Book review: Jee Leong Koh's poems grapple with fathers and legacy

Jee Leong Koh's Inspector Inspector is a robust, assured collection from a mature poet with a sound grasp of traditional poetic form. PHOTOS: CARCANET PRESS, ST FILE

Inspector Inspector

By Jee Leong Koh
Poetry/Carcanet/Paperback/88 pages/$25.24/Buy here
4 out of 5

Singapore-born, New York-based poet Jee Leong Koh responded to the voices of women poets in his 2015 volume Steep Tea. His latest outing, Inspector Inspector, turns its gaze to fathers literal and metaphorical.

The poet's late father is the book's absent centre, but the book traces other lines of lineage and legacy too - from the poet Cyril Wong, in Squatting Quietly, to the founding fathers and forerunners in Likelihood.

This is a robust, assured collection from a mature poet with a sound grasp of traditional poetic form - and, crucially, a willingness to experiment with it. Here and elsewhere in his oeuvre - not least the hybrid fiction work Snow At 5pm: Translations Of An Insignificant Japanese Poet (2020) - his ambitions are plain to see.

Inspector Inspector contains an intriguing series of poems titled Palinode In The Voice Of My Dead Father (I-XIII).

Each composed of two-line stanzas, they move along like hesitant half-steps, or beads in a rosary, caught between assertion and effacement, supplication and retraction. Who is speaking to whom?

Then there are poems from A Simple History Of Singaporeans In America, inspired by overseas sons and daughters of Singapore such as author Kevin Kwan and former porn actress Annabel Chong. The one responding to ceramicist Wee Hong Ling begins thus: "On a Nasa scholarship to map the world,/she walked into a workshop on a whim/to throw a lump of clay on a wheel and feel/a foggy, quiet, pink, revolving world..."

Turn by turn the poem takes shape, throwing up the odd surprise.

Koh, who is openly gay, has also written a series of erotic sonnets which appear in the collection.

These read like the work of an artist who knows exactly what he is doing - from the half-thrusts of one poem about Mike to one that traps a Romeo in a stanza. "It is only after marrying that our lovers find,/at one tragic finish, one another in a tomb."

Inspector Inspector makes for pleasurable reading, although this reviewer was less enamoured with Viewing Martin Ramirez At The American Folk Art Museum After A Night Of F***ing In A Lycra Suit, whose anagrammatic wordplay came off as a bit gimmicky.

The most powerful poem in this book, The Reply, appears at the end. It is a moving exploration of love and grief, and the relationship between father and son.

Koh's narrator tries to rub out the "lie" in the reply, to subject everyone to the same hard, honest gaze.

The dead father, "looking oddly like bread", awaits the cremation oven. Koh, meanwhile, acknowledges his own artistic pretensions: "There I go, showing off my learning/and irreverence, there I go again,/poetrying. I'm still answering my aunts/and dear uncles, who are dying, dead,/or softening to the middle of their heads."

The poem exemplifies, perhaps, what it means to strain under the weight of great expectations and fall short: "Let this be the brother,/the guilty brother, to the dead and gone,/the reply a replacement for other ones,/the movie you and I've together caught,/the son you have for the sons you have not."

A final, posthumous blow.

If you like this, read: Snow At 5pm: Translations Of An Insignificant Japanese Poet (Gaudy Boy, 2020, $32.78, buy here), Koh's hybrid work of poetry and fiction that was recently shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize.

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