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Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002

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Packing Quite A Punch
Koh Beng Liang is a creative guerrilla with decorum

By Chia Yueh Chin

last three women
Koh Beng Liang
Ethos Books (2002) / 79 pages / SGD 12.00

Trust the/no blurb. You can trust the blurb because Koh Beng Liang’s last three women certainly has hefty doses of “sharp and witty observations about people we know from mass media, the modern metropolis, women and inane things that we live with and we can’t live without”. But, reading last three women is more like viewing an album of inventively-angled verbal snapshots than “watching a sardonic Charlie Chaplin movie shot at Dutch-angle,” even if there is a narrative in many of the poems. The abiding impression after reading the poems is that of frozen time locked in the tidy form of (mostly) fourteen lines, the stanzaic equivalent of the 4R form, even though Koh largely stays clear of the sonnet (Petrarchan, Spenserian, or Shakespearean), as rhymes cramp his style.

Some of the photo-poems also have an edge of tenderness. In the midst of the expected “caricature, satire and irony,” tenderness can cut deeper than satire. A good example is 'Ong Teng Cheong':

A person is only as complete as the sum of his worries. Having
in rapid succession gained his health, lost his wife, and soon his
he probably feels hollow. This might be the last time we’ll see him
as president, so charismatic he usually is, speaking
tender mandarin, his waves to the crowd today seem frigid and

Perhaps his vacant eyes were searching for a trace of her
amongst the red and blue and metal Nanyang angels.
Not even the violinist, tripping in the Monroe cake, nor the furry
red jacketed singer, could make him gay.
He stares at the campy fascist statues, the inflatable Ministry blobs,
the Bono-style long distance phone call, and the intergalactic light

The deliberately matter-of-fact opening statement seems glib, when juxtaposed with the pithy catalogue of the late former President’s “worries.” Yet, even while Koh relishes the chance to caricature the National Day Parade, turning it into an unrecognisable camp farce, his poetic persona, by sparing Mr Ong from the general caustic distortion, allows Mr Ong to be human. This act of compassion by omission makes “Ong Teng Cheong” a poem that sticks in the mind longer than 'Chua Mui Hoong' even though the latter has a crowd-pleasing, laugh-out-loud “local colour” line, “This is the expression / of the lian in me, yet I have controlled it well.” If Koh’s poetic persona pokes fun at almost everyone and everything, he also does not spare himself, as “Self Portrait” demonstrates:

... Someone said I was too pedantic.

I looked up the word. I’m of the opinion that life’s
greatest comedies are tragedies. What I said was very
but I am no alpha male. I trusted Myers-Briggs,
perhaps too much. I feel I’ve become a caricature of

Koh’s “straight man” comedic routine in 'Self Portrait' pays off quite well, if an audience is willing to play along with the line-by-line reversals that set up the requisite laughs. The last stanza of the poem also gives last three women its title:

I remember last night’s dream now: I was arranging
the middle initials of the last three women
I kissed. It spelt “EMU”.

The non sequitur concluding stanza, propped up by the fuzzy logic of dreams, while charmingly/ irritatingly (depending on the reader’s taste) quirky, is also in keeping with the self-irreverent tone of the poem.

last three women has many hits, but it also has quite a few misses. Rhymes seem to cramp Koh’s style. While 'Tropical Christmas' may be given the benefit of the doubt for having lines that seem to be slotted in for the sake of the rhyme scheme, as the poetic persona may be trying to parody the Christmas songs we are used to, which are equally contrived, 'Last night' has some cringe-inducing lines that do not have the excuse of ironic intent:

Its cousin rain would patter with rage,
Push headlong to crash into the ground,
To linger an instant upon the foliage
Then flow away as quickly as sound.

That said, not all of Koh’s rhymes flop. 'Drunk dreaming' has a first stanza that may appeal to some readers:

The dreams I get when sober can never match
Those I get while totally drunk
The alcohol seems to unlatch
Layers of unconsciousness (if you believe that Freudian

While 'blues' is the biggest of the four sections ('Landscapes', 'Portraits', 'Women', and 'blues') of last three women, it is not the best, as it has comparatively weak poems like 'Tropical Christmas' and 'Last night', which are almost redeemed, but not quite, by gems like the superb last stanza of 'Population density' that really makes the reader, as Conrad would say, see:

A girl too young to have feet that touch the floor
of the train tells an imaginary friend a story
involving a phonecall as a vital plot device,
mimes not with outstretched thumb and pinkie
but with a small hand in a small cupped ‘C’.

'Landscapes', the beginning section, capitalises on the “landscape” format in which the poems are printed, and even more than the other poems in last three women, may be termed verbal snapshots. (The reader may wish that the poems in 'Portraits' were printed in “portrait” format, to strengthen the conceit, but that is perhaps asking too much.) Many of the poems in 'Landscapes' attempt to capture the gritty reality of the places they are named after, like postcards not from the tourist office.

For a volume of poetry entitled last three women, it is perhaps (or not) an irony that 'Women' is one of the weaker sections. 'Zouk' is one rhymed poem that trips Koh yet again, comprised of lines like:

The tight bound bud begins to bloom
Your tender fur you’ll start to groom
To show and flirt for all to see
Self-confidence, brilliance and glee

Even if one deduces that Koh may be trying, with the rhyme scheme and alliteration, to approximate the beat of the dance music, it still cannot be denied that the rhymes are rather stilted. 'Little black book' follows 'Zouk' if you read in sequence, and proves that while rhymes are rather tricky, you can annoy the reader in free verse too, with clichés like “I am a multi-dimensional character / in constant flux from day to day”, “I was afraid that once she knew / then I would lose that which made me me” and “My initial uneasiness turned to horror as / she took a deeper and deeper look.” Perhaps Koh is deliberately trying a persona that has limited verbal finesse, but the results are (successfully?) off-putting.

'John', the last poem of last three women, has a last stanza that is recognisably influenced by Fight Club, and like the book, ends not with a bang (like the movie adaptation), but with a whisper (not whimper):

But John had hoped (a paradox) to feel ostracised,
to finally be unique and thus special.
To be hated is to be noticed — however, he later
That there were probably millions of him in the world.

An extract from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club will show up the influence:

How Tyler saw it was getting God’s attention for being bad was better than getting no attention at all. Maybe because God’s hate is better than His indifference. [...] It’s not enough to be numbered with the grains of sand on the beach and the stars in the sky. (p. 141)

Koh’s twist on the Fight Club philosophy is politely devastating because it is so true to our reality, because there are definitely millions in our world who are hated and ostracised. If Koh styles himself as a creative guerrilla, he is one with a fair sense of (ironic) decorum, who enjoins his readers to “cover [their] mouth[s]” when they laugh. Many of Koh’s poems appear lightweight, but some of them do pack quite a punch (in fourteen lines, more or less), giving the lie to their throwaway casualness. This reviewer has found last three women a rewarding read (would have been even more so if not for the dubious rhymes), as Koh not only has the standard literary weapons of “caricature, satire and irony” to “move people from apathy to action,” he also possesses the most formidable weapon of all: truth. It is not by chance that the most affective and effective poems are those where Koh presents us with a picture so clear that we cannot but see the truth.

QLRS Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002


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  Other Criticism in this Issue

dowhile doodah
Koh Jee Leong reviews dowhile.

Good Intentions Point to Critical Needs
Rajeev Patke reviews Singapore Literature: A Critical Reader.

Coming to Terms with Terror
Jeremy Samuel reviews September 11 and Political Freedoms.

But Some Are More Free Than Others
Toh Hsien Min reviews Why Do People Hate America?.

Art Pitted Against Travel
Barnard Turner reviews The Art of Travel.

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