Saturday, November 3, 2012

On Jee Leong Koh's "The Pillow Book"

Employing the Japanese genre of zuihitsu, Jee Leong Koh's new chapbook The Pillow Book deals with coming out, bad manners, his Singapore identity, promiscuity, the theme of delicacy in all its attendant forms, among other things. It's a beautifully designed chapbook, even sporting French flaps, for some fun, sporadically aphoristic poetry.  At one point, Koh writes, "Love is what life boils into"; he also declares, "The sun casts shadows, and so why am I surprised that love makes darkness, as if I am not in its way?"

The zuihistu can be described as a rendering of unplanned, arbitrary thoughts by the author.  You could also see it as a lot of "hyper-engaged doodling" in the best sense of the phrase.  Impacted by his Singapore and New York identity, it's a free-wheeling comic 53-page litany.  It shares the silliness of Joe Brainard's I Remember and Charles Simic's deadpan surreality.  There's a welcome abundance of pithy statement ("When someone comes home with me, there is always the question of how I will ask him to leave"), odd juxtapositions (in one list-poem, he aligns commuters who hog staircases with the small talk he has when sober), and unexpected imagery ("When I walked into McDonalds at Welshpool, the floor sucked at my sneakers.")

The only small, lingering question after reading the book is did Koh take full advantage of the open-ended form of the zuihistu?  The book is highly structured, maybe too much so, to give unequivocal respect to the form.  The majority of the entries are no longer than a page, if that, and each are given a prosaic title such as "China," "All Things," "Happiness," etc.  As a reader, you begin to want there to be even more arbitrariness.  Some of the fun that comes from the form is a careless indulgence.  Koh is careful not to let things get too out of hand.  His undeniable talent makes you crave an opportunity to look at his chapbook's rambling drafts, which, after all, is what the zuihistu, in a way, should possibly already seem to be.

Jee Leong Koh's The Pillow Book is available through Math Paper Press.