Strong second collection returns ambition to our poetry
By Nicholas Liu
Seven Studies for a Self Portrait
Koh Jee Leong's fine, if uneven, first book (Equal to the Earth, 2009) demonstrated at once his capacity for restraint and his willingness to sacrifice good taste in the service of a larger aesthetic aim. Sensibility and spirit have now crystallised into a mission, and Koh doesn't care who knows it. Or rather, he cares very much indeed. Not since kensai's ill-fated Maiden (2002) has a collection of Singapore poetry in English wanted to matter as much as does Seven Studies for a Self Portrait. Beginning with its summative, triply-alliterative title and its somewhat over-literal cover (seven photographs of the poet!), the book advertises its project loudly, erects its own museum placard. To top it off, Koh selects an opening quotation from Nietszche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra: "And this is all my creating and striving, that I create and carry together into One what is fragment and riddle and dreadful accident." A mighty epigraph, demanding a mighty book.
By my lights, it is exactly that. Koh's declared project is Eliotian, if Eliot had kept some care for the self independent of his care for culture and God, and if he had saved his suspicion of the flesh for after and not before the acts of sex. (Shoring fragments against one's ruins will, it seems, never get old.) Considered as poetry by a contemporary New Yorker — which Koh also is — Seven Studies might be a little over-engineered, if not over-willed. Considered as poetry by a Singaporean, however, I find it a welcome corrective to the modest miscellanies which currently prevail. If it does not, in the end, present the magisterial composite of the self proposed by its epigraph, its achievement is not thereby diminished.
The book divides into seven sections. Each section in turn consists of seven poems — except for the last section, which contains a hefty forty-nine — and is no mere thematic grouping, but a unified sequence; there are no standalone poems in this book, though most do not suffer in isolation. The first sequence, which lends its title to the collection, is a series of "studies" after the self-portraits of various artists, a number of whom were/are queer or associated with queerness. Each study approximates in verse something of the style of artist it is dedicated to: the obsessive intensity of Dürer ("Double eye. Double bind. Double blind. / The dark paints the dark in the dark"), the only-partly-retrospective kitsch of van Gogh ("I burn the fuse of flesh and my face bursts"), the wildness of Kahlo ("I dream I am a wreck of a woman. // I am not grand like ruins, I am not a broken column"). Subjectivities frequently intersect, as in the lines "My fancy / education. My immigrant genes. My coming / out or not coming out" ('Study #6: After Andy Warhol'), which apply equally, but with different inflections, to Warhol and to Koh. 'Study #7: After Yasumasa Morimura' is even more deeply entangled:
Morimura, despite being the only living artist of the lot, is plainly the presiding spirit of the sequence. According to Wikipedia, he "borrows images from historical artists (ranging from Edouard Manet to Rembrandt ['Study #2' in Koh's sequence] to Cindy Sherman), and inserts his own face and body into them"; his work also includes, at the least, images after Kahlo and van Gogh. By ending with Morimura, Koh shifts the ontological status of the studies that came before: I must now read 'Study #2', for instance, as more than an ekphrasis of Rembrandt, but also an ekphrasis of Morimura's appropriation of Rembrandt. One sees, now, the slyness of the repeating construction 'Study #N: After X', with its vagueness of subject and address.
The ambiguity builds even as the poem, and the sequence, ends. "She" who "takes [the speaker's] hands / by the wrists [and] presses them between her / thighs" could be Marilyn imagined/inhabited by Koh, Marilyn imagined/inhabited by Morimura, Marilyn-Morimura imagined/inhabited by Koh. Whose hands are they, whose thighs are they, what do the hands find there, and why does finding it unlock the right to "talk about anything"? Is it a male body? What is a "male" "body"? Crucial questions, ones the reader does not get to ask: "we can talk about anything" halts the poem, unmaking its own promise. "Seven Studies for a Self Portrait" kicks us back out into Seven Studies for a Self Portrait, with no paraphrasable heresy to hand.
'Profiles' follows, introducing the reader to an unspecified "he" (alternatively, multiple "he"s) who begins the sequence visiting Cairo "for the lads" and finishes "dancing and dying on his feet", passing, en route, through "sunbathing on Christopher Street pier", refusing to run in a public park, and hooking up with (or prostituting himself to?) strange men. As with the 'Studies', Koh is thrifty with stabilising markers; the title of the series specifies no subject(s), and the titles of its components (always "He [Verb]ed") are equally circumspect. Although consistently male-identified, the protagonist "wore the body of a woman" ("He Knew"), a statement that complicates the otherwise obvious assumptions one might make about his gender identity (or identities, if there are indeed multiple "he"s). The sequence is well-turned and evocative throughout, but special acknowledgment is due the first poem, "He Went", for the lines "he could never be a Muslim, / but he loved the religion's seriousness, / the gravity / in the brown eyes of his lover", which succinctly suggest, in their shifting meanings, the dynamic system of intersections between Orientalism and Western desire.
Another section, another swerving from straightforward portraiture. The poems that make up 'I Am My Names' make feints at the self, disclosing the secrets of their names only in their last lines ('D.', for example, stands for 'Double'). This section gives the first clear sign in this collection that Koh has not abandoned the formalism of his earlier work: each poem is made up of two unrhymed tercets, written in a loose iambic tetrameter, followed by a single line with strong caesura. By way of illustration, here is 'M.':
This is not the finest poem in the series, which, in turn, is not the finest series in the book. The top notes of MacNeice are overdone, the antinomies of the second stanza over-familiar. Lion/lamb forms a dull and unfortunately misogyny-affirming pair with boy/girl, not to mention recalling the unhappy intervention of the Twilight series in our culture. The punchline finishes the job by bleeding off whatever complexity remained, making the poem reducible to something like: "Isn't it odd how homosexuals like me exist when nature seems to have built women to be fucked?"
This is not the only poem in the sequence that telegraphs its meaning in its ending. The first of two poems titled 'A.' ends "My name is Answer. I am a son"; the final poem, also 'A.', ends "My name is Anon. I am a father." Thankfully, these endings, while unsubtle, do not ravage the complexities of the poems they conclude as much as that of 'M.' does. Other phrases surprised me with their sheer inaptness. In the second 'A.', can "toddling", a description of movement, modify "aims", a direction? I don't see how. What of the line "the body's ardor [grows] into age"? Ardour (a property of youth) and age (to which properties attach) are not commensurable terms. To yoke them this way is to commit, for no good reason, a category error. Still more strikingly, the poem 'D.' could have done without "the fierce cock", a howler of a phrase which would not be out of place in a chapter of The Champion Cockfighter's Unwilling Bride (although "disavows and breaks [the poem]", which comes after, probably would be — fierce indeed!). The problem with "toddling aims", "ardor into age" and "fierce cock" is that they do not really describe a relation between words or ideas. They seem the results of merely flinging intentions at things, hoping for a stray connection. Such solecisms illustrate the dangers in the choice of desire over art.
The fourth section, 'What We Call Vegetables', consists of monologues by plant parts, which stand as symbols for the variously fragmented body/self. Koh can be quite transparent in his comparisons: "Our passports read, / Spanish vegetable, / country of birth // unsure" ('Leaf'). Koh approaches the conceit head-on, acting as if the enterprise bore no risk of failure, of seeming sophomoric or workshoppy. Which, at times, it does. Try this monologue: "We spare, we spear / softly, secretly, / your gut. We spare // most of you / our acrid smell" ('Stem'). This poem might just be best enjoyed as an address to a contestant on an eccentric episode of the US game show Jeopardy! ("What is. . . asparagus?"). The sequence has its moments, but overall it feels slight.
It's a joy to move on to 'Translations of an Unknown Mexican Poet', a tightly-wound sonnet sequence that uses what could have been a superficial gimmick to examine assumptions of authenticity and locality. The first poem, 'Unless', begins amid a broadly rural setting of trees, birds, fences, churches, and cliffs, before pulling this bait and switch:
The intrusion of the bridge induces a kind of double-vision: one is cognizant of its distance (whether as symbol or in fact) from the "Mexican" persona as well as its locality to the actual poet. The presence of so natural a part of Koh's environment cannot but wear away at the central pretense of the poem, undercutting attempts to read the sequence as if it were actually by "an Unknown Mexican Poet". Subsequent poems continue to play with this effect. In 'The Corner', the poet writes of "the ranchera [folk song] in the blood repeating its black plea / for an uninhabitable country out of human sight", a description equally appropriate to a Mexican expatriate/exile, a Mexican writing from within of the unrealised country that could be, or indeed (with an added dimension of dislocation in "ranchera") a Singaporean poet in either position.
The sequence's ambivalence is not only in sense; it permeates style, too. Consider 'The Night', which concludes it:
The language bears a distinct flavour of 'translationese'. The abstractness of "all of the dark crossed the dark", for one, suggests the translator's choice of the evocative version over the accurate one. At the same time, it reminds me also of a certain sort of presumptively home-bred North American directness capable, despite its plainspokenness, of accommodating difficulty. Specifically, I think of the Frost of 'Directive', or of Randall Jarrell in a poem such as '90 North' — not incidentally, another poem involving an expedition, dreams, and darkness. Of course, neither strain is 'native' to Koh, yet neither feels out of place (a telling figure of speech). Writing on his blog, Koh has wished for a literary paradigm in which readers are able "to sense behind every language 'some imagined original in a foreign tongue'." One might think of 'Translations' as preliminary propaganda toward this dream.
'The Bull Eclogues', like the 'Translations', are unrhymed, unmetered sonnets, but structured to evoke the Petrarchan sonnet rather than the Shakespearean. The choice of Petrarch — an ex-priest, whose poems of desire are shot through with the wish for it to cease — is inspired given the matter of the sequence. A quotation from disgraced pastor Ted Haggard sets the tone: "There's a part of my life so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life." The anti-gay, evangelical Haggard speaks, of course, of his secret homosexual relationships, but his phrase serves as an equally apt label for his self-hatred, which forms a kind of shadow-self in relation to the poet (Koh was brought up in, then left, a church not unlike Haggard's). Haggard is allowed a remarkable amount of lyric beauty in these poems, as in this moment of transitory self-reconciliation: "the olive branch // presented to a beast is not so beastly, / but promises a civilization / of the sea within, though not the sea without" ('The Island'). His depths make him a genuinely tragicomic figure rather than the straw man he could easily have been. Koh's writing is alive to the intensity of both the impulsive force of sexual desire — "stubborn, round and gold, deep from the deeps, / the violence rises, the pressure lessening, / as if a ship is dragged up from the sea" ('The Cretan') — and the (self-)coercive force of dogma. When Haggard, taking up the role of Perillos of Athens, immolates himself within his own invention in 'The Brazen Bull', the emotion appealed to is not schadenfreude at seeing him hoist on his own petard, but pity at the natural culmination of that ascetic self-negation captured in these lines by Petrarch:
The remainder of Seven Studies consists of the long ghazal sequence 'A Lover's Recourse', the nod to Barthes, conveniently or annoyingly, made explicit in its subtitle. Counter to current popular practice by Singapore poets writing in English, who tend to adopt only the ghazal's disjunctive couplets, Koh has kept both the form's traditional refrain (albeit without the accompanying qafia, or preceding rhyme) and its closing self-address. Formalists and Oulipians alike will be pleased to discover that these constraints have, if anything, freed the spirit of Koh's poetry to range further than ever. The 'Recourse' sketches a pursuit of love — which is, before anything, the continuation of self by other means — that refuses to yield up "wisdom" and "generosity", those accredited tokens of poetic worth. It is selfish, slippery, needy, resolutely non-portable, and all the better for it.
Though the ghazals take up 49 pages of a 124-page book, I will not make a serious attempt here to describe or analyse them. I will only say that despite the piece's rough spots—it is a 49-poem series, after all—it is perhaps the most compelling long poem or poem sequence I have encountered in our literature, and that you can and should read it in full, this instant, over at At Length Magazine (see links bar on the right). For readability and printability, I recommend downloading the PDF version. I am not worried that Koh might be deprived of book sales as a result: after finishing the ghazals, you will still be missing over half of a necessary book, which means you will be missing a necessary book, full-stop.
It is a little clearer, now, what distinguishes Koh's collection, and it is not its ambition per se. Instead, the signal virtue of Seven Studies is its willingness to make its naked desire to compass the self—and the inevitable frustration of that ambition—its ordering principle. It is no accident that Koh titled the book Seven Studies for a Self Portrait and not Seven Self Portraits: there isn't a single self-portrait in the book, only studies for a portrait deferred (perhaps permanently: "for" could also mean "in place of"). kensai's Maiden made for so grim a reading experience in part because one sensed that its author earnestly believed he could "succeed": could synthesise history and mythology, contain it within the experiences of two invented subjects, and make the culture whole. He delivered neither a sense of selfhood nor of history, but only scrapings from the surface of language. Koh, despite the Nietzsche epigraph (which was, perhaps, another feint), could not make that mistake if he tried. In Seven Studies he shows that, more than adopting Eliot's pose, he has absorbed and metabolised Eliot's insight. A careless reader may forget that the latter's own project was not really to find stability, but to enact in verse the drama of groping toward it. Koh's poems, as in these lines from the first poem of 'A Lover's Recourse', provide a fitting reminder:
QLRS Vol. 10 No. 3 Jul 2011