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.