Showing posts from January, 2007

Stevie Says

Stevie is my heroine.
Stevie loves a song.
Stevie loves sad people
who get life wrong.

Stevie wants to blame God
if there is one to blame.
Stevie thinks there's no one left
who goes by the name.

Stevie wonders what to do with sin
and with redemption too.
She can't keep returning panties,
pretending they are new.

for Stevie Smith

Daily Lunch Specials at Sin City Cabaret

Seen on a billboard just outside Manhattan

I ride the train into the city’s Monday
Madness, the live show during my short lunch
break from the office. The hour is special.
Loving it feels like an eighth deadly sin.
O, towers topless in the sun. My city,
my come-hither gentleman’s cabaret.

The city is a strip of cabaret.
(O, how I love my Two-for-One Tuesday!)
Girls strolling arm-in-arm throughout the city
are sizzling lesbian acts. My hotdog lunch
eaten, I hear Miss Vermont, Wisconsin,
North Carolina, and the special

Miss Oregon request the special
In Flag and Lamb. Bargirl Jane, brown beret
on carrot hair, and uglier than sin,
wears mascara and Wonderbra on Wednesday
Wet ‘N’ Wild when I take my liquid lunch.
Everything looks so fine in Champagne City.

Everyone looks so foreign in the city.
Cleo, Karisma and Love speak special
tongues as I wander past their talk, and lunch
on crystal buns. A diverse cabaret.
The Chinatown shops on Exotic Thursday
are friction booths where you can buy your sin.

Walking in Cent…

Penang Hill

for my mother

As the train crawled up the green girth
of the hill, you watched a sepia dream
turn Technicolor. The peak was ecstasy
when we imagined ourselves birds

till Sunday-dressed crowds plucked us
from our perch, to wind a driveway
to an aviary where real birds moped
outside a hotel moulting in the sun.

Nearby, Hindus chanted over coals
in an aluminium trough small enough
for barbecue. A garish-gold mosque
raised a mute loudspeaker to the sky.

On the next concrete contour, ringed
by scraggy bougainvillea in clay pots,
a Chinese coffeeshop squatted and spat
the fag ends of old men’s laughter.

Outside the shop was set up like a studio.
You wanted a photo: you holding a tendril
drooping from a wooden trellis, you posing
demurely like some film star in the fifties.

Why I did not ask afterwards, whether
you closed your eyes for a moment’s
commemoration or a blinding flash
of recognition that this visit was reward

for years of longing (granddad’s stories,
black family albums, wavy-edged

Readers' Responses to "Beautiful Suspect": Some Thoughts

Some readers posted thought-provoking comments on my poem, "Beautiful Suspect." I am posting here my thoughts on their comments. My reply may make more sense if you read their comments first.

Thank you, Anonymous, Greg, monkey and Larry for your thoughtful responses to the poem and to each other. I only wish the "poem," not even a draft but a jotting down of ideas and phrases, deserve such deliberations. The discussion is important, of course, because of the issues raised by the "poem."

I frame these interrelated issues thus:
(1) What is the relationship between the speaker and the author of a poem? What is at stake when we conflate the two, as we so easily and commonly do?

(2) Should an author treat subject matter of a dubious morality, in a manner that that is not condemnatory nor ironic? This assumes that the author, in his real person, thinks of the subject as immoral in the first place.

My thinking on the first question:
The basic relationship between th…


Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" has a melodramatic plot, melodramatic characters and melodramatic atmospherics. Yet, it does not end up as melodramatic in effect, at least not in the negative sense. Its depiction of the bond between mothers and daughters is genuinely poignant. This unexpected result can also be found in John Irving's novels. I am thinking of "The World According to Garp" and "A Prayer for Owen Meany" here. What makes the film and the novels more than the sum of its elements seems to me to be their spirit of invention. Bad melodramatic is garish in its use of stock of situations, characters and images. I find the wit and imagination in the film and novels technicolored instead.

The poem pretends

The poem pretends that on the linebreak hang


Guess rhymes function
as time's unction.


Desire and doubt, desire and doubt.
One comes in, one goes out.

Beautiful Suspect

The beginning of a poem:

The first lesson about picking up a trick
is to remember everyone is a terrorist.
They carry strapped to their body herpes
or that STD with a pretty flower name,
or HIV, or else depression or diabetes.

They are not mules; they know what they carry,
but still yearn to breed death. Terrorists,
in short. I should add here, "like you and me,"
but that is not how I think of them, not
like you, love, and certainly not like me.

What I say applies only to big cities, of course.
In a small town, everyone knows everyone,
and so when you marry Cousin Dick, you
know what you are getting. The risks
are incalculable when you go tricking.

The Poem as Autobiography

If I say my father made me stroke his dick
when I was five, would you believe me? If I say
he didn't make me stroke and suck his dick, would you
believe me then? And if I say I wished he did,
would you applaud my honesty, or condemn it,
though I've said nothing while saying something of it?

Manhattan Winter

For enduring the cold, we are rewarded with snow.

Why Does

I hear the train conductor shout,
"Seven Express! Express! Express!"
The train doors close. The woman next
to me springs up but the train moves out,
passing Bliss Street and other stops.
She can get off where I get off,
and take the local back. Why does
she mind so much the ten minutes more
and which way she approaches Bliss,
why mind so much that she knocks
and knocks her head against the door,
if she is not thinking of love?

Sherrod Santos' "Greek Lyrics"

Before reading Santos' translation, I thought I preferred more literal translations of poetry, the unexamined assumption being that a more literal translation gets at the original's intention better. Santos has quite changed my mind on this. He calls his translations "collaborations" between him and the writer, a concept that not only permits freer translation, but also acknowledges the "collaborative" aspect of all translation work, the joint work of the living and the dead. Santos takes advantage of this freedom to create translations that truly sing. I find myself reading the translations as poems, and not as curious historical records or, worse, archaelogical digs.

Here is a collaboration between Santos and Leonidas of Tarentum (3rd century B.C.).


If it weren’t for the fact that you gnaw and scratch
At the latch of my hollow meal bin, I’d think
(for there’s pretty thin picking within this shack)
you skittering creatures must feed on dark.

An old man is co…

Beer and Wine

Good beer will give a clean finish.
Love does not give the same.
A wine may leave an aftertaste.
Love comes, then came.
"From El Greco to Picasso," the Spanish art exhibition at the Guggenheim, was organized according to subjects: religious portraits, still life (or bodegón, ‘things from the pantry”), landscapes, childhood, secular portraits. This thematic organization facilitated the comparison of different artistic approaches and the tracing of artistic influence. It became strikingly clear, for example, how much Picasso owed to his Spanish predecessors, notably Goya in the still life paintings, for his subjects, his vision and his innovation.

I particularly liked “Still Life with Cardoon and Parsnips,” painted in 1604 by Juan Sanchez Cotan (1560-1621). The cardoon was painted with such close attention to detail. The fibrous threads along each segment of the vegetable were short spikes nearer the base, hairs further along the segment, and then feathers near the tip. The segments were delicately ridged, their mottled texture conveyed by the brushstrokes. The curve of the cardoon was continued…

How to make a lyric

How to make a lyric
(My name is Jee Leong Koh.)
O! Hello!

Really Hard

You love the feel of leather, thin
rubbery sheath your chest and hips breathe in.
It makes me really hard to think
that is your kink. Mine is the smell of ink.

Sporcl plays Dvorak and Tchaikovsky

I finally bought a CD player, from Circuit City, and now can play the music gathering dust in my desk drawer. From my meager collection, I found a CD I love: Pavel Sporcl playing Dvorak's Concerto in A minor for Violin and Orchestra, and Tchaikovsky's Concerto in D major. The playing is unabashedly Romantic, without becoming sentimental or melodramatic.

I thought about how ephemeral music is, how it lives and dies in time. What I was hearing was a recording, which, by definition, is a copy. A performance cannot be possessed in the same way as a painting can be collected.

A poem is both performance and object. It is performance when it is read (by the poet in his head or in public, or by the reader). As performance, it is painfully transient; a recording of Auden reading "In Praise of Limestone" is just that, a recording, a copy of a performance. On another day, he might have read it differently. A poem, however, is also an object: a text is a poem in a more literal sen…

Not Two

"I tell you, someone will remember us, even in another time." -Sappho

Sappho, Sappho, if I am one,
will my name be remembered too?

Best of the Net 2006

Poems published online and judged by Paul Guest to be Best of the Net 2006.


Too cold, this country is too cold
for writing love poetry.
Wear your thickest coat when you hold
my hips, and move inside of me.

Poem in Shit

My poem, "If the Fire Is in Your Apartment," has just been published by "The Shit Creek Review," issue two. The review is a bi-monthly ezine of poetry, prose, criticism and art. Do check it out.

A fragment of a poem

I am reading Greek Lyric Poetry, translated by Sherod Santos, and so will attempt a poetic fragment.

Donate your gently-used coats to the dead.
They are so cold they burn
raised stripes across their arms and head,
the newest stripes are red,
by sleeping against heaters. They don't learn

King Lear Act One Scene Three

This short scene between Kent and one of Lear’s knights precedes Lear’s storm scenes. In response to Kent’s practical, and existential, question, “Where’s the King?” Shakespeare gives the Knight this marvelous speech:

Contending with the fretful elements;
Bids the wind blow the earth into the sea,
Or swell the curled waters ‘bove the main,
That things might change or cease; tears his white hair,
Which the impetuous blasts with eyeless rage
Catch in their fury and make nothing of,
Strives in his little world of man to outscorn
The to and fro conflicting wind and rain;
This night wherein the cub-drawn bear would couch,
The lion and the belly-pinched wolf
Keep their fur dry, unbonneted he runs,
And bids what will take all.

A lesser playwright would have been happy to give such poetry to his protagonist but Shakespeare gives it to a character too insignificant to bear a name, confident of his powers to imagine something even greater for Lear. The speech makes dramatic sense too. It reports Lear’s emot…

I wish someone would love my body

I wish someone would love my body
more than my soul.
To love my soul is to love nothing
more than the whole
sensational thing that is my body;

it is to love the memories
my body has of
autumn, winter, spring and summer
in a first love.
The mercy of memories!

Yes, my body will grow older.
will totter, will fail
the test of cold infinity
but let me feel
its affinity for growing colder.

Durs Grunbein: The Poem and Its Secret

In Poetry, January 2007 issue, Grunbein writes in the last section of his essay:

Poems can be so variegated, so heterogeneous in their texture and style, yet the good ones stand out because of a certain something that can never be entirely unraveled. Whether it is a matter of special verbal humor, the magic of syllables, or mere technical or atmospheric hocus-pocus; whether the poem captivates us with a collection of unusual dream faces or seduces us as a painting created from singular fantasies--all that says little about its mysterious side. This emerges only as the surplus of the whole, as it were.`

(Skip a paragraph)

Personally, I believe that what comes out in poems is the human devotion to the transcendental--with a simultaneous fidelity to this world's prodigious wealth of details. For me, what makes up the consistency of poetry's secret is twofold: a mix of love of this world with curiosity about metaphysics. The proof? Only among the poets does one come across them, thos…

A revision from "Payday Loans"

I've revised a sonnet so much that I'm not sure whether any of my intentions is getting through. The context: gay speaker who is graduating from a Creative Writing MFA and looking for a job. Yeah, he resembles me, two years ago.

I dreamed of you last night, my class voodoo-
practicing, commie, vegan, white dyke said.
I dreamed you were lying stark naked in bed,
stroking the leg without a foot.

Had she confused me with one we both know,
J who graduated last year and treads
heavily on his prosthesis? He’s married
and writing full-time. Publishing his first book.
What does the dream mean? Is it an omen?
A curse? A prayer? My wish-fulfillment vibes?
For I’ve wished, once or twice, to be my friend,
a member of a secret, stoic tribe
that cuts up boys to turn them into men.
And then a woman came in, licking a rib.

Cezanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, patron of the avant-garde

Patrick McCaughey, in his TLS review, inveighed against the Met for enshrining in an exhibition an art dealer who was, in McCaughey’s words, “the reverse of the patron: he was the exploiter of the avant-garde.” When I saw the exhibition yesterday, I read in at least two curator’s notes that Vollard sold the paintings for ten times the meager sum he had paid the artists. The notes made me wonder if the exhibition’s title was not intended as somewhat ironic. Such titles, emblazoned on a huge banner in front of the Met, are not usually ironic but this one might serve the dual purpose of promotion and criticism. I thought the exhibition highlighted the exchange of monies behind these familiar masterpieces.

Looking at Cezanne’s “A Basket of Apples,” I was struck by how all the apples had different shapes and colors. Each apple was also presented differently from the others: one showed more stalk; one more tilted; one half-wrapped by the cloth; one almost hidden by the basket. The effect is …

New Year Resolution

I will not be afraid of loneliness.
Loneliness makes one do things one regrets
the morning after, like the man last night
who flailed in mock enjoyment, danced to get
my interest. He was old and didn’t want
to sleep through the first night of the new year
alone, and so, like a scarecrow, he danced,
and, when I kindly tried to be sincere
by not looking at him, he came so close
I smelled the alcohol, fermented straw,
and danced away. To another younger man
he turned, and then another on the floor.
I know that hurricane. It starts as breath
one grows aware of breathing, then it blows
one all over the landscape till one pierces
something that holds, a tree, say, while it blows
itself out. Blown like that, I hung to you
too long, mistaking loneliness for love.
That’s why I turned you down last night. You’re kind,
your friends sincere and good-looking, sort of,
but loneliness needs to be treated lightly
like making resolutions for the year
to dance with body to the dance beat nightly,
to look into the eyes and sm…