Jee Leong Koh’s “Equal to the Earth”

Jee Leong Koh, Equal to the Earth, Bench Press, 2009 $15.00

There’s something to get out of the way before we get to the poetry itself—Jee Leong Koh’s Equal to the Earth is self-published. Self-publication still has a bad reputation in many quarters, and certainly this reviewer has gone with a traditional publisher for his own books. In this book’s case, though, any po-biz snobbishness that would dismiss Koh’s book for its manner of publication would be self-defeating in the way that most snobbishness is—Koh is one of the best up-and-coming poets we’ve got in terms of relationships. And he happens to approach them from the perspective of a gay man.

Yes, there’s a fair bit of sex in Koh’s collection, as with the main character in “Blowjob”:

the boy, now a man, who described to me a blowjob,
what I already knew but let you go on and on
for I saw you enjoyed drawing from me the filament
of illicit thrill (your wiry dark limbs were my thrill).

The character describing the blowjob, however, is a heterosexual describing a blowjob from his girlfriend, and while Koh’s narrative voice is drawn to him, it’s not only (or even necessarily primarily) about sex, but rather that the character’s life—hopping from place to place, job to job—contrasts starkly with the narrator’s “sterile office with its unforgiving/light.” Sex is an important part of human experience for Koh, and one of his strengths as a poet is his ability to weave sex into the broader context of life.

This, indeed, includes Koh’s life as a poet. A sonnet called “Thank You, Thank You” skillfully compares romantic rejection to “Different types/of no to poems posted with thirtynine cent hopes.” For Koh, talking about sex is an inherent part of talking about life, as he notes in a gently mocking section of “Talk about New York”:

we shall not talk about sex. We shall not talk
about that Arab waiter we both eyed at Tutt
or the pale woman at the harpsichord my gut
yearned for so much I couldn’t talk. This is New York

where, if we shan’t talk about sex, we shan’t talk
about the beautiful black man on the F train
ranting, I’ll kill ya, black bitch, to the windowpane
of every face. We shall talk, instead, about New York.

The subtlety and complexity, the sparkle of Koh’s wit, his awareness of the world around the given relationships (which are not always romantic) frankly beat the living crap out of what one might call the Joanie Loves Chachi School of poetry about relationships.