Sunday, November 22, 2009

Reviewing Moira Moody's Review

In Cha, Moira Moody reviews Equal to the Earth, alongside Two Baby Hands, another book of poems by another Singaporean with the same last name. Fortunately the review makes no cutesy pun. It sees the two books' very different aesthetics but finally, unfortunately, shies away from any evaluation, settling for the anodyne conclusion that "Their volumes are equally promising and rigorous in the different directions they take, and together only suggest that the country's poetic climate is not easily reduced." For a very different judgment of Gilbert Koh's Two Baby Hands, read Nicholas Liu's review in QLRS. Liu enjoys wielding the knife a little too much, I think, but his opinion is incisive and well-supported.

Moody, on the other hand, has doubts about my style but does not quite come out to say them. The doubts are more or less consciously expressed in her choice of words. She refers, for example, to my use of "the rigidity of form" to contain subject matter. I am "playing with forces that [my] lines struggle to restrain." I use formal schemes well by "emphasizing their confining aspects."  These comments reveal a very limited view of form: that it necessarily constrains genuine emotion, subject matter, what have you. Form as a cage. The comments show no understanding that form can be so many other things: skeleton, song, house, sword, cloud. The bias is typically American, and so I am not surprised to learn from the contributers' bios that Moody is an MFA student at Rutgers University. She could not name the form of the last section of "Hungry Ghosts" but describes it as "constrained parameters in an ABA rhythm." ABA is not a rhythm, it is a rhyme scheme.

Moody grasps that my book should be read from beginning to end, and not be dipped into. She takes her own advice by beginning her review with an interpretation of the opening sequence "Hungry Ghosts." However, her reading of that Chinese homosexual history highlights only its "illicit love and sexual exploitation." She fails to see that if the Emperor has a male favorite ( a section from which she quoted), then homosexual love back then was not illicit, or at least, not merely so. She also fails to mention the committed and socially sanctioned relationship between two lovers in "He Bids Farewell to His Brotherly Lover" and the public entanglement of power and desire in "The Scholar-Minister Gives Career Advice." Instead, Moody sees only what most westerners see in gay culture: proscription and exploitation. She does not bring the right context to her reading of the poems, and is unable to generate that context--or at least an awareness of its difference--from her reading of the poems.

That inattention to context manifests itself in the writing of the review. When Moody quotes from my book, she often does not explain the poem's situation. The quotation from "Actual Landing" gives no clue to who "we" are. She quotes from "Razminovenie, or Nonmeeting" a quotation embedded in the poem but that quoted quotation would have been perfectly mysterious to someone who has not read the poem. One of the two quotations from "Hungry Ghosts" ends, and dangles, mid-phrase. The poem is not even allowed to contextualize itself.

Are there good things in the review? Moody points out the vital importance of the sea as a source of the poems. She also senses "the energy and mystery" that drive the book. But what to make of a sentence like "The poet writes to dominate the lines, but the writing sometimes dominates" coming after a discussion of the power of words to sustain love (in "Razminiovenie")? Or of the opening description of my poetry as "dynamic yet challenging," as if the two qualities are opposites? Perhaps Moody means "exciting but potentially offensive to readers who hate the idea of gay sex." Or "interesting but not as easy to read as People magazine." I don't know. It's hard to tell when a reviewer does not say what she means.


Eshuneutics said...

Oh for crying out loud, Jee. Everything changes and nothing changes. How often Pound blasted a literary world run by weak reviewers. You will know why I am frustrated to read this review...internet journals need to raise their standards! I am so sorry to see this review. It is ineffectual, ambiguous, and inept. You need a gay man...who understands your read your work carefully! This review, on the other hand, tells you something about your book: it isn't a general poetry volume requiring a general review.

Shropshirelad said...

Hi Jee,

I am not sure, as Ms. Moody suggests, your forms are rigid or that you are playing with forces your lines struggle to contain. Madame seems to be proselytizing for a different kind of verse in those remarks.

She approaches your work with the arched eyebrow of exegesis: a critical gesture that might have been more gainfully employed in assessing the contents of Baby Hands. From what I can tell, Baby Hands reads like baby's diaper.

The most instructive point in the review is when she examines your poem Hungry Ghosts. We learn that that poem takes the form of "constrained parameters in an ABA rhythm." While one is always gratified to find an MFA candidate who can make it past the first letter of the English alphabet, in this case, it is an emotion tinged by a sadness. I found myself wishing for more letters: ABA BCB CDC DED, so I could establish a pattern of thought. Terza rima. Dante Aligheri's signature form. Or is it rhythm?

On the plus side of the ledger, she did realize that your book might be read as a whole, organic work. She did notice the sea as a unifying leitmotif (a more musical term than trope, Madame, more suitable), which is good, since it looms so large both in Equal to the Earth, and on planet Earth itself. Hope is not lost.

I must disagree with you, Jee, however, when you chide Ms Moody for not saying what she means in her review of your work. I believe that she does say what she means. The trouble is, the means at her disposal are--let us be kind--somewhat-- limited.

As always,

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Eshu,
One cannot but keep hoping for a general audience (meaning straight AND gay). Thanks for commiserating.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Eric,
They are both evils, but not saying what one thinks is the greater one. I don't believe she said what she truly thought.

Pote said...

Jee, I've read many poets critiquing reviews (including Gilbert Koh's blog post about Nicholas's review) of their own books, but usually the critiques are an embarrassing display of insecurity and anger. Yours isn't, and one shouldn't expect any less of you.

I disagree with Eshuneutics: I don't think one needs to be gay to appreciate your work. (I haven't read Equal to the Earth, but I'm familiar with a large number of your poems.)

Also curious that she was unaware of emperors having male favourites. It was true of Indian kings as well.


Eshuneutics said...

Er, just to put the record correct (and this careless misreading is one of the aspects of blogging that irritates me intensely) I never said that the work was "gay". Jee lamented, here, that the book was reviewed by someone unqualified. I lament having words put in my mouth by someone who hasn't even read the volume! What is that worth? Perhaps, Miss Pote would like to review for CHA as well. My comment about needing a "gay" review was a joke-- Jee will understand--suggesting that, as a reader, with 33 years of poetry experience, familiar with all the gay and other references, and some of the gay allusions are not "general" reading fodder,I might just have done a better job than a rooky MFA student. And what I said at the end was that ETTE wasn't a "general" volume. ETTE is technical and is mature that sense, and that sense alone, is it specialised. It does, for example, require a reviewer to recognise the ironical distance created by using terza rima. Miss Pote brings her own prejudices to what I said...that rather shows her own lack of comprehension and limited understanding of criticism

Eshuneutics said...

Ah, I see that Aditi does review...for Mimesis indeed! I would have thought that she would have known better than to disagree over a book she has not read. It amazes me how so much can be known by those so seems to be a fault of more than a few internet journals. To return to Pound, he anticpated the dubious future of reviewing too.

Shropshirelad said...

I agree with Eshunuetics. ETTE is a technically proficient, highly accomplished book. It deserves better.

For me, as a reader, Ms Moody’s review in Cha failed because she failed to recognize the terza rima form in Hungry Ghosts. I mean, this piece has the Inferno written all over it, structurally and thematically. For some reason it was singled out for discussion by the reviewer. Why? Perhaps she is a poltergeist and the poem seemed vaguely familiar. Perhaps she found it pretty. How does it relate to the rest of the book? One can only speculate.

Really, how is a reader of a review supposed to take that review seriously when the reviewer can't even discern the surface contours of the poems under review? I mean, I know that Dante is not as obvious as Allen Ginsburg, or Billy Collins, but it is not as if Dante is an obscure writer. I understand, for many years, even in America, even in universities, even in New Jersey, Dante was considered an influential poet, or at least worthy of study. Robert Pinsky’s translation of Dante was actually a brisk bestseller here in the States a few years ago. What gives?

Perhaps before a reviewer reviews anything that reviewer should review the fundamentals of reading, or at least poetry. I can recommend an excellent primer: The ABC of Reading, by Ezra Pound.

Available from Amazon, of course, and in local libraries and book stores everywhere. Wherever books are amassed, or burned, or sold.

Asian Cha said...

We at Cha stand by our reviewers' work. The review of Equal of the Earth that Jee Leong Koh describes as offensive and highly negative was, to the contrary, positive, sensitive, and well-written. We acknowledge, however, that even a favourable review will disappoint a writer who believes himself misunderstood. Nonetheless, Moody’s identity–her position as a student, her nationality, her sex and her gender identity–are irrelevant to the discussion. A writer does not choose all his readers. The overall aim of the reviews section is to introduce literary works of quality to our readers; Moody has achieved that aim. A blog post like this shuts down rather than extends dialogue, and that runs contrary to what Cha stands for. Cha has published poetry by Jee Leong Koh in the past, because we admired the work which he sent to us. We wish him all the best with Equal to the Earth and all his future literary endeavours.

Cha Editorial Staff

Jee Leong Koh said...

Dear Cha Editorial Staff,
Can you point out in my blog post where I describe the review as (to quote you) "offensive and highly negative"? I point out in fact that the review was favorable to both books under review, but such a favorable opinion is worthless when the review itself is incompetent.

It is incompetent in the ways I describe in my post, and so I will not repeat them here. But I want to add that another sign of that incompetence is that the quotations of my poems were even formatted wrongly, with wrong linebreaks and indentations. I don't know if that mistake is the reviewer's or the editor's. You tell me.

My blog post does not shut down dialogue. On the contrary it implicitly invites you to reply to it. You have replied, but your reply does not address any of the problems I raised. I mention the reviewer's student status only as a possible reason for her ignorance (calling ABA a rhythm, for instance). I refer to her nationality only in connection with a common American misunderstanding of meter and rhyme. I did not, in my post, refer to her sex or gender identity; do not confuse me with people who comment on my blog.

Please do not hide behind false politeness. Address my objections. Either you reject them with good reasons or you accept them and apologize for an incompetent review.

theillusionoffreewill said...

Eshuneutics, your assessment of your own self-worth staggers belief. Any good points you make are unfortunately drowned like a cat by that huge chip on those little shoulders. I would love to agree with your statement that you 'might just have done a better job than a rooky MFA student' were it not for you misspelling 'rookie'. I will forgive you for what was hopefully a mere typo, just as I'm sure that you would forgive those poor little students who are not fit to lace your self-righteous boots.

'I lament having words put in my mouth by someone who hasn't even read the volume! What is that worth? Perhaps, Miss Pote would like to review for CHA as well.' Spitefulness is never an attractive sight, especially from a supposedly mature individual with thirty-three years poetry experience. I would have thought that so many years of reading the beautiful art would have produced a more rounded individual, and one less childish than yourself.

To then suggest that other people are showing their own prejudices, well, it seems that irony is completely lost on you, regardless of your own aspirations to understand it. Why do you feel you have to bring down those who are younger? What is it that your fear from young people trying to better themselves? Does it make you think that you are less of a man? Or is it a simple prejudice, that you don't like intelligent young women?

Your comments only serve to show that you are ageist, living in a world of your own, and to be frank, up your own arse. Instead of being hypercritical of what anyone says (and then stalking information about them on the internet, attacking them on a whim), and so so sensitive, chill out and take a humble pill; trust me, it would do you the world of good.

Pote said...


I'm sorry to have misunderstood your intent. It it was a joke, then I missed it entirely, and I'm sorry about that.

As for 'careless reading' --

1. 'I never said that the work was "gay".'

Neither did I, nor did I suggest it in anyway.

2. 'I lament having words put in my mouth by someone who hasn't even read the volume!'

I did not put anything in your mouth, I merely didn't get the joke. I also haven't said anything about the collection. If I had made comments about this particular work without having read it, then I would understand your anger. All I meant was that I've read a large number of Jee's poems (which are from ETTE and which aren't, I don't know) and I've never felt that I needed to be a gay man to appreciate them.

3. 'Ah, I see that Aditi does review...for Mimesis indeed!'

Wrong again. I do not review for Mimesis or any other journal. My work at Mimesis consists of reading submissions and sometimes soliciting work from writers I admire. In fact, Mimesis hasn't published any reviews in the recent past, although we're open to them.

I don't know what prejudices you're talking about. As I see it, this was a misunderstanding (and a rather small one at that) and misunderstandings are common enough on the internet. No need to make a mountain out of a molehill.


Pote said...


Sorry about this confusion! I didn't realise I was saying something so utterly offensive.

Good luck with the book, and always, my best,


Jee Leong Koh said...


I too did not get Eshuneutics' joke, though I really should have, knowing him better than you do. I'm sorry you should feel yourself attacked, when you wrote to support my critique of the CHA review.


Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi everyone,

Please keep the tone of this conversation civil. We can express ourselves forcefully (and wittily, I hope) without resorting to personal attacks. As theillusionoffreewill points out, the good points we make can be lost in the noise.

Shropshirelad said...

Dear Cha Editorial Staff,

It does seem strange to me, as a reader of Cha, that you would suggest that Mr. Koh's review of Ms Moody's review from Cha, and subsequent responses to that review, shut down dialogue. Your comment itself indicates, at least to me, that a dialogue is on-going.

Now, the terms of that discussion may be heated, sarcastic, and thoughtful by turns. An anonymous reader may argue, “Tough shit, cupcake, suck it up. That’s life.” We may fairly object his choice of vocabulary, if we wish. But to suggest, as you do, that Mr. Koh's post shuts down discussion and then participate in that discussion is to place more stress on the logical and semantic resources of the English language than they can be reasonably be expected to bear. In other words: the editors of Cha run a very real risk of looking silly.

What is not silly, however, and what does shut down discussion is declaring certain sensitive topics (sex, age, pedagogy) verboten. That is precisely what your remark, “Moody’s identity–her position as a student, her nationality, her sex and her gender identity–are irrelevant to the discussion,” attempts to do. From whence do the editors of Cha derive this right, usually reserved for kings and commissars?

This is a serious offense that strikes deeply at the heart of literature. It is an offense against the spirit of spirited inquiry among thinking people everywhere.

As an ordinary comment, one might be willing to dismiss it as merely disgusting. But as an example of editorial conduct, it is criminal.

Eshuneutics said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eshuneutics said...

Well, what's new? I would answer The Illusion of Free Will, but guess what? There is no blog. Just an illusion...another faceless wonder dropping by. Another tedious aspect of blogging: the comment without an identity. I have nothing against young people trying to better themselves...I have severe problems though with inexperienced people who wade into arguments expressing view-points based on misreadings. I made no point about age. I made a point about experience. (As did Jee, in relation to his review, so I suppose he is ageist too). Of course, Aditi never said the work was "gay". The allegation was that I said ETTE was "gay poetry" and it could best be read, therefore, by a gay man and wasn't "poetry". That's a highly contentious statement to attach to someone and quite dangerous in the field of "gay" poetics. I suspect, however, Aditi, would not be familiar with that particular field. As a matter of interest, what does the argument have to do with a faceless blogger? Just a desire to stir up trouble? Jee-- I am surprised that you considered this comment worth publishing. It introduces all kinds of nonsense...I dislike women...I dislike intelligent women...I see women (as a gay man) as a threat to my masculinity. None of this was ever said. It is all read into the comment by someone showing their own anti-gay prejudices. Come on Jee! I am equally surprised that you did not get the joke: I was of course referring to that fully comprehensive review of your poetry which you know is written and waiting, which you also know argues that your poetry is not "gay" and does not require a simple "gay" reading...the very point that I also made on LULU in a review of ETTE. Now, I will re-iterate my point. My comment was a comment to Jee. It wasn't made for someone dropping in to take issue with. Why do bloggers assume that every comment made on a civilised blog is somehow a comment for them to take issue with? Do they barge into private conversations they hear elsewhere? As for "stalking" information, what a load of nonsense. It took the click of a mouse on a comment link. Unlike Illusion, I prefer to have some idea of the person before I reply and in this case, no matter how much Aditi runs backwards, she is wrong in every respect! It is bad critical practice to discuss things you have not read...and when the discussion is about a WHOLE volume and how to read it...or misread it...and the content of that work, context and does knowing a few poems help? Jee, what good points does illusion of free will make? There are no critical points in the comment, just a lot of abuse. Do tell me (off have my email and home address) what they are? My remarks to Aditi were to the mark: if you want to disagree make sure you have your facts right. Period. As for the remarks from Illusion, they do your literary blog no favours, Jee. Ilusion omits the main issue. Has s/he bothered to read you volume? I doubt it. There is certainly no engagement with the work.Aditi hasn't. Obviously, though she likes your work, it wasn't worth buying. As for I, and Eric, we did buy it, and read it studiously... Bravo Eric, right or wrong, who cares, though I think he is right in almost every respect, for he does at least read you work with close scrutiny.

theillusionoffreewill said...

Eshuneutics, you are right, I do not have a blog as such. I'm a bit old-fashioned when it comes to reading/writing, however, I have enjoyed reading blogs in recent times.

At no time - in my previous comment - did I mention your sexual preferences. Even if I were to look up information about you, your sexual preference would not be top of my list of things to know. Therefore, just to clear things up, my comment was written with no assumptions of your sexuality. Yet, you have turned it around, so as to suggest that I am making an anti-gay comment, which is insulting. I'm sure you must know that there are many heterosexual males who have problems with young intelligent women. So my comment stands, no matter your sexuality. 'It is all read into the comment by someone showing their own anti-gay prejudices.' Let's hope you misread me, and are not sinking so low as to use such a statement to discredit what I said. Of course, I am not you, I will not make a big deal of you misreading me.

'My comment was a comment to Jee. It wasn't made for someone dropping in to take issue with. Why do bloggers assume that every comment made on a civilised blog is somehow a comment for them to take issue with? Do they barge into private conversations they hear elsewhere?' I thought this was a public blog, and not one confined to just you and Jee. So, what is the problem with Aditi saying she disagrees with you? You see this as an invasion of your privacy? Yet, I'm sure if she was agreeing with you, you would have no such issues of her barging in, as you put it. And let's get to the crunch here: your first comment with it's allusions to humour was far from it. How could you possibly think that anyone reading 'You need a gay man...who understands your read your work carefully!' would be able to psychically understand the context of what you were saying. Even Jee did not comprehend your humour, intitially. So for you to then castigate Aditi for misreading you, when the context of your comment was far from clear in the first place, is very harsh. And the fact you cannot see that, or admit that you are wrong, says a lot about you.

And yes, perhaps my comment was off-topic, but it was a product of what the original blog has produced in comments, and Jee is quite right to publish it, as he is all for extending dialogue, and this dialogue has come from his original post.

As for the faceless blogger comment, I can give Jee my email and you can reply to me in private, if you prefer (part of the reason why I did not look up information on you is that I knew you could not do the same for me, which is unfair, thus at the moment, you are as faceless to me as I am to you).

Finally, you are right, I am new to Jee's work. I came across him in the Cha review that this blog is all about (whatever is said about the review, it is still publicity and sure to bring attention to the author, as proved somewhat by me commenting here now). However, I'm sure you'll agree that Jee is permitted to have new readers, and their comments (enter Aditi) whether right or wrong may be valuable to him in the feedback process.

Jee Leong Koh said...

I am going to respectfully turn the conversation back to my original post on the CHA review. If you want to continue the dialogue started in the comments, please email me to contact the other person.

CHA reviewer Moira Moody emailed me yesterday to say she "regrets" (her word) misquoting my book, and the errors were being corrected. She also acknowledged not knowing terza rima but was "challenged and impressed" by what the book accomplished.

I just checked the CHA review. They have corrected the wrong indentations in "The Emperor's Male Favorite." But they have not corrected the wrong linebreak in the "Hungry Ghosts" quotation, nor provided the missing context for the other quotations.

I thank Moira Moody for writing me, but wish that the CHA Editorial Staff who defended the review in these blog comments would now explain himself here. I'm sorry to put CHA on the spot like this, but he (or she) should understand that I care about my work at least as much as he does about the journal. And caring means doing the best job possible.

Eshuneutics said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eshuneutics said...

Well, Jee, I hope you had a pleasant Thanksgiving over there in the USA. There's enough nonsense here from Illusion, now, to stuff a very large turkey. CHA has become a storm in a tea-cup. You disappoint me in your toleration of such "off topic" nonsense. I've said that privately and will now say it publicly, as a final comment.