Jason Koo is the author of Man on Extremely Small Island, winner of the 2008 De Novo Poetry Prize, published by C&R Press. He was born in New York City and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He earned his BA in English from Yale, his MFA from the University of Houston and his PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Missouri-Columbia. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center, he has published in The Yale Review, North American Review and The Missouri Review. He currently lives in New York, where he teaches at NYU and Lehman College and serves as Poetry Editor of Low Rent.
SWEARING BY EFFINGHAM
Effingham, IL, let's just let it all out.
Sometimes you need to call a fucking ham
a fucking ham. As I drive home past
your road signs toward the tranquillizer
of Effinghamians effing this and effing that
while shifting in line at the post office
as the one clerk not on lunch break
chats to the matron with the fifteen
badly taped packages about her daughter's
improving performance in AP Chem,
but what a whelp of joy and vindication
would I let out were I to see 5 miles
to Fuckingham, what an eternal chorus
of honks and Fuck yeah! would a sign
like that elicit from the purgatorial stream
of interstate travelers, many of whom
may, like me, have spent the past 300 miles
kicking a love in their brains
astonished at the swift toggle
between tenderness and fuck you.
One moment, caresses and reconciliation,
the next, meatloaf to the beloved's face.
Sometimes you need to know you're not
alone, that for your rage there's a Fuckingham Palace.
Effing Manganese, effing Tungsten,
effing Zirconium, which one of you
elements is responsible for the seething
in the fluid of my eyes? I shake my head
and clear, shake my head and clear,
and for a moment see the peacefulness of fields
gently laid with light
but soon the film of her is there again.
Once she was a lens. Once, a bridge to each
of the weeds. Effingham, I salute the muffling
of your name, the comic elegance
of so much restraint, as if you were slipping
onto the punches of tongues large aqua-blue mittens;
in an earlier life I may have enjoyed
a certain camaraderie in your bleachers,
booing your effing quarterback fumbling
the effing snap, or asking what a man has to do
to get some effing fries up in this place;
but now I need a city to carry the rawer
sound in my chest, the hate concocting
a whole new slew of vowels, where to unleash
such words as I mull might not bruise
other ears but be gratifying and returned
I'M CHARLIE TUNA
I'll be sitting at home, eating a tuna salad sandwich,
when the awareness kicks in: Well this is a little sad.
The 2 PM light, weak through the trees, the crooked
cloth napkin on my lap, crusted stains in the creases:
sad. The lunch looks almost professionally made:
wheat bread lightly toasted, pickle perfectly placed,
just the right smattering of BBQ chips to fill out
the gap of plate, but still I am conscious of a blight
on it all, something that makes me stop my chewing
and notice the minute dirt speckling the carpet,
the cat hairs clinging to the couch, all the fine grains
of my slovenliness. I feel too grown for my chair.
I am attacking my sandwich, really wolfing it down.
Look at this barbecue pollen on my fingers. What is it
about lunch alone in my apartment that makes me
feel I am not evolving into my life but becoming
sweepable, material for a dustpan? I can hear my mom
in the silence: None of my friends asks about you anymore.
They all feel sorry for me; they think you're a failure.
Where did you get that shirt? You look like an orphan.
Hard to disagree as I watch myself picking lint
off my sweater and dropping it on a small helipad
of books to my left, licking the orange microbes
from my fingertips and dipping them right back in
to the chips. Not my solitude but my narrowness
bothers me, how eagerly my mind takes to this
focal field, delighting in the thought process
of sandwich, pickle, chip, sandwich, pickle, chip,
then the variants, chip, pickle, sandwich, sandwich,
chip, pickle, sometimes studying one of the components
at a slower chew, the tender, watery seeds tattooed
on the inner skin of the pickle, the pockmarked canyon face
of a chip, when it could be studying the face
of a man, looking for the inner skin of him, the seedbeds
there beneath the deadgrowth, combining that face
with other, far-ranging things of the world in a process,
opening out from the cell of my apartment, taking in
the Pentagon and penguins, car bombs, marriages,
mudslides and satellites, helicopters disintegrating--
already I can see the details thinning as my mind reaches
its limits. But would there be any limits if I were living
differently? If I let more people into my life, even those
I couldn't stand? People who act as if they've never had
a feeling, never experienced a single moment
of transcendence--already I am doing it, keeping people out.
I like to think I am generous, a jazzy Falstaff
to the world, but the dirt and silence of my apartment
read like an indictment. My mom calls, I don't pick up.
Jason, are you there? Are you there? Jaaaay-son. I know you're there.
Why don't you call us once in a while, let us know we have
a son. Gee. I finish my lunch, look at what I've left
on my plate: dimpled pool of pickle juice, breadcrumbs,
splinters of chip. Part of me just wants to shut down,
staring at that plate, feeling the pressure each small thing
is putting on it, asserting its last life before being swept
by water down the drain. I don't know how my plate
manages it, holding so much scrappy smallness up,
not just the smallness but the lame air above it, polluted
by my exhalations, unleavened by the light, but it does, it
takes the weight, just as the table below it takes its weight,
the floor below the table, the table's, the whole apartment
below me, the floor's; so that I can get up, clean my plate,
feel the majesty running in my veins again, gift of so
much water from an unknown source, walk confidently
down the hall into the other room, type Hello hello
at the top of a new page, beginning to get past myself,
the privilege of my emotion, this grainy actual window
lacquering my vision: into the world ongoing
and vociferous, my fingertips tapping on the keys
as on the smooth foreheads of cats, releasing me
into alleyways and nooks, the shade of tanks, prying open
all the cabinets and closed doors, poking into trash.