Sunday, May 21, 2006

Payday Loans (31 of 31)

Work is not love. It does not waltz
or swing to the rhythm of blood.
It does not probe for signs beneath
the skin. It does not conjure metaphors
out of an ice cream or a bouquet
of roses walking down the street
or make promises it cannot keep.
It does not sweat through the night
to make things last but sees them
through to their necessary ends.

Work is not pious. It does not cross
its chest or raise its hands or kneel
to offer incense or a cup of tea.
It does not jerk the leash of flesh
and blood or collar the soul’s throat.
It has no stomach for loyalty.
It is not communal like ten-course
dinners, faith-healing meetings
or mahjong in void-deck funerals.
It forms a team to build a house.

Work is not art. It cannot entertain
or legislate. It cannot pay epiphanies
or transmogrification of the mongrel;
to work, a dog is a dog is a dog.
It cannot imagine "What If" but
creates "What Is." It cannot be pop
or classical or modern; it cannot be
but here. It cannot tilt at windmills
but marches in a definite direction
and shovels earth for pipes and people.


eothen said...


good to see this poem here - it's like meeting an old friend. the original version was what got me reading your stuff in the first place. i liked it a lot and went around telling everyone about it, partly cos i felt like i could identify and i thought my friends would as well, especially with the last 2 lines. (And if that isn't sad i don't know what is.)

this version, hmm. mixed feelings. the form is tighter and there are some new and powerful images ('jerk the leash of flesh / and blood or collar the soul's throat' is particularly violent), but i think it's lost something the original had. only problem is, i'm not sure what. will go think abt this some more.

and i miss those last 2 lines.

:) Rui

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Rui,
I too remember how much you like the original. I cannot bear the last two lines any more. Growth or atrophy, most probably just change on my part. Always good to hear from you.

Jee Leong

Anonymous said...

i see. And i think i know what it is that's different about this version: it's tougher than the other one, less Romantic. Which suits the subject fine.

And now i've put that in words, i'm wondering what my initial identification of the difference as a 'loss' means. i never thought of myself as a fan of Romantic stuff. Maybe i was wrong.

:) Rui

winston said...

For anyone who hasn't seen the earlier version, it was published online in the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore. The QLRS page seems to be defunct, so I'll take the liberty of quoting the poem in full:


What Work Is Not

"... each sealed in its hunger
for a different life, a lost life."
- Philip Levine

Work is not love. It does not waltz
nor swing to the rhythm of blood.
It does not probe beneath the skin
nor conjure a metaphor out of an ice-cream
or a bouquet of roses walking down the street.
It does not sweat through the night
to make forever last but sees fevers
through to their necessary ends.

Work is not piety, filial nor religious:
it does not kneel to offer tea or incense
nor demand public approbation
for private gestures, or more loyalty
than a soul has right to give.
It is not communal like saints' days,
birthdays, faith-healing meetings,
or mahjong in void deck funerals,
but a democracy of aims in a new house.

Work is not art, it does not entertain
nor legislate for mankind.
It cannot offer dark epiphanies
or transmogrification of the mundane,
to work, there is no mundane.
It is unconcerned with 'What If'
but with 'What Is'. It is not pop
nor classical nor modern, it is here.
It does not charge at windmills
but marches in a definite direction
and digs tunnels for pipes and people.

What work is - it is the play of minds
and hands on plasticine reality,
it is the extinction of differences,
levelling of hills and reclamation of seas.
It is a simple commitment to live.

But when work takes a rest,
it wonders what else is there.

By Koh Jee Leong

QLRS Vol. 2 No. 2 Jan 2003


Jee Leong, as you know, I also prefer the earlier version (for short, I'll refer to it as 2003 and the current version as 2006).

I didn't really identify with the meanings of 2003 when I read it. (I've known far too much work that does demand "more loyalty / than a soul has a right to give"!) But I liked the beauty and expressiveness of the language, rhythm, and tone.

I think 2006 has sacrificed too much of the richness and concreteness of the language, as well as the naturalness of line, for the sake of a more regular meter. The line breaks at 3-4, 5-6, 14-15, and 17-18 and the sentence break in line 4 feel awkward to me.

4: changed "a metaphor" to "metaphors". I think the singular is stronger (as it often is) despite the extra syllable.

8-10: replaced "forever" and "fevers" with "things" and "them", draining the blood out of the language. The one addition in this stanza ("or make promises it cannot keep") is on the bland side.

11: changed "piety" to an adjective, "pious", which breaks the parallelism with the other stanzas.

16, 20: blander than 2003.

22: changed "legislate for mankind" to "legislate". This is both blander and confusing.

24: "a dog is a dog is a dog": sounds pedestrian, cliched.

I did think the last two lines of 2003 were the weakest part of the poem. But I think you could replace them with something else. In simply removing them (as well as the five lines above them, which are not weak), you also remove a turn and some of the poem's richness.


Anonymous said...

Oh, one more thing. i think the current version has also lost much of the ambiguity in the original. i liked the way 2003 tugged both ways.

and yes, this time i'm quite sure that is a loss.

- Rui

Pearl said...

I like your poem having the 2nd last stanza as in printed version, but the sound play seems stronger in your new version.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Winston, Rui and Pearl,

thanks very much for all your comments. I will certainly be thinking over each point you raise. I may have cut out that second last stanza too hastily.

Jee Leong

Rui said...

Hello again,

Sorry, Jee Leong, for using your poetry blog as a 'notice board', but since Winston made reference to the QLRS site, I thought it best to clarify on Hsien Min's behalf that QLRS is not defunct and is still very much alive and running. There seems to be a problem with the webhosting service Verio, but this is being attended to.