Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Joseph O. Legaspi's "Imago"

The debut poetry collection of Legaspi, a friend of mine, is about rites of passage, in particular, the rite of circumcision, which many of these poems attempt to circumscribe. The title-poem begins:

As soon as we became men
my brother and I wore skirts.
We pinched our skirt-fronts into tents
for our newly circumcised penises, the incisions
prone to stick painfully to our clothing.

As these opening lines show, the movement of the book is narrative, the motor is memory, the voice gently humorous, and painfully aware, likeable. This poem rises to a meditation on how women help men pass their initiation into manhood. The delight here, as elsewhere in this book, lies in the specificity of local details. After expressing his preference for his "sister's plaid skirt," and his brother's choice of a grandmother's one, "flowers/ showering down his ankles," the speaker describes the mother's ministrations to a son's agonizing manhood.

As a cure, my mother boiled
young offshoorts of guava leaves.
Behind the streamline of hung fabric,
I sat on a stool and spread
before a tin washbasin. My mother bathed
my penis with the warm broth,
the water trickling into the basin like soft rain on our roof.
She cradled my organ, dried it with cotton,
wiping off the scabs melted by the warmth,
and she wrapped it in gauze, a cocoon
around my caterpillar sex.

"Imago" means both a sexually mature insect, and and an idealized mental image of the self or a parent, formed in childhood and persisting unconsciously into adulthood. It is an apt name for this book, which treats so tenderly the injuries and ideals of growing up.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The New Yorker, Oct 22, 2007

from "The Corrections: Abridgment, enrichment, and the nature of art" by Adam Gopnik:

Of the "compact" Moby-Dick produced by British publisher Orion:
...What the Orion "Moby-Dick" says abut the book is what a good critic or professional editor would say about the book. It's what they did say: there's too much digression and sticky stuff and extraneous learning. If he'd cut that out, it would be a better story.

Only years of careful inclulcation in the masterpiece makes us hesitate. And rightly so. For when you come to the end of the compact "mobdy-Dick" you don't think, What a betrayal; you think, Nice Job--what were the missing bits again? And when you go back to find them you remember why the book isn't just a thrilling adventure with unforgettable characters but a great book. The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound and sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness: it is all Dick and no Moby.


The real lesson of the compact editions is not that vandals shouldn't be let loose on masterpieces but that masterpieces are inherently a little loony. They run on the engine of their own accumulated habits and weirdnesses and self-indulgent excesses. They have to, since originality is, necessarily, something still strange to us, rather than something that we already know about and approve. What makes writing matter is not a story, cleanly told, but a voice, however odd or ordinary, and a point of view, however strange or sentimental. Books can be snipped at, and made less melodically muddled, but they lose their overtones, their bass notes, their chesty resonance--the same thing that happens, come to think of it, to human castrati.


What these commentaries (of film directors on their director's cuts) reveal to us is this: the movies we see are the already abridged editions of longer novels of ambition and intelligence, thwarted and rewarded. The augmented film teaches us the same lesson as the subtracted book: art is a business not of clear narratives but of troubled narrators. Western literature begins not with the Trojan War but with the poet's announcement that he's going to tell a story about the Trojan War. It is self-consciousness of purpose, not transparency of action, that ignites a poem. The trouble with popular entertainment is perhaps not that we don't have enough strong stories but that there are not enough weak narrators--not enough Ishmaels, whose slack and troubled attentiveness, accumulated sighs and second thought make the Ahabs alive.... The insertion of that second nettling watching presence is what separates the merely crafty from the artful, the compact from the achieved, and guarantees that, no matter how the maker's hand may add and subtract, the viewer's mind will continue to divide, and multiply.


from "The Well-Tempered Web: The Internet may be killing the pop CD, but it's helping classical music" by Alex Ross:

Younger musicians, in particular, are using every available means to reach a potential public that is far larger than the one that already exists. They are not haunted, as older musicians are, by nostalgia for a time when Bernstein appeared on the cover of Time and Toscanini was a star of NBC radio. Instead they see the labyrinth of long-tail culture as an open field of opportunity; they measure success in small leaps.

The same goes for poetry. Instead of moaning and groaning about the sidelining of poetry in mainstream culture, or longing for bygone eras when poets were public figures of influence and controversy, younger poets should use "every available means to reach a potential public that is far larger than the one that already exists." In this pursuit, they should take heart by measuring success in "small leaps." This is probably already obvious to many people, but its truth is only now sinking into me. When Robert Urban, the host of the Rainbow Reading at Pisces Cafe, on hearing me read and liking my voice, suggested that I record my reading of my poetry, I was flattered but did not take the suggestion seriously. I was still bent on making my mark as a wordsmith of the page, not a lyricist of the supposedly more ephemeral performance. I recognize now that is an outdated prejudice. Every available means. Sigh, does that mean I have to master technology? After I was given my radio recordings by Anne Cammons, I have still not posted them on my blog. I tried uploading them from two hosting sites, but both failed, and I just gave up. Persistence is the name of the game.

Some of the sites mentioned in Ross's article:
the Arnold Schoenberg Center; Think Denk, the blog of pianist Jeremy Denk; Keeping Score, a music education website hosted by the San Francisco Symphony.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Poets Wear Prada Press website

I finally took a good look at the website of the press that published my chapbook Payday Loans. Roxanne has done a terrific job. The main page has more than the covers of the list; it has a moving banner at the top to announce author readings and book signings, and, at the bottom, a slideshow that presents covers and authors side by side. Click on a book cover, and you will go to the book page. The book page quotes reviews and gives their links, as well as displays the author pic and bio, and a sample page from the chapbook. Mine shows two sonnets on facing pages, both sonnets about exercise. The look of the website is clean and uncluttered. The press is now a member of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP). Way to go, Roxanne!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Book of the Body

“O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you…” —Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric”

1. Head

2. Neck

Practicing for survival, I broke the neck of a chicken with my hands
at Sarimbun scout camp, where boats disgorged the Japanese divisions.
I grabbed the hen by the neck
(tubular like a stethoscope)

and, in the way demonstrated,
swung it round
and with a flick of the wrist snapped
it to the ground.

The hen got up,
squawking, scrabbled the dirt, and shat.
Only mine got up, not the others
at the cooking fires of Kestrel, Eagle, Kingfisher, Merlin and Falcon.

I was Hawk. My patrol watching me, I seized the hen again
and this time did my job as a patrol leader should.
Someone else plucked the bird in hot water.
We baked it in mud, ate it with salt, and pronounced it good.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sign Open Letter to Prime Minister to Repeal Anti-gay Law

From Repeal377A.com website:

The Penal Code of Singapore, in Section 377a, provides for a jail sentence for up to two years should a man be found to have committed an act of "gross indecency" with another man.

We are collecting signatures for a letter to the PM that explains why these laws should be repealed and why doing so is for the greater good of the country.

Add your name to the list of online signatories.

The call for signatures ends on October 19.

The completed letter with all the signatures will be compiled and delivered to the Prime Minister after the closing date.

After signing the letter, I added this comment:

Dear Sir,
I am a Singaporean living in New York City. NYC, for all its problems, is creative, energetic and confident, a magnet for all kinds of talent. A large part of that is due to the city's celebration of diversity and its do-it-yourself spirit. This open letter to you, though avowedly about gay rights, is about much more. It calls for change in the way Singaporeans view diversity and civic participation, a change that will make Singapore a better city and home for all of us.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Non-declarative Art: Anon's reply

Anon replied to my answer posted on Sunday. I am posting his reply here, and my brief comments.

Hello. It's me again.

Hello, Still Anonymous.

Press Releases are, almost by definition, compact, incomplete and very frequently cliche ridden. They are meant to pique your interest and wet your appetite. They are meant to get you to a show. Not explain the work. In that function the press release was successful. You seem to have been piqued.

I don't see why someone, anyone, would think that cliches would pique the interest and wet [sic] the appetite of potential viewers to get them to an art show. I attended this show not because of the press statement, which I read only after I had viewed the drawings, but because my friend is exhibiting in it.

But then you took it to a whole new level. I feel it was unfortunate that your whole experience viewing the show and the fulcrum of your beef was based on the contradiction you saw in the press release and the work shown. I believe it was kind of unfair. That's what I wanted to address.

No, my beef was with the slapdash drawings. The press statement (which, I repeat, I only read after the viewing) only compounded the beef.

I don't believe what is written about visual art is essential or even necessary to the viewing experience. Period. If you had written on your blog, "It all sucked" and hadn't mentioned press releases etc...then fine. What can you say to that?

I don't believe this line of discussion can really procede any further. It seems we're getting caught on the semantics of generalities and for me, that's boring. I think you should read Drawing Papers, rather than simply the press release, if you choose to critique the philosophy behind the show and offer an in depth analysis. Of course now, it's all too late.

I don't understand what you mean by "the semantics of generalities," and so must assume that I will find it equally hard to understand the Drawing Papers.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Non-declarative Art: Take Two

In response to my take on the Non-declarative Art exhibition at the Drawing Center, Anon posted an objection that made me think. My turn in the conversation:

Dear Anon,
I've not replied immediately because I was busy, and also because I was thinking, intermittently, over my reply. Replying to Anon is also not motivating, to say the least; one so wishes to be talking to a person with a name. Still, your comment has made me wish to clarify myself to myself, and to others.

There is a distinction between the art itself being "non-declarative" and what the necessary press release, curators and artists "declare" about the work. This point seems to be muddled in the statement "Which is a lot to declare about art intended to be non-declarative." To follow your logic, it would be a contradiction to talk about or discuss "silence", because silence is supposed to be about not saying anything. "Non-declarative" doesn't mean the art can't be, necessarily, descibed or talked about.

"...which is a lot to declare about art intended to be non-declarative" is not a statement of logic, but a comment on (what I perceive to be) the contradictory spirit of the exhibition. To use your analogy, while it is not illogical to talk about "silence," to go on and on about it, one must be either a theorist or a humorist, or both. There is no humor or irony in the artists' statements in the press release. In keeping with the spirit of the non-declarative exhibition, shouldn't artists and curator keep quiet, and let the works declare their open-endedness? Why circumscribe them by explaining artistic intention or process?

Your last sentence elides artists and critics. They are not the same. Critics take their task to be one of explication. Artists need not explain, and yet, in this non-declarative exhibition, the artists involved explained works supposedly made to defy easy explanations. Given this contradiction, how should I interpret the artists' statements? Conformity to the practices of contemporary exhibitions? Desire to make the work accessible at some level? Human need to communicate to others about what, essentially, is a solitary pursuit? The last explanation seems, to me, to make the idea of Non-declaration a blind alley.

You did not address my comment on the cliches used in the press statement. In using these catchphrases, the statement failed to communicate what makes this batch of works special. One easy test: can the same statement be recycled for next year's exhibition? Has the same statement been recycled from previous years' exhibitions? The press release is symbolic of some of the works I saw at the exhibition: faddish statements, but no real vision.

In addition, in dicussing the description of Gianna Commito's work you blend together "aesthetic ambition" and plain old "ambition" in your parethetical phrase, "Apparently, ambition, like formalism is a dirty word". Did you think about the term "aesthetic ambition" and what that might mean? And what kind of ambition are you referring to- artistic ambition, personal ambition or something else?

When I wrote in a parenthesis "Apparently, ambition, like formalism, is a dirty word," I was clearly referring to aesthetic ambition since I was talking about just that in my previous sentence, and not about any other kinds of ambition. It would have been odd if I had compared "personal ambition" to "formalism" in the same sentence.

It's so interesting that it was the curator's intent to exhibit work that lends itself to reveal the "aesthetic ambitions, "values" and "prejudices" of the viewer and that here in your post is an excellent example! Being non-declarative is fine with you as long as it's not "slapdash and thin". And the work you responded too was indeed the least "slapdash", the most formally considered, the most careful and in a tradtional sense the best crafted.(And personally I like each artist's work very much).

But don't all artistic works, declarative or otherwise, "reveal" the prejudices (I prefer the more neutral word, taste) of the viewer? How are non-declarative works special in this regard? I prefer Matisse to Picasso because I value the hard-earned order in the first, and dislike the show-offishness in the second. I prefer Michelangelo's heroes to Carravagio's waifs because I have a thing for jocks, but not for boys. I prefer Turner to Constable because I thrill to an epic vision of nature. These works "reveal" more clearly, and subtly, my preferences precisely because they have explicit "content." They are discriminating in their styles and attitudes towards their "content," and so compel me to be discriminating in my judgment and taste. The non-declarative art works I saw, on the other hand, wanted me to opt either for open-endedness or closed, for ambiguity or explicitness. They were as crude as their label, "Non-declarative," which posits two options: Declarative or Non.

So, being non-declarative is not fine with me. I'm glad we agree that the exhibited work I like "was indeed the least "slapdash", the most formally considered, the most careful and in a tradtional sense the best crafted." I value these virtues in art because, so often, works with such virtues move me tremendously. I don't reify technique, as should be clear in my appreciation for Diaz's basic lines, but I want form and content to communicate an individual vision. And I don't expect myself to like every artist's work.

Everyone, has the right of course to be bored for any reason. And your form of boredom seems to have been a very active one. A more passive and a truly mindnumbing kind of boredom is quickly forgotten. Who thinks about being bored waiting at the DMV three minutes after leaving? It's certainly nothing somebody would post on their blog!

Essentially, boredom is a form of frustration. Perhaps the boredom you felt, being different from the boredom felt waiting at the DMV, came from unmet expecations, being denied "clear content" where you thought it should go or simply too much slapdashery that you've seen all before.

Every viewer has the right to be bored, but no artist has the right to be boring. There's no need to speculate on the reasons for my boredom. My original post made the reason clear. My boredom was not caused by "being denied "clear content" where you thought it should go." If it was so, I would have been bored by Tittman, Rosenthal and Diaz too. I was bored by, as you put it, too much slapdashery that I've seen before.

The press release doesn't "claim" that obscuring clear and obvious readings will, by itself, empower the viewer. Here again this is what you read into it. If you were to read the curators statement in the beginning of the Drawing Papers catalog you will see a series of QUESTIONS(yes, rhetorical!) posed. It is not, no matter how much you'd like it to be, some kind of manifesto. They are questions without easy answers provided. Or any answers for that matter. They are questions that the work itself seeks to ASK. The answers are left to the viewer to ANSWER. If they so choose to be listening.

The press release says, "By obscuring clear and obvious readings, these works allow for open-ended interpretation, empowering the viewer and activating the viewing experience." How usefully vague, how intellectually forgiving, how morally lenient is that verb "allow"! In like manner, you wrote that the artistic work does not reveal but "lends itself to reveal" the viewer's prejudices. In the first example, "allow" allows the writer to make a claim from which he can retreat, protesting his innocence, when attacked. The second example lends itself to scoring a hit while disclaiming responsibility for the blow. No claims are ever made, only questions are ASKED. No punches are ever launched since the fists are borrowed. I did not read the Drawing Papers catalog, but if the questions there are rhetorical, they are not real questions but are statements, i.e. claims. Suffused with cliches, your last paragraph tries so hard to justify the curators and the exhibition, that I cannot help but suspect that you, dear Anonymous, is the curator, or an exhibitor, or a friend of either. My bet is on the first.

Let me approach your last paragraph from another direction. This viewer, a non art specialist, your average member of the educated public, on a saturday afternoon when he could have walked in the park, or watched a movie, or lazed about the house to recover from a hard work week, detached himself from his friends wandering about the Chelsea art galleries, took the A train down to Wooster Street, walked the couple of crowded blocks to a place he had never visited before, in order to see some drawings by emerging artists, walked round the gallery twice, returning yet again to the three artists he liked, outstaying any of the other visitors who dropped in while he was there. Sure, he went there to see a friend's work, but there was also the lure of seeing significant art. Imagine, if you will, how such a person will feel when he is told that he would have "got" the art "if [he] so choose[s] to be listening."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Revision of "Head"


Today I open the book of the body and read about beheadings.

It took three strokes to hack off Mary Stuart’s head,
the first struck the back of her head,
the second bit her shoulder and through her subclavian artery, spraying blood like a garden hose,
the third did the job.

Sikh guru Tegh Bahadur, who warned,
the mind remains in the mind and so death seizes him by the hair,
was decapitated for refusing to convert.
The book says that at his wedding Tegh Bahadur’s face was handsome as the moon.

The heads of looters stuck on poles outside Singapore’s Cathay Cinema
where Japanese officers manned the radio and watched American movies
broadcast the same message
as the execution of Daniel Pearl, and those of others who did not make it to video.

If the head was taken away, how did they identify the body for burial?
Perhaps the mother claimed her daughter by the birthmark on her left buttock.
Perhaps the father asked for his flat-footed son.
Perhaps the disciples placed his rough palm on their shaved heads.

Surely the lover knew,
not by the marks of imperfection, but by those of perfection,
toes, shins, kneecaps, thighs, sex, belly, sternum, nipples, shoulders—
lessons recited during caressing nights for such a night.

Today I open the book of the body under the sun in the Long Meadow,
for I want to believe that since the soul has such a bad job history
the body is a better teacher of moral philosophy,
and I read about the body, like a flower, bowing down before power.

What kind of a reformer is that?
It was believed that for fifteen minutes after her death Mary kept on praying.
We no longer believe her prayer,
but we want to read her lips before they stop.

Like the fragrance which remains in the flower, Tegh Bahadur rhapsodized,
the Lord dwells deep within.
I will continue reading the book of the body
though sunlight falls on the blades of leaves like guillotines.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Poems in The Chimaera

The first issue of The Chimaera, the offspring of Shit Creek Review, has just been delivered. It looks major and feels intimate. I have three poems in it, and a prose piece that started life as a blog post. Rhina P. Espaillat has a really good poem on the subject of home. Alison Brackenbury, whose first book Dreams of Power I read and loved in Singapore, is also here. And poets I first knew from PFFA: Rob Mackenzie, Rik Roots, Anna Evans, and Salli Shepherd. And a poet I first heard on the NYC poetry circuit, but who has now moved to Dublin: Quincy Lehr. And, in a strange return, a poet I knew from Singapore, an expat himself, Chris Mooney-Singh.

Tia Ballantine Reviews "Payday Loans"

Some moons ago Rob Mackenzie suggested I send my chapbook to Happenstance Press for review. I mailed them two copies, uncertain if a small Scottish independent press would want to give any space to a Singaporean poet writing in the States, and published by a less-than-one-year-old press. They would, spelling my name wrongly twice as Jee Leongh Koh, in the Contents page, and review headline. Tia Ballantine's review appears in Sphinx issue 7. She nailed my name.

The first thing I noticed when I picked up Jee Leong Koh's Payday Loans was the overly cutesy name of the publisher and the sloppy stapling of the pages. Hmmm, I muttered, this might just be yet another fashionable product of th glitzy American 'Po-biz' (I was particularly grouchy that day). When I turned the pamphlet over and read Marie Howe's comment: "Smart, irreverent, often unnerving, these sonnets smirk, smile, argue and bless...Cash in your paycheck and buy this book", I settle down somewhat. After all, I write sonnets myself. Then, still, prickling from the "poets wear prada" bizziness, I opened the pamphlet.

Now, after reading again and again Jee Leong Koh's fine poems, I want to stand on every street corner in every city and hand this chapbook to all who pass. Thankfully imperfect and patiently brilliant, this chapbook introduces a poet whose compassionate insightful voice deserves to be heard. Organized by time--each poem representing consecutive days during April 2005, America's National Poetry Writing Month--these 30 sonnets are indeed irreverent and smart but never supercilious or self-conscious, never sneering. And they never smirk. They are instead generous, honest, and lively--poems that illuminate the difficulties faced by a genuine poet alive in a world overflowing with bitterness and angst, a world angry with itself, that nonetheless can be (as these poems suggest) deeply ethical, tender and richly hopeful.

As introduction to his poems, Koh quotes the American poet, philosopher, and social critic Paul Goodman (one of the founders of Gestalt Therapy) who says that it is the "persistent attitude" of a poet that is the poem and that "the whole book is more [the] objective poem." Jee Leong Koh has successfully--and usefully--created such a gestalt and so I will not quote lines. I agree with Marie Howe. Buy this book, but contact the poet by email first: jeeleong.koh@gmail.com. My efforts to buy the book online were decidedly frustrating.

Tia wrote to me about her difficulties getting more copies of my book. Paypal gave her trouble. Select Bookstore, in Singapore, charged too much for shipping to the States. I mailed her five copies, for which she paid by check. Her persistence is immensely gratifying. She backed her words with actions.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Non-Declarative Art at The Drawing Center

The Drawing Center is the only fine arts institution in the country to focus solely on the exhibition of drawings, both historical and contemporary. I visited it for this first time this afternoon to see the "Non-Declarative Art" Fall Selections, 2007, which presents the work of thirteen emerging artists.

According to the press statement, the artists in Non-Declarative Art
intelligently explore ambiguity, the minimization of information, and the rejection of overt meaning. If "declarative" art seeks to inform the viewer about the artist's views, non-declarative art seeks a lack of explicitness, putting the onus on the view to determine its meaning. By obscuring clear and obvious readings, these works allow for open-ended interpretation, empowering the viewer and activating the viewing experience.

Which is a lot to declare about art intended to be non-declarative. A lot of catchphrases too. The descriptions of the individual artists also declare what they are about. For instance, "Disguised as an aethetician, Gianna Commito (Kent, OH) makes works that look at first like regular formalist paintings and drawings, but turn out to have no traditional compositional order or aesthetic ambition." (Apparently, ambition, like formalism, is a dirty word.) The artists do not care to declare the "content" of their work, but declare, declaim even, their aesthetic aim and approach (style is probably also a dirty word). That declamation is fine when the subtlety of the works themselves supports the aesthetic ambition, but, when the works themselves are slapdash and thin, the rhetoric sounds hollow.

Contrary to what the press statement claims, obscuring clear and obvious readings does not, by itself, empower the viewer and activiate the viewing experience. More often than not, in this exhibition, obscurity bored this viewer. "Non-declarative" art declares, over and over again, the same things: ambiguity, indeterminacy, open-endedness. So-called declarative art declares the same things, but with the richness of clear content. Communication is always fraught with difficulties, even what seems crystal clear at first hearing, or first viewing.

Having got that off my breast, I must say I enjoyed very much the works of three artists in this exhibition. The drawings of my friend, Sally Tittmann, continue to provoke and suggest. I think the drawings' white frames do the works a disservice. They look like boxes against which the rock-like forms rattle. As such, the frames rob the forms of some of their suggestiveness.

Sally Tittmann, "Untitled (#56)," 2007. Pencil on Paper, 20 7/8 x 25 1/2 inches.

Howard Rosenthal's stones provide an interesting contrast with Tittmann's rocks. The stones emerge out of the blackness, unlike the airiness of the rocks in the white space. The hyper-realistic stones look the same, and to that extent, have their individuality erased. In contrast, each of Tittmann's rocks, despite their obvious pencil shading, is an individual entity in time and space.

Howard Rosenthal, "Rock 18," 2003. Charcoal and pastel on paper, 24 x 30 inches.

Michael Diaz's lines are made up of dashes (of different thicknesses), gaps, and erasures, on handmade Japanese Inbe paper. They have a meditative purity. One, not shown here, crawls from the middle of the right edge of the paper to the middle of the paper. It looks like a fine crack in the wall, a notion I find moving.

Michael Diaz, "Untitled #79" (detail), 2007. Pencil on handmade Japanese Inbe paper, 30 x 22 inches.

Mark Morrisroe at Clampart Gallery

Self Portrait at Home with Diane Arbus, 1985, Gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 inches

Working with large print formats and polaroids, Morrisroe (1959-1989) made "trash" art out of narcissism. Though the experimental self-portraits are defiant and absorbing, the photographs of his lover Jonathan Piersman are delicate and lyrical. I also like very much a portrait of a nude woman in front of a dark doorway. The play of light and shadow across her sculptural body is beautiful. Unfortunately, I cannot find the image on the gallery website. Morrisroe died at the age of thirty of Aids-related complications.

Self Portrait in Drag (polaroid #86), 1980, Polaroid print (unique), 4.25 x 3.25 inches, sheet

Jonathan (Jack Pierson), May 1, 1982, Chromogenic print, 20 x 16 inches, sheet, 15 x 15 inches, image

Thursday, October 04, 2007

2 Triolets

Blue Triolet

Little Boy Blue, blow your horn.
Blow it till the cows come home.
They mess with wheat. They mess with corn.
Little Boy Blue, blow your horn.
They mess at night. They mess at dawn.
All day they roam, they roam, they roam.
Little Boy Blue, blow your horn--
blow it!--till the cows come home.

Hill Triolet

Every day we climbed the hill,
Jack said, sinking into my couch.
Till the day we took a spill,

every day we climbed the hill.

What are you doing? You're no Jill,

though I've wondered once or--ouch!

Every day we climbed the hill,

Jack said, sinking into the couch.

Monday, October 01, 2007

George Held's Review of "Payday Loans"

George Held is the Co-editor Emeritus of The Ledge Poetry & Fiction Magazine, the outfit that published and nominated my poem "Brother" for the Best New Poets Anthology 2007. His review of Payday Loans, in Home Planet News, is mixed:

What are the odds that a gay Singaporean would or could publish a book of sonnets inspired by Paul Goodman (1911-72)? In Goodman's day, nil; in 2007, low. Yet for its debut chapbook, Poets Wear Prada has produced this beautifully designed and printed collection of thirty sonnets, one for every day of April, presumably 2005. Each poem bears the date as its title. Thus the first poem is "April 1, Friday," and in it the speaker asks "Mr. Certain Death" to "lend me thirty," with the promise, "You'll get them back on my payday." This is the payday loan that gives the book its title. Note that Koh uses "them" to refer to "thirty," an example of his sometimes unidiomatic English.

But these slips don't detract from his fluency with the sonnet. He works all kinds of variations within its strict confines, to which he adheres in most cases. Moreover, he writes alternately in the Italian form, which allows less freedom in its rhyme scheme than the English form, in which he writes the other half of the time. He even writes a sonnet with an inverted rhyme scheme, and he has fun with comic rhymes. Thus "April 1, Friday" ends with these rhyme words: "pissed," "mall," "irrational," and "subsist." In "April 16, Saturday" Koh uses a single rhyme for the first thirteen lines and then breaks the pattern with the onomatopoeic word "crack," enforcing the breach.

I mention only some of Koh's play with the sonnet, to suggest his versatility and the degree to which the pleasures of his book are formal. (The cover bears a firmly ruled calendar for April 2005.) Next to form, Koh's obsession is sex, a subject that informs his better poems here. Arguably the best is "April 13, Wednesday," which the government of Singapore banned from being read at a gay-pride celebration there. The poem begins:

Come on, straight boy, and make gay love with me.
One night of loving will not turn you queer,
if queer is what you will not bend to be.
Loving a man is but a change of gears.

These lines recall the rhetorical strategies of John Donne's poems addressed to his (women) lovers, sly attempts to persuade his listener to enter into forbidden intimacy. Like Donne and other major poets, particularly sonnet writers, Koh exploits the value of monsyllables: these four lines contain 40 syllables, 38 in monosyllabic words. Moreover, except for the necessary adjective "straight," these lines eschew modifiers. Koh's skill in a second language puts to shame many contemporary poets who are native speakers of English and who seem addicted to modification. "April 13, Wednesday" is a perfect sonnet in the sense that it fulfills itself in exactly fourteen lines. It moves from the charming opening quatrain through a second which asks questions to disparage heterosexual coupling and a third that argues for the superiority of performance between same-sex lovers, to the sensational closing couplet: "What have you got to lose? Leap, acrobat!/ You can always fall back on pussycat."

The questions in the second quatrain recall Shakespeare, whose sonnets contain much interrogation, and whose other strategies and tones Koh's work borrows from. Other mentors are more contemporary and some are gay, including Goodman, a line from one of whose sonnets Koh uses to begin "April 20, Wednesday," and Frank O'Hara, to whose Lunch Poems Koh alludes in "April 19, Tuesday," which begins, "This is not a lunch poem. It's an after/ lunch poem. I can write this coz [sic] I'm jobless." By the end of this riff on an O'Hara poem, the speaker receives a job offer. Maybe he will soon be able to pay off his loan to Mr. Certain Death, but that theme occurs only sporadically in PAYDAY LOANS, despite the title.

Speaking of titles, I wonder that none of the famous poets Koh heartily thanks for their help did not point out to him that giving his poems the names of days would leave them bereft if they are ever anthologized: "April 18, Monday" offers no clue about the fine erotic poem beginning "What's on tonight but lips pressed on lips." And not all the poems in the collection add to its value; maybe Koh should have chosen February. All told, however, this book refreshes our sense of what can still be done in a traditional form when the poet uses his wits and has the wit of Jee Leong Koh

To all future Anthologists, you shall use the title dating each poem, and no other, not the first line, for instance. The date-title owns an occult meaning which only the initiated will recognize and understand. By the order of the Magister Ludi.