What moves us is already inside us. When we feel that shifting and churning in our bellies and chests, brought to life by words, we are awakened. In EJ Koh’s Pleiades Prize winning chapbook, A Lesser Love, Koh doesn’t cut corners. She goes for the heart – the center of life – and rumbles the foundations. In all of this, somehow Koh manages to soothe, to bring peace, to initiate both tranquility and uncertainty. A Lesser Love was a fabulous read.
“He pointed to himself and then to a patch of weeds / to show the difference between Man & Plant. / He gestured at the space between his index & thumb, / and said, there has to be a middle point, which would be Animal.
In order: the root & the fox & the infant. / He looked at me then and said, / I will not live to know / if there’s a room between Man & God.”
55 stirring poems broken down into three segments: “Heaven,” “War,” and “Love,” I must say, after reading poetry nearly everyday for two decades, EJ Koh surprised me. After several years of stacking the chapbooks, wondering if I’ve read it all, right on time comes Koh, with new insights, new verses, new emotive subjects. Koh tackles everything on her mind, swerving around binaries and carefully building an intricate work of questions, theologies, fears, and ideologies. She embraces the blurring of time, taking the past, present, future, and compounds them together to reveal the whole. She wields both Korean and American life with ease, yet never the sugarcoat-er, tells the truth. Her truth. And her truth has doubt with grace, power with humility; EJ Koh swept me away in an afternoon.
As expressed in several pieces, in particular “Testimony Over Tape Recorder”, “South Korean Ferry Accident”, and “Retrograde”, Koh is not one to shy away from difficult events and matters. EJ Koh knows what she is doing. Assured, but not pompous. She has a message, a reasoning for what she is saying. Though her writing could be described as ‘flowery’, never do her words seem irrational; there is a solid logical framework around many, if not most of her poems. Even if EJ Koh didn’t know where she was going when she started writing, she certainly got there. All is smooth, point by point, moment to moment, like links in a chain.
There are a few great confessional poems in A Lesser Love as well. “Blurb” stands out strongly in this arena. Throughout this chapbook, I felt for Koh. Not in anyway that could be construed as sympathetic – no. Koh avoids these routes. I felt for Koh in a way that was intimate, and reflective. So many times while turning the pages of A Lesser Love I was startled by lines that seemed as though they were me; parts of myself constantly leapt out and caught me off-guard. And this, this sensation of ‘off-guard’, is the aim of poetry. We read poems to be comforted, yes, but more so, we read poems to be enlightened.
Would I recommend this chapbook? A resounding “Yes” sounds off. EJ Koh has hit the ground running with her first chapbook. I very much look forward to reading her work for (hopefully) years to come.
Five out of five stars for A Lesser Love.
The featured image shows the famous Pleiades cluster of stars as seen through the eyes of WISE, or NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. EJ Koh won the Pleiades Press Editors Prize For Poetry for her chapbook: A Lesser Love. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA