Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Studies: Part 3 (of 7).


The first sequence in Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait has the same title as Jee Leong’s Koh’s book. This sequence of ekphrastic poems, in which poetry speaks to visual art and portrait speaks to poet, sets the tone for the volume. The seven studies follow a biographical order, 1500-1996, from Durer to Morimura, and they gradually change in tone, in response to art history. Durer’s portrait of himself as Christ is an affirmation of representational art and Christianity. God created Man in His image, so Durer, as new-Adam, paints himself as Christ. At the other extreme, Morimura’s appropriation of Marilyn Monroe shows how unstable self-portraiture has become in Modern Art. Morimura becomes Monroe to create an illusion that is neither Morimura nor Monroe. If Durer’s self-portrait suggests incarnation, Morimura’s suggests implantation. Nicholas Liu makes a brilliant perception when he observes that these ekphrastic poems have Morimura as “the presiding spirit”. He notes that Morimura inhabited 4 /7 of the self-portraits chosen by Jee Leong Koh: “Study #2 After Rembrandt van Rijn; “Study #3 Vincent van Gogh; “Study #5 After Frida Kahlo”; “Study #7 After Yasimusa Morimura”. Actully, Morimura did 6/7 of the self-portraits in the book: he cast himself as Egon Schiele and Andy Warhol, “Study #4 and Study #7”. In the first sequence, Morimura stands as a type for the Artist in search of an identity after Durer…a world of identity in flux beyond Christianity.

Self-portraiture has to be boldest statement an artist can make. Not only is the self painted, but it is painted in the style of that self. In the first sequence of poems, Jee Leong Koh plays, as Morimura plays, there is a sense of self-conscious entertainment. And what emerges in this sequence, as in the whole book, is a series of studies, fragments towards a whole, but no complete self-portrait of Jee Leong Koh. The first sequence is a world of implication. Where is the author of these poems? Is it in the queer world of Warhol? “Recognisable by the cock”? Is it in the straight world of Schiele? “Look at me, cock in my claws”. Or is it in Van Gogh and the brutality of Logos: “God sank a mineshaft into me for a reason”. The first 7 poems are a mirror in which poet and reader chase images of selfhood, creations made by an “accomplice” (SSfaSP, “Mirror”, p.88). The technique of these poems is at its best in “Study #5 After Frida Kahlo”.

The poem opens simply, but powerfully:
I dream I am a wreck of a woman.
Kahlo speaks of creativity, “I dream”, yet the sentence does not close, but opens further “I dream I am”. The “I am” confirms existence. Then the suggestion of wholeness is negated by “a wreck”. In the double world of the ekphrastic poem, the voice of Kahlo and Jee Leong Koh meet. Who is shattered? The final “a woman” says Kahlo or is this the poet (like Morimura) switching gender?

The next line is finely measured, adding a grandure that is denied:
I am not grand like ruins, I am not a broken column.
Identity is a sinking into the ordinary:
I am the traffic accident on morning radio.
The banal image undercuts any sense of tragic immensity.

The study continues:
A bus handrail is sticking in my uterus like a huge thumbtack.

My collarbone hangs from my throat like a necklace.

In this line, the rich /o/ of “bone” fittingly sticks and the subtle distant rhyme between “wreck” and “neck” contrasts collapse with a terrifying image of natural ornamentation.

Kahlo is an articulated woman, and her body, like art, is pieced together.

This closes one five-line section of the poem. Another five-line section opens like the first, “I dream”. But this time the poet/artist dreams a monkey. Usually, the monkey is a symbol for lust. In what follows, however, the music is tender and precise, re-creating the monkey, as in Kahlo’s self-portraits of herself with monkeys, as a creature of empathy and sexuality. In Hermeticism, the monkey is a symbol for Man, the Microcosm. Here it becomes a small male lover:
I dream a monkey is picking up bits of my spine with his pale hands.

The monkey is carefully arranging me back together.

I hear the Professor say the monkey is the traditional symbol for lust.

My monkey is very gentle.

When he is finished, I will take him to my breast, and offer him my nipple.

In the seventh line finely controlled by the rolling “r”, the curves of the monkey’s actions are captured. At its close, the poem replicates the picture, as short syllables capture the quickness and tenderness of Kahlo’s animal. The one word that carries weight is “breast”. The weight of sexuality and sexual restoration is caught by this sound-image.

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