Friday, November 30, 2018

Book Review: 'Seven Studies for a Self Portrait' by Jee Leong Koh

Jee Leong Koh is one of the more sensitively creative poets writing today. Those who have read his ecstatically beautiful collection of his poems - EQUAL TO THE EARTH - know his talent well. But with this new collection - SEVEN STUDIES FOR A SELF PORTRAIT - he introduces even more evidence that not only is he a poet of great style and substance, but his is also a painter of poetic images whose core is self investigation and observation with few peers.

Technically speaking this book of poems is divided into seven sections. The first section 'Seven Studies for a Self Portrait' is a set of ekphrastic poems (Note: Ekphrasis is the graphic, often dramatic description of a visual work of art. In ancient times it referred to a description of any thing, person, or experience) - each 'Study' referencing a painter (Dürer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Schiele, Kahlo, Warhol, Morimura) in which he defines himself in the style of each painter. An example follows:
Study #4: Egon Schiele

Look at me, cock in my claws,
combcrimson from scratching.
Skinny arms kink around my back
but can't kill the screeching itch.
The hand can't scratch its bones.
I snap off the blackened arrows
but their featherless beaks stab
the crying katydids, their broken
feet catch in the scattered flesh.
I stretch the canvas on the rack.

The second section, 'Profiles', are free verse in form, interrelated and titled 'He Went', 'He Liked', 'He Had', 'He Knew', 'He Remembered', 'He Watched', and 'He Danced':
He Remembered

He estimated the cab fare
from sugar to quietus,
and carried the metal sum in his mouth
when he took his first trick home.
He still remembered the man
had excellent teeth, and how sweet
the stirring, and then
the disappearing

'I am my names' forms the third section where in seven poems he poses descriptions and follows each with a last line such as 'My names is Answer. I am a son.' or 'My name is Variable. I am a Chinese.' as though he has created riddles and then given us the answer. The next section, 'What we call vegetables' is a series of poems obeying many of the rules of sonnet writing, but breaking them into seven instead of fourteen lines, as in 'Stem':

We spar, we spear
softly, secretly,
your gut. We spare

most of you
our acrid smell.
A few get us.

Asparagus, Proust
says, perfumes
his chamber pot.

As do doctors.
As do saints.

And he then offers us full sonnets in the sections 'Translations of an Unknown Mexican Poet' and 'Bull Ecologues', and completes his collection with what for this reader is the most emotionally charged and eloquent section, 'A Lover's Recourse', a series of forty nine ghazals (Note: 'a ghazal is a poetic form consisting of rhyming couplets and a refrain, with each line sharing the same meter. A ghazal may be understood as a poetic expression of both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain. The form is ancient, originating in 6th century Arabic verse.') It is in these poems that Jee Leong Koh rhapsodizes on his sexuality and the result is an examination of the scope of joy and pain that love touches.

In another poet's hands these repeated collections of sevens, each section drawing on the study of poetic forms, would be considered an academic braggadocio, evidence that the poet knows his craft and must prove it. Not with Jee Leong Koh: each section teaches us, yes, but also bathes us in profound thoughts and emotions that just happened to be contained and controlled in forms the poet uses the way a painter changes brushes and media and pigment. Brilliant! The book design, multiple photographic fragments of the artist’s face, both photographed and designed by Stephanie Bart-Horvath is stunning. 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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