Saturday, February 7, 2009

Robert Urban previews "Equal to the Earth"

Jee Leong Koh's new book of poetry EQUAL TO THE EARTH contains thoughtful meditations on the poet's social, sexual, ethnic and cultural impressions, relationships and alienations – presented in a unique style of wistful desire mixed with muted resignation. The book's title appears as a phrase in two poems – "Blowjob" and "Razminovenie, or Nonmeeting." By way of explaining EQUAL TO THE EARTH's overall theme, the title may be interpreted as meaning that the great longing one feels for that which one cannot have is equal, in magnitude, to the greatness of that which one cannot have.

Such has been the nature of The Muse for many a poet, and Koh is an inheritor of that venerable artistic sensibility.

Technically, many of Koh's poems read as non-rhyming prose poetically arranged into short lines and stanzas. Yet quite a few of the poems make use of clever, complex and well thought-out rhyme schemes. These include "Chapter Six: Anal Sex," "For Lonely," "Pickup Lines" and "The Far Ships."

The book's five chapters of poems are loosely grouped thematically:

Chapter One harkens back to classic Asian Imperial Court accounts. It imparts, if the term "orientalism" may be used, that atmosphere of labyrinthine bureaucracy, court intrigue and officiated virtue. On the surface all is modes of conduct, mannered observances, moral correctness. Yet underneath a more modern sense of romantic and sexual desire simmers.

As if mindful of the cultural heritage that permeates the writer's thinking in his life – Koh begins his book with his ethnic and literary roots. His choice of style here is not so cosmic or typically "poetical" as Zen Bhuddism or Taoism – but perhaps more Confucian in feel.

Heading towards Chapter Two, the subject matter of Koh's poetry fast-forwards to modern daily life. Yet they often keep the same formal, remote, almost polite style. The poetry is now more descriptive of his own life – revealing the alienation of the author as tourist, foreigner, immigrant, world traveler.

Chapters Three and Four contain quite a few poems on sexual relations and social communications – alienated, dense with meanings, and somewhat voyeuristic. Some appear coded in Koh's personal experiences. Many chronicle his travels and encounters as an Asian gay man in the modern world, especially in the West and especially in the U.S. Chapter Five takes the reader to Koh's socially estranged experiences on stereotypically (and for Koh, somewhat superficially) gay Fire Island.

Koh is skilled at poetically deconstructing gay sex roles, gay-straight relationships, coming out, and even gay sex toys. He also manages to infuse poetic craft into such mundane, municipal topics as immigration, tourism and citizenship. No small task.

Ultimately, Koh remains somewhat of a stranger-in-a-strange-land in many of the book's poems – gently alienated from his topics, his own sexuality and other people. I was several times reminded of Joni Mitchell's conversational, outsider-styled song lyrics while reading this book.

Koh as a poet understands art & sex as forces that both come from the same dark, inner, hard-to-grasp place. He is that kind of artist that struggles within the eternal, pulsar-like oscillation between the Dionysian temptations of creating sex and the studied, Apollonian thoughtfulness of creating poetry about sex. Koh lives and writes in that space created by the tug between the two. EQUAL TO THE EARTH is one of his results.

--Robert Urban, Urban Productions, NYC

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