Connor and Seal, Jee Leong Koh

Jee Leong Koh’s latest book feels like a work that has been waiting to hatch for many years. It is a new departure, Koh has never repeated a concept, but it is, at the same time, a book that brings to focus two longstanding concerns. The first of these is poetic and the second of these is personal.

Ever since Payday Loans (2007), Koh has been asking a question about poetry: does a poet learn best by inhabiting a set form or by wandering from one form to another? Is life a contained house like Dickinson or an open road like Bishop? The toing and froing can be seen in Payday Loans, a sonnet series, Equal to the Earth (2009), a variety of forms, then back to a series of ghazals in Seven Studies for a Self Portrait (2011). In Connor and Seal, the two threads interweave: Part One adopts highly varied forms; Part 2 adheres to a single form. The result is a book built from loose observations and tight reflections. Taken together, the two parts make a blistering whole. The narrative method glances in the direction of Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah (1986) in which two perspectives are given on a relationship. Mirror faces mirror. And this new book follows on from Steep Tea (2015) where every poem responds towards a female muse.

The second concern relates to identity: how do nationality, gay, and poet coalesce? It is suggested by one of the book’s reviewers that Koh is a follower of Auden. If anything, Koh descends from Gunn’s ancestral tree, for he, no less than Gunn, pursues a belief that a writer must have the freedom to write formally or not, and only when a poet follows a belief that the poem knows its form – the stone knows the form that the sculptor imparts it (Pound) – can s/he have the scope to ask questions about self; and probe the relation of that self, the inside, to society, the outside.

At the start of Connor and Seal, a timeline is given. This stretches from 1983, the birth of Seal in Jamaica to the death of Connor, in America, in 2066. The book is at once a description of the past and a projection of life into the future – probably, the most challenging aspect of the volume as the reader has to embrace a sexual universe that is science fiction.

Part one of Connor and Seal is filled with inventiveness, wit and emotion. “A Tale of Two Cities, Three Maybe” is written with sing-a-long bravado:

         She’s in love with the boy.
         She’s in love with the boy
         but after a whole year of suckin’ boner
         she knows she’s been conned by Conner.

“Ackee and Saltfish” is a layered lyric where every syllable is weighed. And “Yellow Leaves (Turing)” is an original dialogue on Shakespearean art between a human artist and an artificial intelligence

Part two of Connor and Seal is written in sixty-two quatrains that approximate an ABBA structure. Seal’s vision of life’s new order balances brutal honesty and sensual frankness, one circling into the other like yin and yang. A surreal reality prevails: 

         the cancer sun of the computer screen
         bathes now the dying flower of my face
         the indices fall in a coup de grace
         or fly up tempting the empyrean.

The sequence is pulled towards a gravitational centre, the sexual release of an exhausted Seal, then spins off into an apocalyptic climax. The backdrop for Connor and Seal is Harlem. A Harlem that has mutated beyond the gay world of McKay, Barthรจ Hughes, Locke and Cullen, into a symbol for America itself, a Harlem that Koh celebrates for its rich diversity. A Harlem of the past, present, and future, a matrix into which Koh projects a relationship that crosses the fraught racial line and asks questions about race, gender, sexuality in Trump's repressive America and in the future. 

Connor and Seal is a challenging and absorbing read, a daring publication by Sibling Rivalry Press, and a truly ambitious work by its author.


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