Monday, August 31, 2009

Equal to the Earth: Jee Leong Koh: Mermen.

In 1979, Simon Lowy’s Melusine and the Nigredo (Carcanet) achieved the annual London Poetry Society award. Heralded for its wit and originality, the volume was the work of an author who was primarily an alchemist. Lowy was announced by Carcanet as a poet “far from the mainstream of contemporary verse.” Melusine and the Nigredo was published at a time when UK poetry was expanding and Lowy was one of the many new poets on Carcanet’s expansive list. But in 1985, serious critical revisions began and Lowy was one of a number of poets singled out by Martin Booth, in British Poetry from 1964 to 1984 (1985), as an example of the lunatic poets who were technically weak, “pretentious and pompous” (p.167). Booth was scathing in his attack on Michael Schmidt, as director of Carcanet, for diluting the poetry world by publishing bad poetry by one-hit wonders, such as Lowy. In truth, Michael Schmidt rejected further work by Lowy because it did not meet the standard of Melusine and the Nigredo. Far from being slack, as alleged by Booth, he was prepared to take a risk (with alchemical poetry) then recognise its distinct limitations.

Hermetic poetry requires a fine balance and a recognition of one simple principle: poetry comes before alchemy. Or to put that another way, if a writer is going to traffic in deep imagery, then put the muse before the mystery. When mystery precedes the muse, poetry becomes more of a riddle than an experience. This is a problem with HD and Yeats, occasionally, Robert Duncan and Blake more frequently. And when the mystical comes without the muse, then that produces much of the bullshit that passes as poetry in occult circles.

Comparing Simon Lowy and Jee Leong Koh is interesting. Both are hermetic poets, but in very different ways. Lowy, at his best, is a poet of wit and modern, metaphysical imagery. At his worst, he writes a poetry that reads like a archaic, medieval texts. The imagery is stereotypical and forced, only making sense if you have access to alchemical tracts. The poetry is filtered through an alchemical net. Here is “Melusine 6”:

I was mermaid at the Beermaid
And Barman (for short the Barleyman)
I was reckless and terribly young
My litany was drowning men
My elegy their evensong, ah,
But my eyes were agate green
Like pools of paler rain upon
The village green, all with apple
Trees abound, in which
The mermaid Melusine swims
Around, apart and free, as
Mermaids have a mind to do
When they swim the lazuli,
& It goes swimmingly.

(MATN, p.41).

Lowy is describing the classical, alchemical mermaid who swims in the subconscious sea within everyone and brings the ego to the rocks of destruction. If alchemy is turned upon alchemy, well, this is nigredo poetry, dull and dead, heavy as Saturn, and in need of the kiss of life.

How different is the poetry of Jee Leong Koh: hermeticism swims into the poem as an enriching incidental. One major sequence in Equal to the Earth is titled “Mermen”. In four allusive sonnets (14 line poems without rhyme), Jee Leong Koh picks up the sonnet as Robert Lowell did: as a way of loosening up to life, creating notebook perceptions, allowing images to drift with tides and see where they might go. In Part 1, the “I” is a casual walker by a river. He sees a “young man” in a pastoral landscape. The “I” observes, then sees a merman slip back into the water. The two observations mime how the virtual and the real coincide in the mind of the poet: the poet hermeticises, transforms daily perception. In Part 2, a “niece” speaks. This time, the speaker listens to sexual encounters, which she half perceives. It is a world where men are “wrecked” by the male melusine/merman. It ends ironically, as the young girl renounces fictional “bedtime stories” for reality, unaware that the reality she prizes is a fiction. Part 3 turns the kaleidoscope again, a (fish)wife speaks. And in the final part, a scientist narrates. In a mystical encounter, the “amateur ichthyologist” enters a ring of mermen: the world of facts merges with myth. The whole sequence explores eroticism…images that turn in the tide…and as an alchemist of images, Jee leong Koh shows the flotsam and jetsam of the mind with original imagery:

You sprawl in bed as on a lightbox, each muscle,
delicate as scales, each gap a gasping gill.

(ETTE, p,71).

Poetical hermeticism!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Equal to the Earth: Jee Leong Koh: Androgyne.

It is true, Hermeticists see Hermeticism everywhere. There is an inbuilt bias to over-read. If Blake saw the Universe in a grain of sand, the Hermeticist finds Hermes in every light particle. Even so, as in the poetry of Thom Gunn, Hermetical ideas exist throughout Equal to the Earth, as a meaningful under-current.

I have read quite a few interpretations and responses to “Brother”, one of Jee Leong Koh’s finest lyrical poems in Equal to the Earth. The latest interpretation (from a radio interview) places the poem in the context of Darwinism. All life originated in the sea and the sea provides the origins of this poem. Interesting, but I don’t think so. Darwin’s evolutionary theory does not walk with Plato! Pope heralded the glories of Newton. Jee Leong Koh doesn’t view Darwin with the same enthusiasm.

“Brother” begins in the womb. Two brothers are given life. The “ultrasound”, says the speaker, “found us as one.” The act of creation is “monozygotic”, one divides into two. As in the Platonic androgyne myth, birth brings a split and wholeness is lost, separation is formed. The result is a kind of crisis (a psychic link actually felt by identical twins) in which early life re-lives the moment of cutting. Childish games, like hide-and-seek, mime the psychic reality and appear as anxiety: childhood is a continual search for the lost self, the lost beloved. Memories of a “cracked canoe” remember the fracture of birth, the “beak” that knotted the cord of life after hatching. From the inner loss rises an outer desire for the Other, the beloved made in the image of the lover. This is the basis of Eros, gay sexuality, “wet dreams of touching another man”.

At the close of the poem, there is a startling shift: first nature, “a turtle washed ashore; then art, “a lacquered carapace”. Through life and art, the poet seeks “absences” that recall total presence, sexual integration, two bodies as one.

Alchemically, following Jung, out of the feminine Anima, the matrix, the mothering sea, the masculine Animus is born. The Animus yearns for its opposite, not the heterosexual Anima, but another Animus, like itself, that is intimately connected to the Anima. “Brother”, by recasting the androgyne myth, expresses a desire for a brother…and brotherhood.

“Brother” is an exquisite re-working of alchemical myth, not in stereotyped alchemical images, but in fresh images from the subconscious waters of poetry.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Equal to the Earth: Jee Leong Koh: Sea.

Jee Leong Koh’s new book of poetry from Bench Press is introduced to the reader/buyer (hopefully) by an appropriate image. The photograph by Kent Mercurio (a coincidental hermetical name) shows a shoreline, the solidity of matter, and beyond this the sea caught in a swathe of light.

Equal to the Earth is a compelling new volume of poems. It investigates with wit and intelligence questions about identity and how an individual finds his or her place upon Earth, how an outsider, oblique to the terrifying norm of life, can become equal. Throughout the collection, the sea surges as an image of the subconscious and the eternal.

As in alchemy, the sea represents the solutio. In the words of Dorn:

Ut per solutionem corpora solvuntur, ita per cognitionem resolvuntur philosophorum dubia.”

“As bodies are dissolved through the sea, so philosophical doubt is resolved through thought.”

The sea engulfs and protects. In the embryonic sea, identity and yearning are born...tides of thought from that moment are set in motion that demand a response… time past and time future meet in the sea.

At the close of Equal to the Earth, Jee Leong Koh writes:

The beach, burning up the air, was empty,
sucked me to it,
to the body
and I entered it. I opened my eyes
and I knew that something that rises and flies
from the Ocean had penetrated me.
(“Fire Island, ETTE. p.91).

What a revelation to have on Fire Island., to “enter” and be “penetrated”, to experience totality, for a moment.

Equal to the Earth is characterised by enquiry, technical curiosity and emotional questioning. It is enriching to see a poet write as he wishes to write, outside sterile debates about what makes a modern poet. The post-post modern poet, for Jee leong Koh, is a human being, not a credo.