Sunday, January 06, 2013

Jee Leong Koh's The Pillow Book

The Pillow Book sleeps on the zuihitsu tradition, on the writings of Sei Shonagon. Her work may or may not have been intended for publication. But even if a writer does not write for publication, they write with an awareness of a reader in their head, even if that audience of one is the writer. This, I would argue, is the breathtaking quality of this chapbook: its equivocal voice, its ability to be internal and external, at once a writer speaking to himself and a voice speaking to a readership.

Stephen Fellner is an astute critic and his review of The Pillow Book is to be applauded: yes, he has the nerve to risk reading the new. But he does, so often, hit a wrong note. “As a reader, you begin to want there to be more arbitrariness.” Really, The Pillow Book isn’t about randomness, just repeating the Japanese tradition. It’s a book about two cultures, East and West, and the conflict/agreement between intention and indeterminacy, what is made and what is found in this life (of a poet). Philip F Clark, though he writes an intelligent review for Lambda Literary also strikes a flat note in this respect. “Koh’s solid truths are like chess pieces moving strategically...” That intimates a strict sense of planning, which isn’t the real tone of The Pillow Book.

Both Fellner and French are correct in using their trained critical senses to recognise that The Pillow Book is piece of quality writing. And one that draws its life from a sense (almost hermetically) of a path to be taken, but where will it go, and looks what's ahead and behind, and over there... It is a book of personal events, a peregrination, yet it isn’t biography: the personal events are a discovery of images, not of self, rather of the life of images.

The Pillow Book is a book of changes. It is about massive shifts within a person’s life. But it is done with such delicacy that these changes are floated through, not as in a surreal dream, but with a sense of meditation. Reginald Shepherd wrote brilliantly in Orpheus and The Bronx on identity poetics…his contempt for a writing that fastened itself to the gay identity and forgot about passion for poetry. The Pillow Book is about being gay, opening with Jee Leong Koh moving to New York to find out if he was “gay and a poet”. That “and” is vital… “and a poet”. This book is about a twinned discovery (not accidental the author has a twin-bed). In love, the author describes himself as “a song without a singer”. The Pillow Book is an enquiry into that: how song and singer and lover unify-- Orpheus improvising on the harp, remembering, wondering, observing...far removed from David singing his predictable psalms (having forgotten Jonathan). In "A Lover's Recourse", from Seven Studies for a Self Portrait, Jee Leong Koh alludes to Barthes' Fragments d'un discours amoureux, a rather heavy-handed work in which Barthes is often clever and knowing rather than open and absorbing. I think The Pillow Book has learnt from that reading experience and achieved a better balance between memory and revelation.

The Pillow Book is a revolutionary art, but done with such subtlety you hardly feel the cut or stroke, the knife or the quill.