"Speculative Poem 16 for Fred Moten" (repeated)

  by cris cheek


A Lesser Love by E.J. Koh

Pleiades Press, 2017


Reviewed by Charles Gabel



A Lesser Love begins with an invocation, the “Showtime.” The speaker gives us a Korean phrase, something they “say beforehand:/ Jal butak hapnida.” Then it’s translated, and its subtext extrapolated: “Even if I shame myself/ please be kind to me.” Immediately following, the first section, Heaven, opens with “Confession.” What is the confessional then? I think E.J. Koh in A Lesser Love asks the same question.


The poems that follow give us a textural experience of memory, something familiar to the common understanding of confessional poetry. In “1807 Oleander” (several of the poems take their titles from addresses—one of the spare, quotidian details that make the poems so present), Koh gives us details without commentary: “At night, as Mom had, I rubbed/ my wrists with ginkgo lotion,” and “Since I had no phone, she shipped/ kimchip packets that ripened on the trip.”  Similarly, in “656 Sunnyhills” Koh provides the sparest detail:


          We had gone to the Lion Market where we watched the butcher

          oil up duck hooks in the window.

          I tried Vietnamese coffee and ran into the street

                                                                                and bit unwashed tomatoes from a pot of soil.


It’s not until the following and final stanza the poem turns without melancholy, without explanation, but the specificity of a flash memory: “Mom stopped by between jobs. She always washed my feet./ Tonight/ she asked Grandma to do it.” Through this spare style, Koh invites us to experience the loneliness of a girl whose “parents lived so far away.” (“Confession”)


The opening poems of A Lesser Love are obviously within the purview of the confessional, but in the second section, War, Koh redefines its scale. She takes the stripped-down intimacy of the earlier poems and places them in a political context. In the opening poem, “Korean War,” Koh writes: “You are the North and I am the South./ My tanks aim for you. I shoot you a thousand times.” While the subject changes, the diction doesn’t; it’s still “you” and “I,” making the brutal history of the Korean War as present as the lonely girl we encounter earlier. “Korean War” closes with a detail as tactile as any memory from the book’s earlier poems: a man about to be executed “fiddl[ing] with his blindfold/ until it rests comfortably over his eyes.”


Koh ties political and historical content to the personal not only through diction, but also with a return to a locatable “I.” In “Clearance,” the speaker applies for jobs with the CIA. What follows is a dispassionate list of what the ensuing background investigation reveals, a confession ranging from the bawdy (“I watch porn more than most women.”) to the banal (“I lied about speaking French.” “I never litter.”), but the final confession strikes me most: “I believe in God.”


In the final section, Love, takes the familiarity of daily life with something larger, even mythic, as in the tiny lyric “Third Night in the Desert Cave,” which reads in its entirety:


          You are the peregrine falcon. You are the wide-open sky it flies through. For the first time I

          call you by listening.


But how does it fit together? In “Valentine Chapter,” I think, we’re given a key. The poem opens with the seemingly unreal declaration “I tell you there’s a devil in my wall,” only to be deflated: “You ask,/ Does he like Sparticus?/ On Showtime…” It continues:


          …we watch the part

          where Glaber murders wife’s father–


          I ask, would you kill my father to have me?

          Of course, you say. This minute, you smell


          of red ginseng. I ask how you could be with me,

          How could you forgive me; I can’t change.


          You look up and say, I am patient. I can take the lives

          you couldn’t live and hold them in my arms.


Considering the work’s three sections, Heaven, War, and Love, I’m reminded of other holistic divisions of the cosmos and consciousness, Freud’s love and work, Dante’s Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. In A Lesser Love, how is the universe built? Or even the individual? The scope of the personal, what might be a part of the confessional mode, expands beyond memory and personal experience. It’s the self and history, nationality, borders, war. The beloved. The packets of kimchi. The prisoner’s blindfold. Background checks. Showtime original programing. The singular person, the “I,” is inextricably connected with, held together by the history, the world around her, and the ones she loves.

"The Infrarealistas (Infrarealists)" edited by Rubén Medina

and John Burns

Chicago Review 60:3


Reviewed by Chales Gabel



Like a lot of writers in the United States, I first learned about the Infrarealists from Roberto Bolaño's fictionalized account of the movement in The Savage Detectives (trans. Natasha Wimmer). At the time, I was newly released into the literary wild after MFA-school, and my first manuscript was already accumulating rejections. The novel's treatment of the Visceral Realists, the Infrarealists' fictional counterpart, is somewhere between satire and wistful memory, at once ridiculous and romantic; their Quixotic quest to  serve poetry above all else is both hopeless and deeply honorable. What I knew about them outside the novel, however, was almost nothing. The Infrarealists were a Mexican literary avant-garde movement of which Bolaño was a part. That was it. Everything else was just Visceral Realism. Just Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. Thankfully, Chicago Review has published a robust gathering of the movement's poetry, along with their manifestos, correspondence, and critical insights of the movement.


Founding Infrarealist Rubén Medina's erudite and detailed introduction lays out the Infrarealists' historical circumstances in Mexico in the 1970s: the literary establishment was aesthetically conservative, state-sponsored, and reserved for the wealthy. The Infrarealists responded with a searing revival of Dada and Surrealism that sought "to reject a refined poetry that did not do justice to the current, brutal reality." The movement, however, wasn't only aesthetic, but ethical; the Infrarealists wanted to use the life of the poet as a site of nomadic rebellion on the margins of culture, "[breaking] with the image of the writer as an apolitical social climber."


As for the poems themselves, the work is various; the issue collects work from eight different poets. The writing is unified by direct, sometimes quotidian language, reminiscent of the Beats. In the poem "September 19th, 1985," Mario Santiago Papasquiaro writes: "There is black dust: flowers of wrath I chew & chew/ I cross a hell/ Tender September/ what an asskicking." At times, though, the language is florid and beautiful. "Her soul opens up with a bushel of sighs/ eternal gift of Circe's daughters," writes María Guadalupe Ochoa Ávila, describing a girl bleeding out in a public bathroom.


Most striking inclusion is "Pristine Wing" by Mara Larrosa, a 3-page prose piece beginning "The oldest known bird lived 150 million years ago, you know?" What follows is a dizzying cosmic trance in touch with the tactile, with pewter spoons and wet mushrooms, with an Alaska "empty of human fear," despairing that "We have dared to populate the Planet."  The scale and gusto of the piece is awesome.


Equally immersive as the poems, though, is the historical ephemera of the Infrarealists: the correspondence and the photographs. We get a glimpse of Mario Santiago's frenetic buzz in a 1974 letter to Bernardo Álverez, member of Hora Zero, a Peruvian movement and significant influence on the Infrarealists. He opens: "Buddy, 'magister' / blushing guru, buck naked POET!!!!!"


I continue to return to a short letter from Bolaño to Santiago Papasquiaro from 1996. "I've got the windows open, it's raining outside, a summer storm, lightning, thunder, those things that excite and lead to melancholy," he writes, "How's Mexico?" It can't be much more than 100 words, but in it, as with the best literary correspondence, I get a sense of the Infrarealists' literary lives and their friendship. "The distance we logged together is, in some way, history," Bolaño writes, "and it remains." Reading it, I feel a little closer to the living people—connecting them with their works, a merge between art and life. Appropriately, he closes, "I'm writing a novel where your name is Ulises Lima. The novel is called The Savage Detectives. A strong hug, R."