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!

2 comments:

Jude Dibia said...

Hi Eshu... when are you going to update? It's going to a month now!

Eshuneutics said...

I know, JD.