud as "His son, a grown man now…more and more a stranger" and "things I may never learn to say"; in "Mondays" (summary: the speaker was once a child), an aunt is heard "Humming a happy, / absent-minded tune under her breath"; and in "You Had a Nightmare" (summary: "You Had a Nightmare"), not only does the addressee experience "the wide-eyed / shock of waking", but his or her distress is met with "these arms of mine / again around you." The intrepid reader is advised that those all-too-familiar arms will clutch you from the first page of this collection to the very last.
At times, Koh's reliance on the familiar trope, the kneejerk response, leads him into difficulties beyond the aesthetic. I found poems such as "The Widow" and "Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall" not only boring, but also offensive in their condescension towards women. In the former, a widow ("He died. // She lived, / or rather continued / to exist") withdraws "into the secret inner / temple of herself" and ends her days pining for her love, "rewrit[ing] the / unhappy plots of / their marriage." And, well, that is about all—a snapshot of a sketch of a caricature of a type, about as far from an actual, breathing widow as one could get. In "Mirror" (based, as one fears upon reading the title, on the tale of Snow White) we have a portrait of the Queen as "preen[ing] / and prattl[ing]", "giggling like a schoolgirl", "schizophrenic", and deluded in believing that an older person could possibly be attractive. In other words, she is not substantially different from the way she already is in the popular imagination (a ditzy, evil, jealous queen is not a giant leap from a composed, evil, jealous queen), which makes one wonder why the poet bothered. To top it off, all this is conveyed from the viewpoint of the mirror: a male voice and a male gaze, quelle surprise! Do I really believe that Koh consciously thinks of women as either madwomen in the attic or adult waifs whose lives depend on men for their meaning? No, but intended or not, these poems encourage just such stereotypes. Do I believe that Koh writes in a space of unexamined cis-privilege (read: straight, male, middle-class, majority race)? Definitely. Without the blind spots that go with such unquestioned privilege, only the most shrivelled imagination—and I do think better of Koh than to assign him that—could fail to see how these portrayals are both uninventive and problematic.
This brings me to Koh's more explicitly social and political poems. Revisiting the QLRS archives, it is striking how strong the tendency among reviewers is to weigh a poet's personal poems against their public ones (that is, those explicitly concerned with social issues, preferably big ones) and declaring a poet better at one or the other, and hence a public or a personal poet. Perhaps it's a natural binary—and a useful one, as far as binaries go—for a generation of writers spat out by Edwin Thumboo's Merlion. It would certainly be organisationally convenient if I could make use of that binary here and say that Koh's public poems (which are many) are better or worse than his personal poems (which are more), but in truth there is little difference. In place of infants, ageing fathers dead grandmothers, substitute exam-induced suicides ("we trip and fall head first into the future, / down into the depths of a national urge to never stop excelling"), locals unhappy about foreign talent ("All the world's a stage. / We are actors. / The script of my country / has been rewritten / for new and foreign / stars"), and ex-cons ("his scars / exposed like / the past / he will not / hide, / knowing it / can never / quite / be forgiven / or washed / away"—did I mention, by the way, how annoying Koh's line breaks can be?). Think of Koh's public poems as being like a novelty edition of Monopoly: the car and dog have transformed into Darth Vader and an ewok, but it's still the same game.
That said, one of the most tolerable poems from this volume, and also the one that frustrates me most, comes from this category of social/political poems. As the poem that gives me the most hope that Koh will at some point produce a collection I can recommend, it is worth a look; I reproduce it in full below.
This is a solid poem, succinct and well-pitched. Is it a poem I would expect from a poet over a decade into his career? No—"tiny toy-/Soldier son" and "laughed and clapped / Our hands like children" are clichés that strain my tolerance—but it shows promise. While the sentiment itself may not be new, it is articulated with uncommon economy. What then, you may ask, is the problem? Only that I have deceived you, and the eleven lines quoted above were in fact preceded by eleven others:
None of this improves the poem by its inclusion; the parade depicted here is exactly as gaudy and as banal as we would assume it to be were the description omitted. Even the speaker's exact role in the parade—as a member of the marching contingent—is sufficiently implied by the later lines. All these eleven lines add are weaknesses, reminder after reminder of Koh's overreliance on the pre-fabricated and his joy in stating the obvious. The irony overdose in the first two lines is bad enough, but nothing compared to the phrase "pre-planned, / Programmed"—how apt!—a particularly galling underestimation of the reader's intelligence. Would it be a disaster if readers were, for once, allowed to infer something for themselves rather than have it all explained to them with the aid of PowerPoint? Koh seems to think so, and thanks to that, "National Day Parade" is only half a decent poem, hence my frustration.
Perhaps that lack of trust in the reader, rather than laziness, is the basic problem with this collection. It would be misplaced to fault, say, film reviews in a popular newspaper for not engaging with films seriously; they are not written for an audience interested in such engagement. Koh's collection is, as you will have gathered, quite bad by my lights, but it is an ideal book for someone who wishes to read local poetry without having to learn how poetry is read. Possibly, then, Koh means to be clichéd and obvious (some may wish to call it "accessible", thus unwittingly maligning the great many good and accessible poets now writing). If so, I hope he changes his mind, for he has some talent and is wasting it.
To examine any more poems would be unnecessarily cruel to Koh, to the reader, and not least to myself. I believe not even a line-by-line critique of the entire book would expose any additional faults or strengths. Koh's is not, in the end, the worst book in recent memory, even if we exclude vanity publications like the execrable volumes produced by Epigram. Socially, too, his message of scepticism and resistance, however timid, is basically laudable. These graces make Two Baby Hands a moderately bad book, not an awful one. With more attention to specifics—people, not types; images, not vague intentions; ideas, not broad generalisations—this could have been a decent enough collection. As it stands, the discerning reader will find little to admire here.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 4 Oct 2009