Thursday, October 19, 2017

Book Review: 'Equal to the Earth' by Jee Leong Koh

Poet Jee Leong Koh wanders the globe as well as the gamut of feelings associated with that most nebulous of nouns, ‘love’, in this collection of poems EQUAL TO THE EARTH. The mood for these sensitively sculpted poems is set by the book’s cover photograph (by Kent Mercurio) of corporeal stones advancing a horizon line where water meets the sky, introducing the reader to the poet’s experience of migrating, encountering, celebrating and responding to the five phases into which this book is extended – historical, geographical, sexual/romantic, communal, and searching for the counter forces/pressures of living.

Born in Singapore to Chinese parents Koh was educated in that former British Colony, still divided into four sectors – British/European, Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian - absorbing the experience of transplantation from his familial background of China with the flavors of Singapore’s multicultural aroma. Early recognized as an exceptional student he traveled to England to read English at Oxford, teaching English in secondary schools before transferring residence to New York to study Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence College. He currently teaches English in an independent school in New York City while he pursues his life as an award-winning poet.

Koh writes poems that admix his ethnic matrix with his bilingual facility and adds the element of his sexuality to make some of the more intriguing, brave, at times acerbic, at times needy poems that express not only his own reaction to the cycle of life and love, but also guidelines and seductive comments about traversing the maze of contemporary relationships, especially those of same sex origin.
Childhood Punishments

Once, when I struck a boy, my father raised a belt
in the small, smelly bedroom my grandfather slept in.
The studded leather trap snapped, and snapped, and the welts answered
in a stinging song to the strong silent man.

Not so when my angry mother rubbed my tongue
with fresh cut chili for inventing fine new lies.
The fruit stung me to blubber volubly my wrong
and beg her to stop. That sissy I despise

and wonder whether the red chili’s hot dry mouth
or the dark gleaming length of the worn leather strap
poisoned far more the part of man the child would be.
I confess, father, I worship a man’s brute strength,
and in the massive words I start, stutter, and stop
have too little regard, Mother, for honesty.

Jee Leong Koh may have seized upon some of the more challenging statements of being gay in a world unsure of its acceptance, but he also demonstrates in this collection of his poetry that there are few emotions his graceful use of words cannot explore. He is an important poet worthy of wide attention. Grady Harp, November 16

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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