Koh Jee Leong, Steep Tea, 2015, Carcanet Press
When The Financial Times listed Koh Jee Leong’s fifth and latest collection of poetry as a force to be reckoned with, many cheered the news. Yet another Singaporean success, they said. It was true—but it also wasn't. Koh is exactly the sort of person who would have had difficulty making a home out of our country. Written in New York, Steep Tea seems to be proof that moving away aids in one’s poetic search for identity.
In his fifth collection, every single poem is prefaced with a quotation. At first they appear to serve no purpose other than as vaguely referential one-liner sources of inspiration. After all, when one is ushered into the book with an opening title like “Eve’s Fault”, succeeded by a self-explanatory “Eve, whose only fault was too much love”, the only morsel of curiosity left is to see how Koh has adapted the hyperbole of Aemilia Lanyer’s “too much love”.
But is it hyperbole? For Koh goes on to craft a beautiful poem that reimagines Eve’s relationship with God, the serpent and Adam: the first a winsome and charismatic lover, the second a “quieter fellow” inclined to self-sacrifice, and the third an oafish dimwit. Because Eve “needed Adam’s need, so different from God’s and the snake’s”—because she craved his love—Eve’s punishment is rewritten. And her hunger for affection becomes her eternal banishment. Too much love is therefore no exaggeration; when it happens, “she [will discover] herself outside the garden”.
As one continues to work through the collection, the quotations quickly grow to assert their presence on the page. They start off simply as signposts; sounding boards. When we first perceive an anglicised alien word, the quote masquerades as definition (“The Xpakinté is not really a person, / although she looks like a woman”). When his quote of choice suggests, “The body is a source. Nothing more”, he agrees: “I too compare my life frequently to a river”.
When the italicised line becomes a sound bite, as in “this dissension into fish or birds”, Koh can't quite decide between the swimming carp or the predatory kingfisher. They are chopped up instruction manuals. They are neon lit street signs.
But they also open up alternate paradigms of possibilities for the reader: if you had encountered this quote first, what would you have done with it? One of the most beautiful aspects of Koh’s poetry is how the (Singaporean) reader both accepts and rejects the stories at once. Did you read Lee’s “My Country and My People” and reminisce about the days of “[growing] a bean plant/ as a school science project”? Or “[did] you keep chicks/ (all the children did) as if/ you were back in the village?” Does the small but firm voice between his parentheses resonate? Koh’s words are at once personal and distinct, detailing a slice of life that wasn't yours but that gestures towards an act of hazy remembrance, the same way you light up in recognition of a song you thought you had long forgotten.
This series of quotable quotes finally ushers in the ultimate question of identity. Is identity singular or are we all fragments of each other, of those both before and around us? In Steep Tea, there are corners and cities marked out in name, failed and present relationships, libraries and bric-a-brac, strangers and family, and even “Koon Meng who called himself Christopher”. We must ask: are these the things that identity is composed of? And even as we make ourselves out of these flashing images, let us also not forget the variously scattered shards of poetry. All journeys and travails in this collection allude to this quest to seek poetic identity as the quotes now graduate into building blocks.
By re-presenting identity as kaleidoscopic, a singular point at once so focused and yet so bursting with brilliance into a thousand other reflections, Koh argues for its simultaneous existence between stasis and continuity. Identity, in Steep Tea, is established and inherited, self-made and parasitic. This he does by reconciling what is often disparate (and difficult to articulate). It is impossible to be convinced, for instance, that “Singapore Buses Are Very Reliable” at the same time that your mother “fell/ from a bus” and “couldn't get up/ right away.” Nor is it possible to learn how to give credit when “where I came from/ everyone plagiarised” or when “Sometimes I cannot find out who first wrote the words I wrote.” We cannot fully claim us for ourselves, but neither do we know whom or what to attribute our makeup to. The parasitism is incessant, renewed, and self-imbibed: “Often the words I write have confusing beginnings.”
Consequently Koh never trespasses that boundary beyond which lies absolute certainty. To not know it all is precisely part of the growth process, a continual search for answers. The subdued voice of Steep Tea quietly narrates from the streets (“We found him among the small antique shops/ in the Soho district of Hong Kong”), from moments in the room (“careful not to disturb the stolen time in the chair”), each poem an attempt at finding his place in a world wracked with post-colonialism and heteronormative expectations.
While all this makes sense so far, trailing behind him on this personal process can at times prove bewildering. It is difficult to imagine him searching for answers to post-colonialism when he writes from the rooms of New York (“Second Avenue and East Houston”); already it is a language shaped by influences foreign to Singapore. He also seizes specific moments of his relationships to dwell over, and while they carry depths of emotion, the poetry can and often remains inaccessible to a reader whose own intimacies have a less international landscape.
But maybe Koh gets that there are no answers, only questions that yield different answers. “You go where?” he questions in “Singapore Catechism” like a grandparent hard of hearing, reminding us that we have our own variety of responses.
Koh asks in Steep Tea, over and over again, who are you in life, and where are you going from here - and each time he expects a different answer. No less.
Steep Tea is now available online from Carcanet Press and as an ebook from Kobobooks.