Equal to the Earth – Jee Leong Koh (Bench Press)

Buy it Now from Bench Press.

The stark simplicity of the geographic formations which adorn the cover of Singapore-born poet Jee Leong Koh’s Equal to the Earth has much in common with the poems inside. They are products of their environment – rooted and grounded in water, earth and air –and all the more beautiful for it.

Koh draws inspiration from many events and people to create his word scenes, but none are more vivid than the poetry he draws from places. From Lachine Canal, Montreal to Nebraska City to Montauk to the ubiquitous New York City, Koh reveals his interior by the examination of his exterior surroundings.

Particularly interesting is “Fire Island,” a suite of seven poems inspired by that locale and have some beautifully vivid ocean imagery as well as a wonderful piece called “Cherry’s Bar after Frank Bidart,” which tosses lines from Keats’ unfinished Hyperion and an onstage breakdown from a drag queen named Ginger into the Mixmaster to come up with a thoughtful rumination on the (non) difference between art and feeling.

If Koh isn’t quite as experimental in other places, his mastery of more prosaic forms of poetry is always in evidence. He turns down the advances of an older man at a dance bar in “New Year Resolution,” who dances away to another, younger man.

                                                                      I know that hurricane. It starts as breath

                                                                      one grows aware of breathing, then it blows

                                                                      one all over the landscape till one pierces

                                                                      something that holds, a tree, say, while it blows

                                                                      itself out. Blown like that, I hung to you

                                                                      too long, mistaking loneliness for love.

We’ve all been caught up in that wind once or twice, haven’t we? Koh displays a sure hand with these situations, from the surrealist danger of “Glass Orgasm” to the playful “If the Fire is in Your Apartment” to the casually horny sex poetry of “Blowjob” and “Chapter Six: Anal Sex.” Nowhere are his metaphors too obscure or his similes stretched too far to be recognizable.

All of which brings me back to my original thought. Koh’s work is based on a solid foundation; underpinned by a love of language and an uncluttered vision. Truly earthy, even when it’s dirty. And in the world of poetic ephemera, that’s quite refreshing. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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