Thursday, November 05, 2015

Steep Tea, Jee Leong Koh, Sweetened in the Dark.

Selected by The Financial Times for its Best Poetry List 2015.

Tea is that beverage which joins East and West. It serves as the exact cultural metaphor for a poet who spans two hemispheres: the UK and USA on one hand; Singapore and Japan on the other. As the connoisseur of moral literary criticism, Dr Johnson, observed: "tea amused the evening, solaced the midnight, welcomed the morning." Literary taste and tea are fused historically and the awareness is well-infused in Jee Leong Koh's latest work.

There is continuity in this volume of poems with early work, sexual identity, what gay writing might be, a mature understanding of the tensions between cultural history and the individual self, and the place of form in contemporary poetry. There is also a significant change in that Steep Tea is a seasoned work. The poems of Jee Leong Koh are always crafted, in fact meticulous craftsmanship is a hallmark. But these poems have the feeling of being worked at through time. Fine edits have been made during the editorial process and the result is a poetry that is more calculated in its effects on the reader. This tone is rightly sensed by Richard Scott in his recent review of Koh and McMillan in Ambit. As the most detailed review to date, Scott's review is worth attention, but with some reservations: there is a danger in reviewing two volumes together. Alberto Manguel, bibliophile and lover of reading, correctly points out that "Books are transformed by the sequence in which they are read" (The Library at Night, p.196) and reviewing two books closely together casts odd lights and peculiar shadows. To an enthusiastic review by Scott, some corrections must be made.

According to Scott, Jee Leong Koh, like many gay poets is "adept at hiding" and concealing gayness within poetry. This suggests, unfortunately, that Scott isn't familiar with the previous work. Dissembling has never been a poetic act for Jee Leong Koh, in fact his endeavours in such poems as the sonnet "Come on straight boy", or the monologues in "Hungry Ghosts" or ghazals in "A Lover's Recourse" testify to an open gay awareness, an awareness as evident and deep as the forms it assumes. By reviewing Steep Tea alongside McMillan's interesting Physical, Scott has been drawn into making comparisons, for the sake of critical unity, that aren't valid. Out of all of Jee Leong Koh's published work, Steep Tea is the least lusty and least concerned with political acts of sexual defiance. If anything, Steep Tea is a careful attempt at a volume that isn't over-stewed. (Its publisher, after all, is Carcanet, and they have fitted Jee Leong Koh into a tradition of literary gay poetry including the phallic pens of Neil Powell, Adam Johnson, Edwin Morgan and Gregory Woods). Yes, the word "cock", much-loved by Scott, does appear, also a coy "penis"... hardly an argument for sexy gay poetry. "Koh has a question to ask of the reader – where exactly is the place for homosexual desire within contemporary poetry?" Not really. Not here. Being gay is an honest part of the poetic universe in Steep Tea yet the volume is not a polemic for being gay and an exploration of what gay poetry might be. Scott might have a point if every poem started with an epigram by an historical gay poet. As it is, every poem starts with a quotation from a female poet-- this is a volume about muses, mothers, the matrix of language, the incarnation of words rather than carnality.

The poems in Steep Tea are born from ten years of reflective reading and writing. Gregory Woods' recommendation for the poems wisely observes that the volume upholds reading as "an essential component of human awareness." This spirit frames the poems, their origins in female poets across centuries and their attention to inner worlds of human life. Interestingly, the first poem in this volume, "Eve's Fault", opens from the 1611 edition of Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. That volume itself is structured on a massive Elizabethan conceit: nine women are honoured alongside Elizabeth I; as in Spenser's April Eclogue where the nine muses dance around the Virgin Queen.  The muses in Steep Tea exceed 9, yet the principal is the same: the source is the Anima, the Eternal Feminine behind poetic incubation.

The poems crafted by Jee Leong Koh are not variations of other poets or reactions to other poets. The quotations serve as signposts to risings, as Robert Duncan would have phrased it, to points of origins. Each of the forty-six poems begins with an act of reading: the resultant creations aren't reactive fictions or attempts to better the originals. They are, to carry on with Duncan's ideas concerning poetic (gay) creation, extensions of a ground, acknowledgements of the fault-lines where poems break from. 

There is much to sip and savour in Steep Tea. As with any volume, a reader will find his own favourites. "Woodwork" is a skilful poem, as Scott asserts, a poem that captures the harshness of a generalised life, and one that turns on the individual and unfitting sexual awareness of a boy with "hands, a shade darker than the wood". The poem is as well-wrought as Hart Crane's "Episode of Hands" in which woodworking and flesh are transforming metaphors. "In His Other House", chosen by Carol Rumens as The Guardian poem of the week, is a beautiful meditation on the library as workshop and history. "The Rooms I Move In" is noticeable for its control of lines and imagery-- a fourteen-line poem in couplets deriving its technique from the ghazal. "The Clocks" has a confident sense of voice change and development. And the consummately phrased "domed/doomed/deem'd" transmutes Renaissance lyric into a modern love poem. With the perception of a pensive melancholic, the poem concludes emotionally that "this darkness, is love too". At the close of "Portrait with Blue Shirt", an ekphrastic poem on a portrait of the poet by Valerie Mendelson, one in which colour-spot theory is re-created in simple word-attunements, Jee leong Koh is envisaged as "a young face" not ready for age. There is something of this theme distilling throughout Steep Tea as the author returns to memories of youth and faces the complexities of maturity. Mellower isn't quite the right word to describe Steep Tea, ripened and immersed are closer. 

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