Jee Leong Koh’s “Equal to the Earth”

Compare the overrated Chelsea Rathburn’s conclusion of her poem “To a Crumbling House,” a meditation on a run-down house that, ultimately, reminds the narrator and her significant other:

…to hold dear
beautiful failures of our own design,
and love the lives we build and make them sweet,
which all the time are tumbling to our feet.

to the underrated Koh’s conclusion to “Approaching Thirtyseven,” in which the narrator, having left his ex-boyfriend asleep, concludes:

In the interval between sex and poetry lies death.
The freshman intuits that. Which is why he begs
for the gloved fist to enter him again and again.

Rathburn’s ending is technically skillful but ultimately pat. It has the answer—and isn’t it inspirational? If you like that kind of thing, you’re welcome to it, I guess. Koh’s conclusion, though, lets the darkness in and has the courtesy, indeed honesty not to dispel it. He doesn’t flinch and make his “beautiful failures” into something “sweet” (barf!), but rather reveals not just a man newly out of a relationship, but a man at a certain point in his life, trying to balance his obsessions—a desire for long-term companionship, a drive to hone the craft of poetry, and a yearning for “the unchanging arms of casual sex.” Though often introspective, Koh’s poems are rarely solipsistic.

Equal to the Earth is, in many ways, a confessional book; Koh (or someone very like him) is always strongly present in these poems, whether as himself or in persona. But the obsessions of the moment are a way of exploring not only his inner life, but his surroundings, both in terms of his Singaporean heritage and his current residence in the New York City area. It’s not a shocking collection, but it’s not a safe one, either. Koh is smart enough to know that the value of talking about one’s self lies in the complexity of the human being, physically, emotionally, socially, and he brings all of these to bear in this book.

The result is one of the most satisfying debut collections I have read in some time. Koh is a poet not only to watch, but read.