E.J. Koh, A Lesser Love, Pleiades Press £12.75
E.J. Koh’s A Lesser Love is the prize winner of the Pleiades Press Editors Prize for Poetry and comes with back cover puffs from D.A. Powell and Timothy Donnelly. It contains a wide range of poems, registers and style. And it also contains a lot of anger, not only in the events the poems report, but also in the language used in a number of the poems; Koh is never afraid to be explicit, and rarely pulls her punches. There is a lot of what might be called ‘passive aggression’ in these poems.
That might not seem much of a recommendation; Koh is clearly determined to ‘tell it like it is’. However, with that determination there is, actually, no sense of ‘…and damn the consequences’. Koh is clearly aware of the consequences. She is clearly aware of the acute difficulties of squaring the circles of culture clash and intercultural communication. Koh writes from the standpoint of the first and second generation Korean immigrant to the United States. And many of the poems in the book explore the legacy of both immigration and the historical relationship of the whole Korean peninsular to the United States. This latter relationship is, clearly, seen from the standpoint of someone with roots in South Korea. But Koh’s empathy is such that she can see how ‘all sides’ were effected by the conflict.
That range of complexity is shown in the very first poem in the book, ‘Showtime’,
Something I say beforehand:
Jal butak hapnida.
This translates into, Please be kind to me
but it suggests:
Even if I shame myself,
please be kind to me.
In the mirror, it means:
Even inside my greatcoat
of conscience, drunk and white,
please be kind to me.
Given the rest of the powerful emotion on display in this book, this poem is a good place to start. It does not, I would suggest, mean that Koh is engaged in special pleading with the reader. My interpretation is that in what follows in the book, some of that anger needs to be seen as the writer tussling with their own vision. And that this vision might actually be a complex of conscience, a kind of emotional inebriation/uncertainty and a particular ethnicity.
Koh can also to reach out through that anger to events on a major scale in Korea itself. And she has that rare ability to make poetry which is both sparse enough and concentrated enough to allow the reader to both immerse themselves in the experience as well allowing the experience to resonate in language. In ‘South Korean Ferry Accident’, Koh describes the Incheon Ferry disaster, of April 2014. Koh begins by simply listing the casualties; 276 Dead (232 Students) 28 Missing (Underwater) 1 Rescued Found Dead (Suicide). In the third section of the poem, Koh writes, ‘the mother of a deceased boy dove into the ocean. / the officers fetched her out, and she appeared on television, // saying, “My son is in that dark and cold water.” / A volunteer committed suicide. The prime minister stepped down.’ This writing is so unadorned as to seem almost like reportage. And yet, Koh’s spacing of the words on the page, the rhythm which she gives them allows the words to have resonance and depth.
In the midst of ‘South Korean Ferry Accident’, Koh works the poem to another area in which she shows particular skill, that of the family and the domestic. Koh shows how, in the life of the immigrant, the familial and the political of intimately entwined, ‘My parents are crying in the other room, “Why / didn’t the students jump into the water?// Americans would’ve jumped.” It is Koh’s ability to pick out the telling moments where the personal is the political which makes these lines so poignant. If selectivity is one of the necessary skills of a poet then Koh certainly has that skill.
That selectivity and the directness of the writing often combine in this book to create poems of great fierceness, as I have attempted to show. In the final section of the book, ‘Love’, Koh combines these three attributes: selectivity, directness and fierceness, to both show and dissect the processes of love. That dissection creates poems with are apiece with the individuality of the other poems in the book. Here, Koh goes inside relationships to show both their complexity and their appeal. In ‘Valentine Chapter’, Koh writes,
I ask, Would you kill my father to have me?
Of Course, you say. This minute, you smell
of red ginseng. I ask how you could be with me,
How could you forgive me; I can change.
You look up and say, I am patient. I can take the lives
you couldn’t live and hold them in my arms.
Behind the dialogue, which is, in its own way, dextrous and piercing, there are the small physical details of the smell and the Other looking up. Koh creates a whole scenario here in a way which brings the relationship alive in all its complexity and depth, as she does throughout this charged and rewarding book.
by Ian Pople