Saturday, January 31, 2009

Poem: For Lonely

For Lonely

Lying on top of you, my arms and knees
support my body even as I grope
for how much of me your frame will carry.

You hold me closer, you’re not heavy. So
I lean a ladder into you, step hard
up, and clamber to the top window

to hear you play Chopin’s Etude in C
Minor. I enter through the window, drop
into your room. I sit down quietly.

You come to a passage hazardous and slow
like footsteps on decaying floorboards
of an old house. The pedal mutes the piano.

Then I become afraid you will not be
playing, beside me, with such quiet hope
forever, for nightfall, for lonely,

and what that will do to me. I tiptoe
to the window while stroking your forehead,
lean back into myself, walk away below.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Vijay Seshadri previews "Equal to the Earth"

Jee Leong Koh is a vigorous, physical poet very much captured by the expressive power of rhythm, rhetoric, and the lexicon. He is also, paradoxically, a poet in pursuit of the most elusive and delicate of human emotions. The contradiction is wonderful and compelling, and so are his poems.

--Vijay Seshadri, Author of The Long Meadow (Graywolf Press)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Poem: Pedestrian


In Bryant Park, a woman walked past me—déjà vu—
her bare left foot a bruise as big as her right shoe,
traveled with slow, small steps measured by habit, round
the Starbucks stand and stepped towards my bench again.
This time I was ready for her—to imitate
her walk in a stumbling meter, interpret her pain.
She did not stumble. Her eyes threw me off—black dabs
in ovals whiter than the inside of an eggshell.
Her face was a patch. She did not make a sound.
She was neither Death nor Love and, like that mademoiselle
finishing her espresso, meant nothing to me too.

But when I stroke the bolt that locks the metal plate
to your shinbone, imagine how the sudden rain
blinds the bike, the thundering traffic blunts the stabs
of laughter tearing the night air on the Brooklyn Bridge
and how the last possible moment thrusts the yell,
“Watch out!”—she pedals, singing, on the hanging ridge
of my back, ringing and ringing her tiny bell.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Christopher Hennessy previews "Equal to the Earth"

In his second book of poems Equal to the Earth Jee Leong Koh digs deep into the rich soils of ancestry and history, of sexuality and identity, of (exterior) place and (interior) voice.

Koh's capacious mind and rapacious imagination draw on sources and inspiration as varied as Chinese history, the plum blossom, Spinoza, a book on anal sex, E.M. Forster's notebooks, a poet's rejection slips, the epistolary relationship between Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva, a straight man's tale of a great blow job he enjoyed, Keat's abandonment of Hyperion, and more. His poems are like the sexy nerd you meet at a bar, the one you really want to get to know better-- with his glasses and tie on and nothing else.

In several poems on gay themes, Koh sets himself apart from other gay writers, grappling with how to construct his own sense of sexuality but also playfully celebrating what it means to be different, even among the queers! Koh also is keenly aware of his gay father figures. In the stand-out poem "Pickup Lines" he imagines come-ons from Hart Crane, Auden, and Cavafy.
His poems contain what poems must, the paradox of both the personal and universal. Whether recalling his father's stories about Karma or passionate sex with a lover in a bathroom at work, Koh's writing brings the reader's emotions and memories to the surface. His poems are in turns sexy and sensual, poignant and pointed, somehow emanating from a singular voice that shows confident formal control as they conjure moments of magic out of the thin air of human history and personal drama.

-- Christopher Hennessy, Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets, Univ. of Michigan Press

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Poem: Ten Poems on the Plum Blossom

Ten Poems on the Plum Blossom

This happened in Jiangnan Province in 1658—on Mao Xiang’s country estate, Chen Weisong met and flirted with a servant Xu Ziyun beneath the plum trees. Chen was thirtytwo years old and Xu was fifteen and famous for his flute playing. When Mao wanted to punish Xu for aspiring above his status, Chen pleaded on the servant’s behalf. Mao demanded from Chen one hundred poems on the subject of the plum blossom the next morning in exchange for not punishing Xu. After Mao had received the poems, he released Xu to Chen. Being only one tenth the poet Chen Weisong was, I wrote “Ten Poems on the Plum Blossom” for my Xu who is also my Mao.


The old branch blossoms in the snow,
pink lips on a low brown bough.
I see your face in the whitewashed hall
and remember home in Singapore.


Back home in Velvet Underground last year,
you stuttered your coming out in a poetry slam.
I did not hear your pink confession then.
Now in New York, I hear you loud and queer.


Walking down Broadway, you digress to decree
which man scorches or not. Sharp noses, those
Jews’, are extremely hot. Alternately
hot and cold, I try not to think of my nose.


You do not see the tea list right before
your nose; the waitress and I laugh at you.
I muss up your hair—no white streak—
almost kiss the petal of your cheek.


Plum blossoms keep me up all night,
keep flowering slowly from my lesion,
flowering for no one, no reason.
Then daylight swabs the window white.


Why am I not your type? Both Prunus mume,
both poets, Singaporeans, shy, unsavvy
men clambering up, hoping to get some...
fruit from a different tree? A chokecherry?


Your Puerto Rican cherry’s sweet: he runs
his mother’s errands and, though home by nine,
tumbles more men than you and I combined.
How can I compete, souring in the sun?


In your “The Astronaut and the Samurai,”
their culture clashes bar them from the sky.
Not now. Age is the newer prejudice—
old shoguns order flowers, not harakiris.


In a short decade, you’ll turn thirtyfour
and long for a man a decade younger. Breech
bluelashed to the gnarled stake, you’ll reach
for pink buds and they will dance away, draw closer, dance away once more.


Chinese plums do not ripen to rich blue,
delicious, cold and sweet. They do not bruise.
You know as well as I, they turn yellow and hard
stored in your golden vase, turn small and tart.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Poem: Wildwood, Nebraska City

Wildwood, Nebraska City

The sky opened like a Chinese hand fan glued
to ebony guards, the road that ran due east and west.
I wasn’t surveying the fan but was reviewed
on its silk like the clouds a painter’s hand expressed
so well the rags of white evoked the idea, cloud,
or like the trees whose jaunt downslope looked so unplanned,
they tricked the eye to assign depth to a flat land.

I’d planned a walk and so I left behind the sky,
its opened fan, and followed the short carriageway
to Wildwood. The Victorian house was no Versailles,
owning two stories and on each white flank two bays.
The door was locked. A guided tour cost three bucks.
Through the glass—papered walls, gilt mirror, carpeted stair,
a small town banker’s idea of comfort deluxe.

I strolled around the house to find the arts and crafts.
A man was digging in the ragged garden, tree
shaded in violet. The barn door tinkled a welcome.
Inside, a whitehaired woman, with a ring of keys
stringed to her right hip, smiled and asked where I was from.
I said New York, instead of Singapore, a draft
answer, and so arrived at I’d come to see.

A modern exhibit—photographs of the stars
and stripes seen through a cunning local eye. A rag
evoked a phantom limb or else a jagged scar.
Sky and trees were filtered through translucent flags.
Behind the flags the works of regional artists—
watercolors of robins and colonials, gags
of silk scarves, fruits etched into blackwood clumps of fists.

Back of the barn, decorous as a buttoned blouse,
hung a series of pastel “Architecture” prints—
Outhouse in Blue. A Winter Outhouse. Outhouse
with Goose. Outhouse with House Depicted Through A Squint.
I noticed, with a thrill, the artist’s name and crest:
Laurine Kimmel, who, together with her spouse,
bequeathed to artists her town home where I’m a guest.

I turned to go, thinking of Kimmel’s sense of humor
when painting shit. A man wanting a watering can
searched in the barn for one that would do well in summer.
I stepped outside and almost stepped on his black mutt.
The dog rose quickly, trained by nature and the man,
and sniffed my shin. It knew I don’t live in these parts.
I hurried down the eastern guardstick of the fan.


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Poem: Florida


This evening walk around Lettuce Lake
begins on the planks of good intentions.
Palm fronds droop, like fingers over railing, over land
sliding below wetland, and weeds
yielding along an indeterminable wave to duckweed,
a false green carpet to the door of the lake.
Bald cypresses, wearing beards of moss, sit
surprised in water, their grayish knees
breathing above the rootless bladderworts.
Here, the wading bird is king, the Great Egret
picking its way between land and lake,
spearing the temporary frog to an unexpected hump of ground.
Here, the roseate spoonbill swirls the mud.
Even the osprey, which nests in feathertips of trees,
must bury itself in the lake, wings held up
like an archaic angel landing on a gravestone,
before rising with silver in its beak.
And here, reads the sign in stainless steel raised by park authorities,
is Alzheimer’s Walk
that travels two feet above the bog, two feet
from the leafy stink, but does not sink.


Thursday, January 1, 2009

Book Cover

My publisher and I have finalized the cover for Equal to the Earth. I sent her the design mock-up, and she re-did it, with the proper fonts and format. I hope the Rothko-inspired design will convey something of the book's themes and method, while staying away from the usual poetry covers based on photographs and paintings. Is there an art term called abstract figurative? There should be. If the cover suggests something of the sensual serenity of Matisse's paintings, I would be very happy.