Jason Koo loves America. I don’t mean to suggest by this claim that he is a shameless, flag-waving, Tea-Party-attending patriot. Rather, I intend something more in the vein of Walt Whitman: Koo loves the coarseness and vitality of American speech, the muscular energy of its cities, and, yes, the great loneliness and isolation America can sometimes inspire in the open spaces of the Midwest and in the alone-in-the-crowd feeling of its urban centers. Like Whitman, too, the voluminous poems in Koo’s debut collection Man on Extremely Small Island (winner of the 2008 De Novo Prize sponsored by C&R Press and judged by Denise Duhamel) manage to encompass—along with many other things—the sense of the time and place in which the poet lives, what it looks and feels like to be an American after the turn of the millennium.
The opening poem of the collection, “Swearing By Effingham,” introduces us to the range of diction and rude American speech we can expect in the book, but finds the poet wishing that “speech” were just a little ruder. Driving home for Thanksgiving along with a “purgatorial stream / of interstate travelers” on I-70, the poet (possibly recovering from a break-up) rages against the act of censorship—of expression and emotion—he reads in the name of the city of the poem’s title: “Effingham, IL, let’s just let it all out. / Sometimes you need to call a fucking ham / a fucking ham.” Lamenting the muting of feeling he experiences in the wake of a failed relationship, the poet requires a world that mirrors the ferment in his soul—not a town where one has to ask “what a man has to do / to get some effing fries up in this place,” but “a city to carry the rawer / sound in my chest, the hate concocting / a whole new slew of vowels.” The poem boldly articulates what I take to be one goal of this collection: to find a language that can give full-throated, adequate expression to the poet’s mind and feeling. The poem “American Limousine,” in the book’s first section, extends the work begun in “Swearing By Effingham,” eschewing the language of 19th century sentimental poetry in favor of the crude measures of the 21st century street-corner: “Slow the limousine to the side of the road and drop off silver, / moonlight, wet grass. Pick up dildo, shortstop, Phyllis.” Add to this list of celebrity words being chauffeured around some imaginary American city (which is really, of course, the body of the poem itself taking shape before your eyes) words like “cocksucker” and “Dr. Pepper” and you can begin to get a sense of the linguistic landscape of Koo’s poems.
Like many another poet before him, including Whitman (though one thinks here more of the Kenneth Koch of The Art of Love era) Koo also loves “love,” or at least the euphoric endorphin-inspired state of “being in love.” All too often, though, it is love’s opposite—its attendant frustrations and sorrows, the state of post-break- up let-down and non-feeling—that is prominently on display in these poems. In fact, another well-developed theme of this collection (and it is a testament to the strength and unity of the book and the maturity of the poet that it—and he—can be said to have well-developed “themes”) might be the idea that loving another person can lead to a love of the world and that, conversely, to fall out of love with someone is to fall out of love with the world. The first poem in the book’s first full section, entitled simply “Target,” manages quite successfully to evoke this idea: “Today I’m thinking of all the people not in love: I’m with you! / I’d like to say, though one of the conditions / Of not being in love is that you can’t hear other people not in love.” The problem with not being in love, according to the poem, is that it deadens the self, forecloses possibility (“for what is love but an opening of the possible?” the poem asks). And so, near the poem’s close, we find a clear statement of the problem:
A whiff of sin about you, because not to be in love with a person
should never stop you from being
In love with the world: and the problem is you’ve fallen out of love
with the world. You’ve come to hear
An underlying Goddammit! in everything, and never notice the trees
tossing their heads in the wind like conductors.
In poem after poem, particularly in the first section, the poet finds himself inhabiting spaces of loneliness and isolation (not surprisingly given the collection’s title, taken from a cartoon by Argentinian animator Guillermo Mordillo)—what Major Jackson in a blurb on the book’s back cover refers to as the “the spirit of inner malaise that permeates modernity,”—discovering that he is “out of love with the world”: alone in his apartment eating a tuna-salad sandwich for lunch in “I’m Charlie Tuna” or watching “Bad Break-Up Television” in the poem of that title; spending the night in one of the many hotels and motels mentioned in the Ashbery-esque list poem “How Would You Rate Your Lodging Experience?”; waiting endlessly in that epicenter of transience and loneliness, the American airport, in “Standby at Chicago O’Hare.” The poet feels that if his attention were simply turned to the body of the world rather than to the absent body of the beloved, his sense of loneliness would be abated, as he states in the marvelous poem “After Chicago”:
Desire in him remembers what tilted the self
toward the brink, what brought it out, a blue lumina
into the current on the avenues, so that
taxicabs and towers, traffic lights, window lights,
pedestrians with their poodles, shadow-
shaking trees, all acquired a clarity, a briskness, giving
him a sense that there was no line
between his body and the city, that his motions
were the city’s motions, the span of his steps
the span of bridges, that from all the hotel rooms,
the restaurants, the clubs, the bars,
the cinemas, the streets, the stadiums, the stations,
the secret, segregated life was coursing
Building to a crescendo in these lines, the poem implies that the proper object of our affections is the world itself and that, if properly-directed, those affections will be enlarged, energized, humanized, capable of taking the true measure of existence. Heady stuff for a first collection.
The theme of love—of desire in all its guises—receives its fullest expression in the long poem in five sections that constitutes the book’s second section, “2046 Love Songs of Wong Kar Wai,” which draws its inspiration from the film by the Hong Kong filmmaker mentioned in the poem’s title. Tracing, through a kind of forward-then-backward movement, the evolution of a failed relationship (while at the same time examining the love-hardened actions of Chow Mo-Wan, the main character from Wong’s film), Koo raises yet another important (if implicit) theme of Man on Extremely Small Island: the idea that conscious devotion to one’s craft—whether it be writing poetry or simply(?!) being in a relationship with another—can free us from our time-bound existence and isolation, as the poet writes near the end of the poem’s first section:
It may be
we are all tragically,
in time, that no single sequence can save us,
but I persist in the belief,
perhaps to my demise,
that all can be won through mastery
of performance: time
can be conquered by consciousness.
This idea of consciousness and its relationship to time is an important one for Koo (though I’m not sure “consciousness” is exactly the right word, in context, to use at that moment of the poem). I’ve heard him talk elsewhere about what he terms “poets of consciousness,” tracing a lineage in poetry that goes back to Wordsworth and extends forward to poets like A.R. Ammons and John Ashbery, of poets who see their work as a means of charting the movements of their consciousness and thus registering their “being in time.” That Koo manages to create a poetry that is supple—and expansive—enough to make a claim to doing that (registering his “being” or “unfolding” over time) is no small achievement.
In the spirit of full-disclosure, I know Jason Koo apart from his persona in this collection and I happen to know that he is an avid practitioner of the art of tango dancing. I had the opportunity to see him dance this past summer in one of the well-known milongas, or tango-dancing sessions, around the Shakespeare statue in Central Park (in addition to being a fine poet, he’s also a very good dancer), and though I tend to take a somewhat skeptical view of such things, watching him dance, I came to suspect or imagine why Koo likes to dance the tango. If, as in the lines just quoted from “2046 Love Songs of Wong Kar Wai,” the movements or sequence of a dance can be seen as a metaphor for the actions in a love-relationship that will lead to success, then the tango can also be seen as a metaphor for or perhaps rather an analogue to the act of writing poetry: if done artfully and with precision, both can be objects of beauty; both unfold “over” or “within” time itself; both manage in some way to capture the act of “being”; and both, if properly performed, can provide the practitioner with the feeling of having mastered time, having wrested control from it, having, for that moment, arrested it.
If the collection has a weakness, it is that, in attempting to chart (to borrow a phrase from Merleau-Ponty, who uses it in a much different sense) the “prose of the world,” Koo risks becoming prosy, even prosaic, in his own verse. For the most part, he avoids this through a scrupulous attention to language itself and le mot juste (as seen in “American Limousine”), and by attending, almost methodically, to syntax—to the unfolding of the period across the latticing or stair-stepping (or perhaps “tangoing”) effect of his stanzas. What the reader of Man on Extremely Small Island comes away with most of all is a sense of movement and restlessness, a searching quality (felt keenly in the final long poem that closes the book, a meditation on his literal and figurative Korean-American patrimony) that gives one the feeling that this poet has only just begun to say what he has to say about this moment in which we all find ourselves. But what a fine beginning he has made. Despite portraying himself as the “isolato” of the title poem, Koo is good company.
Andrew Mulvania is an Assistant Professor of English (Creative Writing) at Washington & Jefferson College. His first book of poems, Also In Arcadia, was published by The Backwaters Press in Omaha in August, 2008. His poems have appeared in Poetry, North American Review, Southern Poetry Review, Green Mountains Review, Bellingham Review, and Weave, and new poetry and prose is forthcoming in The Southwest Review and Missouri Review. He was the recipient of a 2008 Individual Creative Artists Fellowship in Poetry from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.