A Cup of Fine Tea: Jee Leong Koh’s “Razminovenie, or Nonmeeting”

June 20, 2012

Jee Leong Koh’s “Razminovenie, or Nonmeeting” [Read the poem here] (Published in Issue #6 of Cha)

–This post is written by Matt Shoard.

The ‘o’ in Jee Leong Koh’s poem “Razminovenie, or Nonmeeting” opens like a rumour, a creeping union of ouroboros colluding softly in “cold air”, “coursing water” and “love”:

Though I dream all the time of union, cold air
aerated by air, coursing water saturated by water,
I’ll imagine never meeting you, my imaginary love. (L1-L3)

Beyond an obvious tonality and acoustic personality, there is an ominous symbolic boom roving through the poem, a conscious potency around the ‘o’ to produce a sort of cognitive completeness, an atmosphere of consolidation, a closing of obstinate odds:

Perhaps you are not so near in time and space.
On a planet dried of air or water you survive
by reciting poetry from memory, a line of verse. (L4-L6)

An odd, hypnotic episode, the ‘o’: as if doubt and sorrow compress to nothing. Astrology locates the topography and origins of all movement in zero, in omega. And orgasm, millions of organisms floundering and wallowing, lovers momentarily low-lying, tonguing wounds. For Jee Leong, it is a cautious oxygen, a slow progress through something more opaque:

Perhaps you are in the apartment above mine,
hooked up with my neighbor, cursing softly, and I wish
you could read, here, the entry of your voice: fuck… (L7-L9)

‘O’, then, is the originator, the beginning of things; the only sound component in the lexicon: constructed as unmodified demonstration, its return journey opening at the top of the throat, down through the mouth, to the top of the tongue:

you’re exerting a force equal to the earth’s
a capsule taken, paradoxically, by spitting it out.
This is not so ridiculous as some may think… (L10-L12)

A zero, a nothing, a hole in the ground, will only grow with more burrowing: the more existence is exhumed, the more its absence expands. The ‘o’ continually makes its insidious voyage into the long tunnel of the poetic contrivance, dissolving in echoes:

for didn’t Tsvetaeva and Pasternak live like this,
not on one planet, but on two hurtling asteroids.
We have nothing, Marina wrote Boris, except words. (L13-L15)

Now, coolly, as though to oppose one solitary ordnance of knowing, the fifteenth letter of the alphabet steps in front of the fourteenth, and Jee Leong’s journey completes; the voice responds: ’no’.

A poet’s boast, carried by neither air nor water.
But, oh, we can live for months by howling
the medial syllable of razminovenie: no. (L16-18)

So “no” roams the cosmos, looking for its opposite, its one impossible rejoinder in an afternoon, a footnote, a supernova, a snowstorm.

“But, oh, we can live for months by howling…” (L17)

The connotations of “razminovenie” are not astronomical. On the contrary, one or two other twelve–letter formulations – one core focal veto, ‘no’ – continue down the soft shores of our conclusion. Autonomously, and with growing technophobia, one posits, for good poetics only: a pornographer, a demonologist, two paternosters, and an ethnographic and dishonorable governorship, not paranormally hymenopteran, but so like Jee Leong. Mono-vocal luminosities. Urbanologies. Tyrannosaurs.

Jeee Leong Koh is the author of Payday Loans (Poets Wear Prada Press) and Equal to the Earth (Bench Press) His poetry has appeared in Best New Poets 2007 (University of Virginia Press) and Best Gay Poetry 2008 (A Midsummer’s Night Press), and has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Born in Singapore, Koh now lives in New York City, and blogs at Song of a Reformed Headhunter.

A cup of fine tea: Sumana Roy’s “Love: Made in China”

October 15, 2011
Sumana Roy’s ” Love: Made in China” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #14 of Cha

-This post by Rumjhum Biswas was awarded the First Prize in the Fine Tea Competition 2011.


.
Those who were children in India during the years when ‘Made in China’ not only spelt quality at a better price, but a superior brand as well, will immediately be able to relate to this poem. But perhaps the persona came from a later time, when ‘Made in China’ merely spelt inexpensive, enough for the pockets of convent going school children — ‘Lunch was martyrdom /we escaped at his cheap store’ (L14-L15).

Whatever the era, the story of children sacrificing their lunch money to go foraging in a toy shop is a familiar one. The poet does not name the place. Yet I get a sense of hills beyond, in a town that is closer to the Himalayas, where Chinese-made toys would be more abundant, and the toy (shop) keeper would be either of Chinese or Tibetan origin, sporting a beard like Chinese lace, wispy, with gentle tendrils floating down. The shop draws ‘pig-tailed heads in’ (L11) — ah! Now we know they are girls, school girls! Now we begin to get a whiff of the ‘garlic-clove trail’ (L26). We begin to understand why, in the very first stanza, we drew a shiver, not quite daring to stare up ‘eyeball to eyeball’ (L5) into eyes whose ‘eyelids were fans / that cooled magma beds’ (L8-L9) of lust seething beneath heavy lids.

“Love: Made in China” is no love story. The poet sets the atmosphere immediately after the title with opening lines — ‘He was a part-time prophet / a full-time love clerk’ (L1-L2) — that draw darkness down like a thick curtain. The persona takes over right after, gripping the reader’s hands hard as she tumbles down into that dark place where the innocent sound of coins jingling in eager pockets meet the ‘footstep’ (L27) and ‘bubble gum scented(his) whisper’ (L30) yet all the while maintaining a cold distance, as if the child in the poem no longer meant anything to her. It is almost as if the persona has changed loyalties or camps, and this feeling becomes stronger as the poem progresses, but still feels compelled to go back to the place where it all began. The poem tells a story, of violation and betrayal, in the very place that is supposed to bring childish glee and unwrap imagination. The poet knows that and skilfully weaves words from a normal world into images of cold terror. The persona, having plunged into painful memory now holds it up like a mirror:

His hand in my pocket:
it was rape of a tree.
Then flood on the tongue –
a faithful Lhasa lake.
His China store was a wedding
night bedroom –
touch was free.
A paedophile’s patience.
(L31-L38)

There, she has uttered the word — ‘paedophile’! And nothing is real afterwards, except for the distant voices of children innocently playing The Farmer’s in the Den, unwary of the real den, where terror lurks. Then it is time to move forward, grow, learn… how and what does the persona grow and learn? What face does the persona present to the world afterwards? All we can be sure of is that the persona ‘forsook ribbons /… grew immune /…changed pockets’ (L49-L53). She tells us that ‘love was ice’ (L52), and then gives a glimpse of what the experience has done to her, where (her) ‘adulthood was a new vice’ (L55). The persona confesses that she ‘remains loyal’ — to what? Her terrible secret? To her violator? The images flash and subside almost instantaneously, because ‘love was betrayal’ (L58)… Now we know, surely we know, we understand, how a child would adore a keeper of toys, be lured in, and then be blackmailed into keeping the secret of ‘flood on the tongue – / a faithful Lhasa lake’ (L33-L34)

Lhasa lake? Chinese lace? These two images, placed far apart in the poem, suddenly conjure up a picture beyond that of child, children’s games and paedophilia. There is suddenly an undercurrent of something much larger, where bones become as malleable as bread — visualize humans beaten to pulp — and saliva induced from pain filling mouths like soup. Love was terror: ‘Made in China’ signifying the emotions of not a child but a people. And the last lines — ‘Love was betrayal: /”Made in China”‘ (59-60) begins to sound like a larger betrayal, perhaps one that came at great cost and painful coercion.

In Sumana Roy’s poem “Love: Made in China”, a scorching childhood incident becomes the metaphor for something else.

– 

Sumana Roy teaches at the Department of Humanities, Jalpaiguri Government Engineering College. An early draft of her first novel, Love in the Chicken’s Neck, was long listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. Her poems, fiction and essays have appeared in 21 Under 40 (Zubaan), The New Anthem (Westland), Pratilipi, Caravan, Asia Writes, Himal Southasian, Biblio, OPEN, Tehelka, among other places. [Also see Roy’s Cha profile.]

A cup of fine tea: Maysa Vang’s “Between Her and Me”

October 12, 2011

Maysa Vang’s “Between Her and Me” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #11 of Cha

-This post by Marybeth Rua-Larsen was awarded the Second Prize in the Fine Tea Competition 2011.


What comes between mothers and daughters? Nothing and everything, as Maysa Vang’s poem “Between Her and Me” eloquently illustrates. With spare and direct language, Vang describes a loving relationship, but one in transition, one where a daughter builds her own life as an artist while acknowledging her mother’s hard work and sacrifice to get her there. A common enough theme, but Vang transcends the common with her layered images of separation and use of simple language to convey powerful emotion.

We all seek to separate from our parents and lead independent lives, with some of us being more successful than others. Achieving success hinges on both parties acknowledging that the separation must occur and then allowing it. On the surface, the poem’s speaker describes a quiet moment as she takes care of her mother’s personal needs — scraping a callus off her foot with ‘a two-sided razor blade’ (L1). It’s a vivid image, but it’s more than that. The fact that the mother hands her daughter the blade suggests that the mother gives permission for the separation, that this is the time they have been working toward. The two-sided razor also suggests the daughter’s readiness to separate. She accepts the blade and makes the cut, and by cutting the callus away from ‘under her foot’ (L3), the daughter will, in a sense, no longer be under her mother’s foot. She will lead a more independent life, and one that can offer her more than ‘rice’ and ‘poultry’ (L15).

Even small shifts in diction seem to have larger implications, such as Vang choosing the more distant, third-person ‘her’ to reference the speaker’s mother in the title and then shifting to the more intimate ‘mom’ in line one. By using both terms in close proximity, Vang evokes a relationship in flux, showing both a ‘pulling away’ (her) and a loving relationship (mom). There is a push and pull of language, with the speaker searching for the best way to describe their relationship, a way to be separate from her mother while remaining close to her. ‘Mom’ or even ‘mother’ in the title would have provided much more intimacy, but it would not have signalled the struggle with separation which is at the heart of the poem.

As the daughter removes her mother’s callus, she shares details from her printmaking class, a class her mother made possible by taking menial jobs like bundling flyers (L8–L9). Vang uses printmaking to build on her imagery of separation since an inked plate is pressed to paper to create the print and then is permanently separated from it. The mother becomes her daughter’s canvas, or in this case a copper plate, and when the calluses are carved away, the artist separates herself from the plate, and the work of art stands on its own. Toward the end of the poem, when Vang writes ‘Her spine curls forward as she leans in / closer and hair falls like wine poured /down her shoulders in silver and black’ (L19–L21), she describes the speaker’s mother as a work of art, thereby recognizing the mother’s long hours assembling the postal sacks that will allow her daughter to live an artist’s life and avoid, hopefully, working in a factory.

The mother says little and doesn’t respond to her daughter’s discussion of art, suggesting that their different levels of education also separate them, and that the gap in their understanding of the world may only grow wider as the daughter continues her education. The mother may choose silence because she has never seen a piece by Rembrandt or is unfamiliar with the process of printmaking and doesn’t know what to say. In this case, however, silence is acceptance since the mother ‘pray[ed] that I might speak an unbroken / English tongue and never return to the factory’ (L17–L18). As her daughter achieves her goals, the mother accepts and adapts to the resulting changes, and she’s content to listen as her daughter takes on the role of artist.

Like mothers the world over, who want better for their daughters than they had themselves, the mother here earns her calluses with hard work and knows that her daughter’s continued education will create a certain distance or separation between them; still, she gives her all and asks little in return, willing to do whatever it takes to ensure her daughter has a happier, easier life. The poem balances love against change, and Vang asserts that love endures even as it separates. When the mother says, ‘it doesn’t hurt anymore… /do my left foot’ (L22–L23), she speaks as much to the physical pain of removing the next callus as she does to the emotional pain for the distance that will grow between them. The mother understands there is more separation and pain to come, but she is strong enough — they both are — to withstand it, and any subsequent changes in the future. And isn’t that what we hope for? Love that doesn’t call attention to itself, that isn’t a bargain-in-the-making… that simply is, despite change.

– 

Maysa Vang is a 24-year old Hmong artist, poet and freelance writer. She was born and raised in the inner cities of Minnesota after her parents migrated to the United States. A recent college graduate, she enjoys traveling, making art and trying exotic foods with good friends. 

Sea-burns: Anindita Sengupta’s “Arambol, Goa”

October 8, 2011

Anindita Sengupta’s “Arambol, Goa” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #3 of Cha

-This post by Sumana Roy was awarded the Third Prize in the Fine Tea Competition 2011.


The sea is an unrhymed sonnet in every lover, every parasite feeding on an incessant wet dream. For we might leave our souls behind on some dirty laundry trips, but water we carry with us at all times. Water carries us to wherever we want to go to, pushing us up mountains, defying gravity, melting footsteps into sweat, crushing fingertips into strange juices of insanity. I came to Anindita Sengupta’s poem, “Arambol, Goa”, to be a sailor. I’d tired of land, of its animals and grass. It was slipperiness I wanted. I’d been anchored too long, and for too little. I’d looked at lighthouses from land, and without consequence. I wanted a life at sea, I wanted a stake in its uneven journeys and its intangible undulations, I wanted to feed on the uncertainty of the horizon. I wanted to be, in all squeezed senses, ‘at sea’. Land was a silver cage, its seasons too predictable, its loves too fenced, its words too tongue-tied. The sea was a coin which would flip to my mood. Or so I hoped. And so, I came to sea.

Anindita’s poem is less about a life in the sea in Goa than it is about an escape from water. Timid violence lurks in every run-on line, something moves in every couplet, motion is an internal punctuation, and yet the viewer’s eyes are still. The beach in Goa is like a sentence crowded with thoughts, and yet, after all, it is only a sentence on a printed page, and even though it has the capacity to move, it cannot move. And so, I remain on land. Its immovability crawls back into my surname, its different gravities into my palm. The cell phone beeps, vibrates, warns, withdraws and then nags again. I only wait to be washed by the sea, washed off all the regimes of land. I’m a convert without a religion. Water is a priest with a promise. Until the promise changes to blur. The lighthouse becomes a direction-amnesiac.

Anindita’s poem, her sea, the ‘hashish in the air’ (L1), and its loop of expectation, ‘is a dancing / thing’ (L1-L2). There is a pattern to the movements in the poem: like Newton’s action-reaction binary, the ‘I’ in her poem reacts to the happenings on the beach. The girl’s hands are ‘like two shells in sleep’ (L3), the bartender brings his foot down on a crab. Reaction? ‘I eat [a] tuna salad’ (L6). The boys on the beach turn over in their sleep, ‘the one-eyed man’ (L8) cups his face. Reaction? ‘A blue boat is a blemish / I could rub away’ (L11-L12).

This illusory quiet, like a child’s crayon doodle of the sea, is inescapable, and so I surrender. I mistake it, willingly, for peace. I think of all the promises made to me by men who wore their love like tattoos, who knew my weakness for the sea. They all promised the sea, and so their promises come like slices fitting in together, like the pieces of a birthday cake that have been taken back from eaters. That makes my sea a temporary mosaic, a prism which catches a new light as I turn it in my eyes. I abandon this sea. It is not mine, not any longer. The man with whom I now share the sunrise has no fishing net. He has fishing-rod eyes instead. When he opens his eyes every morning, the previous night’s catch erupts in them. I get knife and salt, and I kill for meat though never for food. I kill them to keep them alive — how much could dreams and the sea hold?

The bartender
raises his foot and brings it down on a

crab, spilling its meat onto the sand, leaving
a pattern in entrails.
(L3-L6) 

And, hence, the leftovers. Dreams spill over in surplus too often into our sunlit lives. They need washing, they need washing. I get soap and clothes-clips. Leftovers leave such stubborn stains. I scrub the insides of dreams — mine, and everyone else’s about me. Water forfeits all claims. They move in the soft breeze, they whisper in a new language. We abandon each other. Dreams are such orphans.

Water is a runaway bride. Water is a coattail I love to step on. Water is a religion by which I mark my footprints. After the day’s spelling competitions, I surrender to Anindita’s poem again. I read it as if it were the last page of my horoscope. And then I find it: ‘In the distance, a blue boat is a blemish / I could rub away, a // transgression’ (L11-L13).

I had so long been looking only for oars, for paddles, for steam. I was looking at water as if it were a perfection, a mirror without internal refraction. It was to be my antidote to the regimes of land, and it had failed me. I had held it in a glass, on my skin, in my hair, on my tongue, a crest and trough of prepositions, and I’d expected the tiny dewdrop to be my private planet. How wrong I’d been. I hadn’t climbed on water, on gargling uncertainties, on choppy fantasies. I hadn’t been a ‘blue boat’ (L11). Only water can wash water. I hadn’t tried to wash myself with myself. I had expected people, and the fountains of events they brought into my life, to be detergents. In the process, I had become bubble-land.

Now I became a boat, a ‘blue boat’ that gives the horizon the texture of hope and the symbolism of communion. I was not a real boat, only a blue boat with red-piping dreams. I was a boat in a child’s drawing. I could be ‘rubbed’ away. I was ‘a transgression’. I was a Saturday morning art school invention. Blue was the colour of my insanity, of my water dreams. An angry child could kill me. An art teacher could kill me. And water, that bowl of liquid which gives ‘water colour’ its first name, could kill me in a single flood. Water could be my poison. And I’d thought it Noah’s ark!

I still go to the beach with wet feet, the ant like sand gives my feet their mariner’s compass. The beach, instead of being fed with an iterant wetness, the chubbiness of water stroking its margins of existence, ‘burn(s) in its silent, unstoppable way’ (L14). I sit on the beach that the poem sat on, we burn together, the poem and I, the girl continues to sleep with her shell-hands, one-eyed men behave like mermen. But where is water? And so now, I go to the sea to burn. ‘Such violence / on gentle shores is common’ (L9-L10).

– 

Anindita Sengupta‘s [website] poetry has appeared in Muse India, Talking Poetry, Kritya and In Other Voices (an anthology by Delhi Poetree). She was the winner of the Toto Awards for Creative Writing in 2008. When not penning verse, she works for the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) and consults with Fida, an international development organisation. She also writes on arts, culture and development for various newspapers. Deeply committed to gender issues, she is founder and editor of Ultra Violet, India’s first online community of feminists. 

To those with a predisposition towards gluttony: Nicholas Y.B. Wong’s “Appetites”

October 7, 2011

Nicholas Y.B. Wong’s “Appetites” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #13 of Cha

-This post by Vineet Kaul was awarded one of the Highly Recommended prizes in the Fine Tea Competition 2011.



‘In every generation the least cultivated taste has the largest appetite.’ -Paul Gauguin

You will not get far with “Appetites” if you came looking for some light refreshment and glib talk. Nicholas Y.B. Wong’s “Appetites” sends an invite to those with a predisposition towards gluttony. This is not a mildly brewed Earl Gray that you are sipping, the opening lines themselves ring like a strongly concocted Wu Lung, without sugar. Syrup or a pinch of salt is left to your behest.

1
The opening lines set up the poem with a deep breath for soon to be landed plosive punches of verbal staccatos, disjointed with the restlessness of Wong’s own hunger. The first part equates lust with the natural craving for sugar. It speaks of what some (or maybe most) men are hungry for, with the anticlimax of a biological why. But while the visual of smooth thighs and a cherry dipped in chocolate enjoy the centre stage, a subtler implication hums in the background.

‘Scientists say one’s want reflects one’s lack’ (L1)

The poetry, too, is melodic and made more so by the principle of negation, its aesthetic emphasized especially when it goes silent. The association is nothing musical — you are simply afraid of the poet going silent. That is when you must contemplate his deliberation.

A deliberation that hints that man’s hunger for sex is an appetite, like lots of other appetites that don’t involve food.

2
Wong conjures images in the second part that remind you of dinners from the past — ‘the ones that you tasted / and tasted you’ (L13-L14). The plates of food you consumed only with the carrot dangling in your mind. Trading compliments for excuses, love is wanting to hold someone who can say what you want to hear — or in this case, cook what you want to eat. Wong seems to reiterate that love is, after all, a trick played by evolution on our species to ensure that we procreate. Absolute truth has neither scope nor span in two-star Michelin restaurants where the genders rendezvous to gamble hormones and take home their prize. In an appetite for savouring dinner (or more so the cooks than the dinner), men may gobble everything or anything put on their plate, realizing only too late that they aren’t enlarged by their feast but are diminished instead. The appetite established by author leads us to gluttony. An appetite that is insatiable; dinner is only a distraction that lasts until breakfast.

3
The third part explores his resentment, especially one born out of anguish. It speaks of a restless man in a daily chore, shaving. ‘I believe in the body’ (L21), he says. His act of cutting his skin and tasting his own blood trickling down his face is disturbing and not because of any grotesque manner that it is presented in. It reflects another sort of hunger and brings forth another appetite. The constant need for a man to acknowledge his flesh just to overcome the feeling of impermanency. It is a hunger to validate one’s own existence that makes you want to bleed. Bleed to feel alive.

4
Part four seems the most distant in tone and sticks out in the five parts offered. It seems too self-explanatory for a poet who had immaculately cruised over word-bridges with fluid ambiguity. It tries hard to keep pace with the rest of the writing and almost loses. It exiles the reader to an old age home and its thinning life force. Severed connections with the world, the abandoned and the dying labour with the trauma of celebrating life. Their energy is twice removed from truth but also twice as enthusiastic, enthusiasm in the most frantic sense of it. They aren’t sure how long they have left. Their pitiable plight almost validates what part three insinuates.

The flesh suffers the storms of the present alone; the mind, those of the past and future as well as the present. Gluttony here is a lust of the mind. Weighed down by years of feeding the hunger of the mind, the old folk mediate with hope and happiness — more than willing to take what is to be spared. Spread out between wallpapers contemplating what they want with soulless gazes, appreciating the sweetness of life in the bitterness of nostalgia. More so the life they gave up when tricked by, and for, those who left them to the nurses. Nurses who offered disjointed rounds of clapping on days when they cannot recall where, when and even why they were born. But the lines ‘let me live one more day / I want to see my children // I will give them up if only / I could live one more day‘ (L35-L38) portray a certain regret yet in a manner that lacks repentance. Almost as if each ageing heart in that old-age home wishes they could do it all over again, but with someone else. The human heart hungers for hope, the human mind cooks it (up) and the human life is a testimony of another insatiable appetite, the only time we can stop hoping is when we are dead (either on the inside or outside).

5
The fifth part leans towards the end with the aid of a confession and confrontation between a man and a woman. As the poetic dinner draws to a close with the dénouement, the knots untie and the poet’s intentions remain clear but understated. In love, as in gluttony, pleasure is a matter of the utmost priority. The crudely put insinuations about ‘other hungers’ reek like spices in lines such as ‘Her face / once hidden in her body /surfaced slowly’ (L62-L64) and ‘A woman’s lips – / he thought – / should chant for his hairy skin’ (L81-L83). A man confesses to a woman about his misdoing and the woman doesn’t concede to sorrow but instead turns ‘human’ (L66). She cooks him food to feed his appetite. A metaphorical dinner that results in silent pillow talk of mouths, which as Wong puts it, ‘are best concealed’ (L89).

*

It begins to appear that all throughout “Appetites”, the basis of this five discourse meal, was about gluttony. It highlights the human tendency to disregard the face that no matter how hard you try, contentment is something that will elude you. The only gratification available is in knowing that you are embroiled in a hunger that is insatiable. It may not enable you to enjoy the meal, but points out that you can savour it none the less, which is all most people do in most cases. Wong’s “Appetites” neither saves you nor spares you. It insinuates and then alleges humans to be guilty of appetites other than hunger for food. Each of the five parts takes aim at one such appetite without able-bodied metaphors co-relating it to food in one way or another. It just hints, also, that gluttony is an insatiable appetite and so is hunger. Neither mysterious nor mystical, the dislodged ambiguity is tied by stray strands that reveal an angst and twitchy narrative of five instances of appetites fed with food that feeds you and yet leaves you hungry for more, mostly because there is no other choice. Hidden in nearly every occurrence, even the most cluttered, is some shining centre. Nicholas Y.B. Wong’s “Appetites” sends an invite to those with a predisposition towards gluttony. The disclaimer in his invitation was flagrant — ‘To him, words lost what / they meant when said to those / who meant nothing’ (L84-L86).

– 

Nicholas YB Wong [website] is the author of Cities of Sameness (Desperanto, 2012). Recent poems can be found in Drunken Boat, J Journal: New Writing on Justice, Nano Fiction, Platte Valley Review, The Portland Review and REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters. He reads poetry for Drunken Boat and teaches in the Hong Kong Institute of Education. [Also see Wong’s Cha profile.]