Jee Leong Koh

Jee Leong Koh is the author of two books of poems Payday Loans and Equal to the Earth (Bench Press). His new book of poems Seven Studies for a Self Portrait will be released by the same press in March 2011. Born and raised in Singapore, he lives in New York City, and blogs at Song of a Reformed Headhunter (


In His Other House

In this house there is no need to wait for the verdict of history
And each page lies open to the version of every other.
—Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, “In Her Other House”
In my other house too, books line the floor to ceiling shelves,
not only books on stock markets, self help, Singapore ghost stories,
but also poetry, Edwin Thumboo, Cyril Wong, Alfian Sa’at,
and one who moved away and who wrote Days of No Name.
My father comes home from the power station. When rested
(and this is how I know this is not real) he reads to us again,
for the seventh time, Philip Jeyaretnam’s Abraham’s Promise
in a sweet low voice, unbroken by a frightened young supervisor.
When he closes the book, my dead grandfather stirs from a dream
and says a word or two, that really says he has been listening.
And my beloved, knowing his cue, jumps up from the couch
to clear the dishes, for, as he says, dishes don’t wash themselves.
Softly brightened by a feeling I do not hurry to identify,
I move to the back of him and put my arms around his waist.
His muscles twitch like the needle on a motorboat’s dashboard
as he turns a porcelain plate against a rough cotton cloth.
The light from the window looks like a huge, blank sea.
In this other house there will be time to fill it but now
the bell rings with a deep gold tone, and here, on a surprise
visit, are my sister and her two girls coming through the door.

The Hospital Lift

The Virgin was spiralling to heaven,
Hauled up in stages. Past mist and shining
—Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, “Fireman’s Lift”
My mother is the aged Queen of the spin
of washing machines. Her body sags now
but when she was young eyed and toned
she washed St. Andrew’s Children’s Hospital,
whose best feature was its old hotel lift.
I would close the brass grille with a clang,
thump the big black top button, grow up
watching the concrete floors drop to my feet,
the bowl that glowed in underwater green
the babies crying, startled by the light
in blue gowns the boys chasing the clown
the professional look of clean white smocks
before arriving on the roof, the air
smelling of detergent, wind and sun,
the sheets flapping like giant birds.
When my mother turned to greet me
with a tight smile (now loosening indefinitely),
how was I to guess the magic act
of hauling up an ancient lift
by spinning modern wash machines?

The Bowl

I made a trip to each clock in the apartment
—Elizabeth Bishop, “Paris, 7 A.M.”
One clock is short. Another clock is a dog
that bounds round every twelve years and barks
at dogs not yet born and dogs gone before.
The good clock in the kitchen is a bowl.
The one I check to go in step with New York
rests in my pocket, next to my penis,
and rings with a ringtone called Melody.
So many clocks! How does one keep time?
I have lived here long enough
to have had three loves, one of whom
is sleeping in my bed, a ghost from the west coast.
He ticks softly, this clock. The second
goes all the way back to the Mayflower, he talked.
The third is striking fifty-one today. He sounds sad.
How do I sound to him?
How do I sound in his tall apartment of clocks?
My collection of clocks
in that apartment, and that apartment, and that apartment in the city?
First visit to an airport, I was rapt by the world clocks,
Jakarta, New Delhi, Tel Aviv, Berlin, London, New York,
steel round-faced timekeepers, all different and all right,
their hands ringing in my ears
the sound a wet finger makes rubbing round the rim of a water glass,
and I felt like a dog that is trying to catch its tail.
Dizzy, yes, but filled with so much joy
I think I have not left the spot.