"Payday Loans" By Jee Leong Koh
Poets Wear Prada, 2007
While reading Jee Leong Koh's first book of poems, Payday Loans, I felt I was encountering an important new poet. The book is organized as a month-long diary of sonnets, and it is an amazing juggling act between the post-modern and the traditional/the colloquial and the academic. Each sonnet is a kind of TV set filled with contemporary references like the "Coke-drinking economist," "styrofoam," the fall of Baghdad, the death of the Pope, etc. However, Payday Loans is also laced with literary allusions. The book begins with an epigraph from Paul Goodman and alludes to poets as disparate as Milton and Kooser, Hart Crane and Collins, Rumi and Rich.
The government of Singapore banned the reading of one of these poems, "April 13," which begins, "Come on, straight boy, and make gay love with me." I have the feeling that it is not the gay content that threatened the powers that be but the bisexual nature of the exhortation. The poem hits too close to home as Jee Leong Koh suggests that human beings should explore their full sexual nature: "One night of loving will not turn you queer,/if queer is what you will not bend to be." Many gay people, I think, also might find this piece problematic in that it suggests one's sexuality is, in a sense, chosen.
As meaningful and funny as this poem is, it is not my favorite in Koh's collection. I love his flashes of literary genius in "April 2" through "April 6" as he brandishes conceits, sumptuous imagery, stream of consciousness, and alliteration with colloquial ease. He is very deft with the sonnet form, and his questions in "April 8," "Deploy /rhythm and rhyme? Send for Rumi? LeRoi?" remind me of the grace of James Merrill's poetry. The way Koh plays with the words "pope" and "poop" in "April 9" is hysterical, but the tone and mood are very different in "April 15." In this poem, set in his classroom, Koh seriously tries to deal with the violence in our schools. "I am well-trained and train my students well" sets up the stunning couplet at the end suggesting that the problem is within himself and within us all: "How should I write for these, when my desire,/Goodman, is to return fire for fire?"
Perhaps my favorite piece in Payday Loans is "April 25" with its gorgeous imagery. We see the sensitive side of Koh and his appreciation of his parents' financial help as the "red paper pocket my parents sent" turns into "roses the rich soil lent." In a critical vein, I think this brilliant sonnet sequence might have been better served by cutting the strained first and last poems. He could have worked with February and its 28 days! However, I very much admire the narrative, personal quality of Jee Leong Koh's book, which convincingly and poignantly expresses "a month in the life" of this complex, very talented new poet.
Richard Marx Weinraub