Tiffany Tsao reviews The Pillow Book by Jee Leong Koh
by Jee Leong Koh
Math Paper Press, 2012
Reviewed by TIFFANY TSAO
In taking its title and opening epigraph from one of the first masterpieces of the zuihitsu tradition—the pillow book written by Sei Shōnagon in the tenth century—Koh’s own pillow book seems to invite close comparison. However, as the pieces that follow the epigraph unfold, one after the other, it becomes apparent that to yoke The Pillow Book too closely to its namesake would be to miss the point entirely. The book is a playful meditation on the liberating, not binding, aspects of similitude—the ability of many objects, people, places, moods, and moments to share and even multiply and nuance sameness without being reduced to being the same. The lists that make up a good portion of the chapbook are exercises in drawing together the disparate. Under ‘Well Organized Things’ we find:
‘A dictionary. A rainforest. A supermarket.’
And categorized as ‘Sharp Things’ are:
A clever child.
Magnetite in a homing pigeon’s beak.
Like all zuihitsu, the book is the same exercise carried out on a slightly larger scale: miscellaneous lists, thoughts, observations, and memories gathered in a series of pieces that could itself be a list titled ‘Things to do with Jee Leong Koh’. ‘In the year I turned thirtythree,’ Koh tells us fairly early in the collection, ‘I moved to New York City to find out if I was gay and a poet.’ And though this is the stuff that Bildungsromane are made of, the pieces roam back and forth through Koh’s life in a non-linear, desultory fashion. Thus told, experiences one might think wholly dissimilar instead yield resemblances. The two years’ of mandatory army service as an adolescent in Singapore are contiguous with his sexual encounters in New York:
‘Once, the guys carried up a popular mate, spreadeagled him in the air, and split his crotch against a pillar. It was done in jest but, oh, how excited everyone was, now I see!’
Moving overseas has also meant not moving overseas:
‘working in a rented room in Queens I write by the light of Singapore, a tall yellow streetlamp with its cloud of flying insects.’
Embracing Christianity in youth mingles with his sexual awakening:
‘A tree shot up from the broken ground. It raised a crown of leaves. It rode as rigid as a sceptre. Its name was Good and Evil. Its name was I Am Alive. Its name was Frangipani.’
‘In the New American Standard Bible, which I owned then, Jonathan loved David as himself. That was how I loved Darren when I turned twentyone.’
Past and present, here and there, comradeship and sexual intimacy, spiritual and emotional and physical enlightenment—all are folded in on each other, variations in different keys in different passages on something that is ineffably one thing that can never (should never) be reduced to being just one thing.
Even the central object of the book’s charming opening piece—the eponymous character, the pillow—is not just one thing. It is the bolster of his first thirty-three years (‘the long pillow held between my legs and hugged to my chest’), which by association is also the other long thing between his legs. It is a substitute for a woman, asserts his handsome English friend Darren, who does not suspect that he, not woman, is the object of the Koh’s affections. The pillow returns at intervals throughout the book. It surfaces surreptitiously in ‘When I Go Home with Someone’ as Koh sleeping in the arms of a lover (‘He presses me against his chest’). It reappears by a stretch of the imagination in the similar-sounding ‘pillar’ that splits the crotch of the armymate. It announces itself in ‘Japanese Things’: ‘Hugging pillow, also called a Dutch wife.’ Dutch wife, Japanese hugging pillows, pillar, Jee Leong, Darren, woman, penis, bolster, book by Singaporean man in the twenty-first century, book by Japanese woman in the tenth century—a series of things like but not equivalent.
One is faintly reminded of Michel Foucault’s account of similitude in The Order of Things, where he describes the mode by which Western knowledge operated prior to the sixteenth century: ‘the face of the world is covered with blazons, with characters, with ciphers and obscure words—with “hieroglyphics”, as Turner called them. And the space inhabited by immediate resemblances becomes like a vast open book; it bristles with written signs; every page is seen to be filled with strange figures that intertwine and in some places repeat themselves. All that remains is to decipher them….’ The Pillow Book is a poetic account of a similar mode of knowing, experiencing, and living in the world. Yet the truth of its testimony does not rely on grand overviews of human history, but on the bits and pieces that comprise one individual—the trivial, the subjective, and even the petty: his list of ‘Hateful Things’ includes ‘Small talk when I have not had a drink. Squeaky voices. They are especially unbearable when they read poems.’
These occasional moments of ungraciousness punctuate The Pillow Book, and though they never overwhelm, they counterbalance the vulnerability and self-aware wit that characterizes the collection overall. At one point, Koh weighs in on the morning-after etiquette of lovers: ‘sometimes it is charming if he will not leave me but walks me to the train station. It is definitely not charming when he leaves with me in order to do laundry.’ There is also an sly haughtiness in the observation, ‘When one could show up the ignorance of a loudmouthed enemy, but refrains, that is delicate too.’ But then again, The Pillow Book never pretends to be anything but an unapologetic baring of all of the poet’s self. To quote Koh’s quotation of Sei Shōnagon’s pillow book: ‘I was sure that when people saw my book they would say, “It’s even worse than I expected. Now one can really tell what she is like.”’
TIFFANY TSAO is a poet, academic and critic whose work appears in Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (Puncher and Wattmann)