Reviews / September 2015 (Issue 29)

On Arrival and Return: Jee Leong Koh and Collier Nogues

by Antony Huen

Image  Image

Jee Leong Koh, Steep Tea, Carcanet Press, 2015. 72 pgs.
Collier Nogues, The Ground I Stand On is Not My Ground, Drunken Boat, 2015. 76 pgs.


In Steep Tea, Jee Leong Koh, a Singaporean poet now residing in New York City, demonstrates his fascination with woman poets, quoting their writing and rethinking their ideas. Every poem begins with a quote from his many muses, including Eavan Boland and Elizabeth Bishop, whom he cites as his "poetic mothers" in a blog entry he wrote for his publisher, Carcanet. In this his fourth collection, Koh's personal poems express his many delicate emotions from being true to himself while living away from home to reminiscing about his Asian roots. In every word and image, as well as form, he exudes the same degree of subtlety, imagination and alertness to the many contexts he writes in.

The opening poem, "Eve's Fault," foreshadows Koh's many efforts at alluding to feminist ideas in order to bring forward missing perspectives in the discourse of love. The retelling of the biblical tale originates from the historical judgment of Eve's curiosity. Originally her decision to pick the apple was seen as her fault, but as is suggested in the poem, Eve might well be blamed for her love instead. The irony lies in the double meaning of "fault" (as both culpability and weakness) and how her need for Adam leads to their being banished from the garden.

Throughout the collection, how the voice of a female character remains unheard by the patriarchy lays the basis for many poems in which the writer reflects on being gay in face of the misunderstandings his coming out would engender. Romance between two men is first narrated in "You Know, Don't You." In the opening stanza, the personae sets the stage:

This is the story of a man and a man,
not found in Eden, perhaps in Uruk,
but really in a bar at Second Avenue
and East Houston, near the F train stop.

What follows is arguably a first-person view of a bar scene, which describes its patrons as storytellers composing myths that form an even bigger myth of how all stories can be created. The focus of the poem is clearly on the "what they told themselves." Although the writer never explicitly gives us the why for the many tales told that night, in the end we learn that the storytellers are ultimately moved by the "torrential air" of love and sex:

Listen, they're asking where the other lives.
They're edging their stories past the past
and making them up presently as they leave
the bar. What do they think they're doing?
I don't know. The waves rise again and crash
over them, as they flag down a cruising cab.
The torrential air, invisible and powerful,
drives them in, and slams the door after them.

By its very nature, love is breathed in and out in the air, inexplicable but omnipresent, felt and experienced by everyone, regardless of sexuality. Throughout the first half of the collection, there is little effort made towards a strong refutation of the common misconceptions about homosexuality. What the writer does instead is bring justice to unheard female voices, sometimes connecting them to personal stories to illustrate how the same feelings of affection can be felt by all types of loving couples. Take, for example, "domed/doomed/deem'd," in which the personae's experience of reading the poems of Lady Mary Wroth under a reading light results in him musing about the nature of his own relationship and of love generally: "I am more than the heart, more than a reading light,/ this coffee, this sighing, this darkness, is love too."

The second half of the book deals less with love and more with the writer's recollections of his past in Singapore, many of which are of his mom, the most significant of his "poetic mothers." A quote from Koh in an interview with the Lantern Review Blog explains the reason for including poems about his past: "Singapore will not go away. I need distance from it to write about it …"

The book's later poems also demonstrate further experimentation with form. "Steep Tea," the title poem, might just be the wittiest in its attempt at kasen renga, a kind of Japanese collaborative poetry. The liberties the writer and his co-writer take with the genre enhance the whimsy of an autumn indulgence in nostalgia and fantasies about Japan. The poem also hints at Koh's mixed feelings about leaving his family and fits into the larger theme of the collection—how being in a new place renders him critical of his past but also awakens his true identity.


If Koh's collection provides an investigation of living abroad, Collier Nogues's second book, The Ground I Stand on Is Not My Ground, is about what strikes her on a return home, responding to an instinctive call to study the backdrop of her upbringing. It provides another example of how poets can confront their past by drawing on materials they resonate with.

In The Ground I Stand On, which won the 2014 Drunken Boat Poetry Book Contest, Nogues, who grew up on a U.S. military base on Okinawa, explores the effect the Pacific War has had on the island through a collection of erasure poems on and against war. What is distinctive about her book is that all the poems have been created by erasing elements from documents related to the war and its aftermath, and that all of these documents can be easily accessed on the collection's companion website via QPR code. This creates a dual experience where a reader can compare an adapted piece with its original text.

The most intriguing aspect of this creative project might be how the poet extracts her understanding of war from old and official materials. It all begins with the uncanny feeling expressed in the opening piece about the island, the ground the poet returns to, a ground that does not, or may never have belonged to her. The entire book then reads as a sequence, consisting of different voices and events and the personae's epiphany upon her return to her childhood home as a grown-up.

In "The Americans in Japan," the second poem, a horrific battle scene is described:

But then arrived the rain,
                           the glare
perpetually of freshly dead marines
their uniforms aglitter with the usual
I didn't die,
but was invited to.

The erasure which has formed this irregular stanza, as in many other cases in the collection, adds to the effect created by the diction and imagery. The first line sets up a rainy scene, followed by an empty space that accentuates "the glare" of the dead marines, their uniforms glittering with "red," the colour made more prominent by the one-word line. Despite their death, what the battle does not take away from the casualties is their perpetual anger, recaptured by the ending declaration. The erasure is so effective here because—even while the genre limits the poet's choice of words and constricts the poem's construction—Nogues has skilfully used the official documents to create a disturbing scene of great verisimilitude.

The second last poem, "Day Trip,"—which explores a soldier's return to an Okinawan battle field years later—seems to be the only euphonic piece in the collection, and one which at first appears to promise harmony and hope. But the poem, positioned after many critical narratives on warfare, does not in the end offer a happy ending. It finishes on an ambivalent note, preparing for the finale of the sequence, teasing the book's ultimate judgment of war.

Forrest Gander, who selected The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground for the Drunken Boat Poetry Book Contest, finds it "an intense meditation on war." As a poetry book, it realises Nogues's wish to trace her personal history and simultaneously question the inhumane effects of war. Her poetry deserves our best attention.

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