More Than Mere Light by Jason Koo
Prelude Books, 2018
121 pages / Prelude Books
For someone who was named one of the “100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture” by Brooklyn Magazine, it’s somewhat astonishing—and consoling—to find poet Jason Koo’s latest collection, More Than Mere Light, punctuated by themes of worry and doubt.
The collection opens with an epigraph—a prayer, really—from Karl Ove Knausgaard that directly petitions readers to push through the struggles of self:
“Besides, tomorrow everything would look different. The day always
came with more than mere light. However frayed your emotions,
it was impossible to be wholly unaffected by the day’s new beginnings.”
Koo lifts his collection’s title from this mediation, but he also carries the small and mighty Knausgaard affirmation around with him from poem to poem throughout the book. It becomes more than a mere literary torch; it becomes “what the self needs, not water, not mere light” but an opening that creates space for the poet to breath when he struggles to get out of bed and write—a process and art that Koo fears might not be of value to his readers.
Koo is deft at rendering these moments of insecurity, and then turning fear on its head by witnessing to his readers the power of a skilled poet: “The joy of / that moment in the poem,” Koo writes. “The utter / uselessness of the beautiful perceptive moment, the sunlight illuminating the / cutting board and me leaning hard into this notebook, writing.”
Skilled writing is an intriguing topic that comes up within the collection. Koo argues for “the fuck-you-in-your-real-self crap” poems and caveats this argument with poets obtaining a genuine education in poetry—whether formal or self-taught. In fact, Koo critiques the formal student of poetry more harshly than the self-taught, admonishing formal students to go beyond what is required of them:
“And most of the time it [the reading of poetry] is not that deep, oh you’ve read Dorothea Lasky / and Eileen Myles and Maggie Nelson and CAConrad […] Try reading a writer of color, try reading something before 2000, / try reading something in meter, motherfucker, / Try reading a 3300-page book, Try rereading that book, try rereading / anything.”
This critique might seem harsh at first, but Koo has (admirably) held himself to these same strict standards, and the outworking of his efforts are thoroughly attested to in the final section of the collection—a 55-page letter poem.
And yet, the poet struggles, like all artists, to believe in the value of his art. To believe that his life—the life of a poet, the life of an Asian American poet—matters:
“Though I wonder (and I seem to have written that phrase at least five times / in the last five minutes) how interested people / Will be in my time, notice all those writers above are white, and the time / of white people is far more interesting in its / Quotidianness than that of other people”
“You think people / Will read you as a ‘poet,’ or a ‘human being,’ but they read you / as your color if you’re not white.”
In these passages, Koo questions not only the value of the act of writing poetry but the standards for evaluating a poet’s work. What constitutes the value of a poem? The poetry or the poet’s experience of the world? Or the poet’s race? Koo urges readers to connect with his words through their humanness and nothing else. Every voice is a vital one, and we’re all waiting for our moment—or, as Koo masterfully writes, “a smooth, clean wobbling of possibility.”
Sarah Jones is a Seattle-based poet, and the author of Lies I Tell Myself (dancing girl press & studio). Her poems have appeared in The Normal School, New Ohio Review, Maudlin House, Entropy magazine, The American Literary Review, Yes, Poetry, and many other places. She is an assistant editor for Poetry Northwest and was a doubly nominated for Pushcart Prize in 2018. www.sarahjonespoet.com.