Sunday, February 10, 2008

Payday Loans: Jee Leong Koh.

Payday Loans (Poets Wear Prada, 2007) is a short selection of poems by Jee Leong Koh. It is offered as a chapbook of 30 sonnets, all of which were written as part of Poetry Month, 2005, at the rate of one per day. Jee Leong Koh, judging from the content of his blog, Song of a Reformed Headhunter, his numerous poetry readings in New York, and his elegant emails in my direction, is a scrupulous and intelligent poet committed to the poetical voice: not just the structure on the page, but the form in the air. The blurb to Payday Loans points out that “April 13th, Wednesday” was banned by the Government of Singapore: it sanctioned the printing of the poem, but not the performance (as required by Singapore law) because of its overt gay content. But this should not put a reader off because Jee Leong Koh is not a “dangerous” poet as he read English at “Oxford University” and studied writing at “Sarah Lawrence College”. I have to say that this made me chuckle — such a blatant attempt to offset supposed notoriety with tranquilising academic credentials. The truth is that Jee Leong Koh is a “dangerous” poet and what rings true in his poetry is the urban, naughty, erotic, incisive, explosive content; everything that you do not find in the UK in an Oxford Poet!

Payday Loans has received some mixed reviews since its publication. Tia Ballantine applauded it, but remained irritated by its Poets Wear Prada connection: far too American for the UK where Poets Wear Green Wellingtons. James Midgley approved of the colloquial irreverence, but felt that its “flaw” was “inextricable” from its virtues (whatever that means). And George Held, in a grudging review, criticised idiomatic slips, yet recognised great versatility. I am pleased that I read Payday Loans before reading any reviews because (as ever, it seems) I appear to be reading a different volume. Of the three reviews mentioned, Tia Ballantine’s struck the fairest tone. Yet, her refusal to read the poetry and stay true to the poem’s epigraph towards Gestalt theory, is a bit of a cop-out: to read individual lines would be to disturb the whole? Please. Come on! Nice joke, but…

In his appreciation of Payday Loans, George Held observes that much of the pleasure derived from Payday Loans is formal. That comment is something like the kiss of “Mr Certain Death”. Just as well, then, that it is as inaccurate as his survey of form. According to him, Jee Leong Koh writes “alternatively” in English and Italian forms. In truth, out of the 30 sonnets, 5 are Shakespearean (Surrey), 6 are Petrarchan (with sestet variations cdcdcd or cdecde), one, “April 24th, Sunday”, referencing Paradise Lost, is appropriately Miltonic (no obvious octet/sestet shift), yet most are flexible inventions of the poet’s own imagining. Like the early Thom Gunn, who used Petrarchan rhyme schemes, also Petrarchan sonnets with Shakespearean structures, even sonnets using couplets, Jee Leong Koh is an experimenter. His sonnets are not simply allusive like Robert Lowell’s in Notebook, yet they do contain something of Lowell: a sense of journalism, in the true sense, of holding a day’s thoughts in a closed unit. The first impression that comes from Payday Loans is that of a poet at play and a poetry that is shaped by inventive thought and prepared to push against tradition.

As I read Payday Loans, I kept in mind a question that has occupied me much over the past few months: if “gay” is a sexually defined term, what is the “gay” individual outside the sexual act? And if the individual is more than his “gayness”: why are critics of (gay) poetry fixated on sexual acts? Consequently, I was puzzled by a further affirmation of Held’s: “Next to form, Koh's obsession is sex, a subject that informs his better poems here.” There is one poem in Payday Loans that wonderfully addresses this. “April 10, Sunday” focuses on the love between lover and beloved. It is a love in which the beloved shapes his body as the lover shapes the body of his poem. The Petrarchan rhyme scheme abba is pushed to excess, to a point where the repetition of four rhyme words, “chest”, “enough”, “obsessed”, “buff” becomes a tiring exercise. The poem’s couplet seals the problem in: the worship of Beauty creates a pornographic insensitivity—a wonderful inversion of the relationship between Beauty and the sonnet (from Michelangelo, through Shakespeare, through Wilde, through the whole homoerotic tradition). Yet, what emerges within Payday Loans is anything but an obsession with sex. There is a tender poem of sexual frustration in “April 3rd”, a poem of sexual adoration in “April 6th”, (but underscored with humour and pathos, much like Gunn in “Venetian Blind”), a resonant poem on the gap between poetical and sexual communication, “April 16th”, and a mock sexual aubade, “April 17th”. There are two overtly sexual poems, “Come on, straight boy and make gay love to me” and “What’s on tonight but lips pressed on lips”, yet even these are measured, anything but obsessive. “April 18th” is a physical version of “If music be the food of love” and “April 13th” (the banned poem) is a hilarious piece of anti-Platonism…its speaker is not some sexual obsessive (as Jee Leong Koh said of the banning in Singapore, what did they think I would do in my performance, “waggle my dick at the audience?”) but a piece of witty sophistry…Socrates could have used the argument to seduce some Greek youth…or Ficino, in Italy. Payday Loans does contain gay themes. It also contains human themes: time, age, identity, family, work, this leant life. And is utterly convincing in how it makes gay and humanity fuse together.

Reading Payday Loans left me with a sense of deja vu. It brought back the thrill of reading Gunn a decade ago and thinking “Yes, here is a voice with a rich, human intelligence.” Also, a modest voice. If there is a poem and a poet to listen to, it isn’t the one on YouTube, though that video is worth watching. It is rather the man who reads “April 23rd Wednesday” on his blog. And does so with warmth, precision, depth and conviction. Not an April Fool piece, like “April 1st”, “Please lend me thirty,” but a poem fitting for Shakespeare’s birthday, as a tribute to the father of the sonnet in English: “My father doesn’t know Zeus from Zeno.” The main impression given by Payday Loans is that of a poet who can combine pathos and wit, who takes poetry ever so seriously, a sequence written by someone for whom words are a valve releasing pressure. For example, take these lines written to a macho, sexy Lifeguard:

These past months, year, treacherous tides , in vain
I have been waiting for a versatile
Savior to hold me up in dry denial
of waters that have swallowed up Hart Crane.

Often, an exuberant wit meets introverted emotion.

Payday Loans is all that a chapbook should be: it communicates its truths in idioms that catch and reward the ear.


AlooFar said...


I appreciate this post. Lee is a fine poet. I've just added his blog on my blogroll. Your review of his work is apt.

Thanks for the birthday wish.

Welcome Back.


Id it is said...

I didn't know about him; thanks for the post.
Haven't heard from you in a while...

Eshuneutics said...

Hopefully, Jee Leong is a man "with a name to come."

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