Carol Chan reviews Seven Studies for a Self Portrait by Jee Leong Koh

Seven Studies for a Self Portrait    

by Jee Leong Koh

Bench Press

Reviewed by CAROL CHAN


 Poetry is worth something, but there are more important things. In his essay ‘Art vs Laundry’#, the American literary critic Stephen Burt challenges poets and readers to confront the tension between feeling that poetry is inconsequential, and that it is the main thing– i.e. poems “matter” and can change the world. This unaddressed tension haunts Koh Jee Leong’s second anthology, ‘Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait’.

Aptly titled, this is an obsessively curated volume of free verse poems, riddles, sonnet sequences and ghazals; it comprises seven sections of seven poems each, save for the divan of forty-nine ghazals. Each section interrogates the self through a different mirror: through responses to art, the third person narrative, riddles, abstractions, translations of the Other, emotional landscapes, conversations with the self and appeals to a lover. Perhaps due to the ambition of its premise and intended scope, this anthology unfolds like a series of scientific experiments that don’t quite take off, save for a few and the rewarding title section ‘Seven Studies’.

In search of answers to the limits of language and words, Koh turns to seven artists renowned for their self-portraits (‘Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait’). Arguably the more ‘difficult’ of his poems, these seven Studies are among the most illuminating and rewarding of the anthology. Here, Koh succinctly invokes artists and deftly recreates their art in ten lines; Koh the poet and artist simultaneously unfolding as the poems develop. Where idea and execution do not meet in the other parts of the book, Koh’s precision in words and imagery here carries the tried-and-tested conceit through. For example, with a well-placed line break, Koh evokes van Gogh’s struggle with the Church in the same breath as he skillfully introduces the physical and psychological themes of the artist’s work:

God sank a mineshaft into me for a reason
I could not see in the coalmining district.
Coal dust ate the baby potatoes and beer.

(‘Study #3, After Vincent van Gogh’)

Not a word is out of place- the gravity and bleakness of much of van Gogh’s work immediately translates onto the page with the apt word (“sank”) and vague, ubiquitous detail (“coal dust”).

Koh’s ear for image is pitch-perfect in these poems; the reader unfamiliar with these artists would still be able to appreciate the desperation and restlessness of “Skinny arms kink round my back/ but can’t kill the screeching itch./ The hand can’t scratch its bones” (‘Study #4: After Egon Schiele’), or the energy, wit and irony in Study #2 and #6 (‘After Rembradnt van Rijn’, ‘After Andy Warhol’).

The poems in this collection reveal a critic or academic at work; however, for the most part, this translates into the suppression of poetic instinct behind the lines. Koh’s ‘head suspicious of the heart’ (‘A’), he frequently makes the wrong bet, falling in love with the idea of a poem, the idea of art. And ideas do not a poem make, take for example, ‘Bulb’:

When we unbutton
our skin, our whole
body slips through

and leaves behind
more fleshy skin
for unbuttoning,

and skinnier body
for slipping through
the shrinking hole.

The rounded life.
An onion. A mouth.

‘Bud’, ‘Leaf’, ‘Stem’, ‘Tuber’, ‘Root’ and ‘Fruit’ accompany ‘Bulb’ in the section ‘What We Call Vegetables’. This extract can be read and interpreted several ways. Even if we put aside the issue of what the poem is about, and who these poems are for, the images are weak and awkward, the execution clumsy. This is verse that resembles a poem- it looks like a poem, it sounds like a poem (yes, the sibilances, consonances and assonances recreate aurally the acts of ‘slipping’, ‘unbuttoning’); the rhythm and narrative seem to be leading us to an epiphany or conclusion the reader is expected to be surprised by. The reason ‘Bulb’ exists is that it accompanies an idea, is part of an experiment- the section ‘What We Call Vegetables’ apparently explores/presents explicitly the relation of parts to a whole, etc. But I’m not quite convinced there is any substance here, in the sense that A.C. Bradley employs the term in his 1901 lecture, ‘Poetry for Poetry’s Sake’#.

Bradley argues that the poetic is that which satisfies the reader’s contemplative imagination. A poem convinces the reader of a particular world or moment it inhabits; both substance and form work together seamlessly to develop the poem’s meaning, creating that poetic experience. What frustrates me about Koh’s poems is that there is subject, there is form, but the moments where both dance together in this collection are few and far between. In ‘I Am My Names’ and ‘A Lover’s Recourse’, for example, the form distracts from the subject and my engagement with it. I think I could imagine the rationale behind his choice of the ghazal in his meditations of unrequited/lost love, and the riddle to explore responsibilities and definitions of the self- but I only understand these decisions intellectually. Visually, and read aloud, the riddle only almost works- the declarative answer at the end of each poem (“My name is Mystery. I am a homosexual.”; “My name is Double. I am a lover.”) hints at pretension in the poet’s claim to universality, such as in ‘A’:

Each day revises the day before,
The riddle begun by baby talk,
The walk advanced by toddling aims.

The hands grow quicker than the eyes,
the head suspicious of the heart,
the body’s ardor into age.

My name is Anon. I am a father.

Putting aside the fact that this conjures parodies of Rob Reiner’s 1987 cult film ‘Princess Bride’, this is not a bad poem, only that it is an adequate knock-off of many who have come before him, who have explored ageing, change and rebirth in more sophisticated, surprising ways. I quote this as an example of Koh’s hubris- his inclination towards the cerebral, literary. While his love of form and structure serve him well when there’s something inhabiting the space, so to speak, his intellect is also the source of his carelessness and complacency.

And so, exceptional lines are hidden within the forty nine ghazals, another example of Koh selling himself short for a neat idea (of symmetry- forty-nine being the seventh multiple of seven). Here, as in elsewhere, one gets the sense that Koh is writing for the sake of writing, because he has to fill up the pages, with throwaway lines (“Time is a river. That is if you are a fish./ If you are a sunflower, time is a fire”) and ghazals. ‘The square root of minus money is a movie’, ‘He has not called or written for more than a week’, ‘I see I am the last man drinking in the bar’, ‘The body drives so deeply in desire’s cave’ are some that might be better left out of the collection, filled with clichés (think caves, windows, train stations), dull prose or awkward imagery (door as apple’s skin?).

All of this creating and striving, however, is the result of Koh’s attempt to continually marry his identities as poet, lover, queer, son, to find a new way of expressing love through the physical/sexual or ‘obscene’ in the same breath as the emotional, the pure:

Stop making a big scene about your broken heart.
Put it back in your pants, the soft and weepy heart.

The obscene is a view Jee finds congenital.
Between a poem’s legs is found a poet’s heart.

(‘A Lover’s Recourse’)

This risky, admirable attempt to find a new language for poets works best in ‘You smell your fault as readily as you hear a bell’. In each couplet, the bell is variously a metaphor for the poet’s ego, conscience, sexual desire, poetic voice and critic. The bell is presented via a different voice- a command, a musing, an irritation, an action, an effect. These voices and situations work with the central image to develop the complex tensions in desire, thought and action, rendering the abstract ‘bell’ in the final couplet all the more meaningful and powerful in light of the lines before:

The fading is a fault but silence is an itch.
Most unendurable, Jee, is the unrelenting bell.

(‘A Lover’s Recourse’)

However, Koh is best when he speaks the language of frustration, fear and despair. His thoughtful sentiments frequently lapse into cliché, and his efforts at poeticizing ‘cock’ doesn’t always translate on the page. Hence ‘Translations of a Mexican Poet’ and ‘Bull Eclogues’ stood out for me in this collection, reminding me why I looked forward to ‘Seven Portraits’ when I first received it, assuring me this was the same voice behind the modestly confident Equal to the Earth (2009):

At home it makes a smaller sound, the grief.
The click of a light switch. No mercy
in the darkness or the light the house repeats,

but hiding for a time, however brief,
in me, as in my den, I hear the plea
of an unfired bullet in the drawer firing.

(‘The Cave’)

In these lines Koh takes us through a raw psychological landscape in his take on the eclogue. Here, the poem presents to us “in its own way, something which we meet in another form in nature or life”#. Koh’s specific shade of grief is “the click of a light switch”, startling, acute, blinding, immediately omnipresent; this is poetry- an experience composed of but cannot be reduced to that purée of sound, image, rhythm, substance. Confronted with the impossibility of escape, of existing purely on its own, the self that imagines the plea of the “unfired bullet” experiences itself not just as criminal and judge, but simultaneously both: pure crime and punishment.

A relief! Here is a poet that means, not a Poet that much of the anthology presents us. I’d hoped to encounter a Jee that confronted his demons instead of ignoring them; despite the evident musicality in his writing, clumsy lines (“an empty noose that hanged straight by its weight”, “a bus handrail is sticking in my uterus like a huge thumbtack”), unrefined metaphors and images, bad puns (leaves, speed) still puzzlingly appear in this book more frequently than in Equal to the Earth. In his risk and reach for the ‘bigger picture’ (meta-narrative and intellectual coherence of the collection), it seems that Koh has not quite come to terms with the value of poetry (as Burt reminds us) – what poetry is for, why we write.

But here is a poet clearly earnest about challenging himself, pushing the limits of contemporary poetry, willing to take risks, even if not all of them pay off. For all of my unease and disappointment with this collection, Koh has taken a worthy risk with ‘Seven Portraits’, in context of the Singapore poetry scene. Perhaps this book can be read as his response to “politeness/ or fear or disbelief”; his irreverence, versatility with form and voice, and willingness to experiment thoughtfully creates new spaces for discussion in a maturing literary community. Koh writes, “I hope perfection does not lie in quietness”. I believe so, and find myself hoping for more beauty among the ruins in his future work.