More Than Mere Light

More Than Mere Light, the third full-length collection from award-winning poet Jason Koo, touches on themes of Asian American identity and sexuality, the difficulties of romantic relationships, and the banalities and triumphs of everyday life in Brooklyn. "No one has written a finer, stranger, more enjoyably various and intelligent long poem than Jason Koo's 'No Longer See,' the central poem in his splendid new book, More Than Mere Light. Schuyler and Knausgaard, Proust and Ashbery, to name just a few, meld into a poetic performance that is joyfully bent, and as gloriously funny as it is self-castigating. Underscoring all this is a sorrowing sense of self that can't shake free of time—time as it drags or stops or flies during romance and sex and the passage from domestic happiness to failure, and as it marks off the progress of a poetry and a life coming into its full, vital strength. With a cool-eyed detachment from his own drama, Koo has written a book that is unforgettable in its candor, its disabused self-knowledge, and its generosity of spirit." —Tom Sleigh

More Than Mere Light

The day always came with more than mere light, came hugely 
      pawing through the windows,
Frisking you up, no soft fortress of pillows cobbled around your 
      head could help you,
The sunlight in silence pouring down, insidiously weighted
With all the expectations of the city, the street cleaners moving
Unearthing groggy zombies parking in pajamas,
The drilling beginning, men tucked inside the scaffolding on 
      the brownstone next door
Bringing incomparable poundage of volume,
The ladies parading their dogs, Hiiiing each other in interminable
The toast, the toast popping up twinned
Throughout the little kitchens, i.e. living rooms, packed together  
      in the borough,
The curt scraping on of jam, the soft soaking of butter, 
      the munching, the mockingbird munching
Through another mundane meal,

You used to like this, once it tasted so fresh, once you thought 
      these premade hash browns
Could get you through every breakfast for the rest of your life,
But now you can barely look at them, forking them with no flair,
Your face in the mirror not much better, a vague amalgamation 
      of empty expressions expired,
Smile, look at the adoring landscape
Of pores, blackheads and wrinkles, the day is amassing its many 
      mysteries and miseries,
That plant in the corner looks a little more dead, how do you 
      keep that motherfucker alive,
Simple watering doesn’t seem to be enough, it needs more light,

As do you, but most of the day you sit inside working at your 
      computer, hunched over
In your robe and fetid slippers
Like some prehistoric woolly creature, lunch time comes and it’s 
      a stale bag of tortilla chips
Crackling on your lap, no salsa, an emptied jar festering in the
Like an image of your used soul, little onions and tomatillos 
      strewn over its contours
Like poorly cleaned-up vomit,
Not light, an invasion, an inquisition, incredible how much filth
Has thickened on the kitchen faucet, the light switch, the dials of
      the stove, look at all
The creepy crumbs shoved
Just under the refrigerator, the thickets of hair, no wonder
Your cat has been looking a little depressed lately, out in the day
The crumbs would have room, the filth would have room,
The dying motherfucking plant would have room, the pores
      and blackheads,
Onions and tomatillos, the vomit blossoming, salsa salsaing,
You know things are happening when vowels squash together in 
      unexpected pairings,
The hash browns would have room, the forks would have room
Alongside the fire trucks, firemen would go into fires wielding
      those forks,
Maybe stabbing is what the fire needs, not water,
Maybe stabbing is what the self needs, not water, not mere light, 
      holes to create some breathing,
As when a child traps some caterpillars in a jar and punctures 
     holes over the foil sealing its opening

And next morning fresh caterpillars have bloomed all over mom’s curtains.

Sunset Park

This morning, turned in bed, I thought of lying
Like that with you in Sunset Park, under the trees,
Kissing like it was the only thing that mattered,
Like lips and tongues and saliva could be endless.

There was no other happiness but that.
We’d stop every now and again and look up
At the long swaying of the branches, the shifting
Of the leaves, as if the first couple on earth,

Amazed at our own luck. I can’t remember
How we got to the park or what we did after
We left. I just see us sprawled on our blanket
Under the trees, high up on the hill, our mouths

Full of each other. So many small things took
Size from that sprawl. I want to be on that hill
With you again, not worrying about anything,
Not caring about anything, content to look at you

Instead of the city shimmering on the horizon.
There were so many days I missed between now
And then, so many moments you looked at me
Trying to get back to that time, leaning in and closing

Your eyes to kiss me…and I kissed you routinely
And returned to whatever dumb thing I was doing.
I can see the sadness in your eyes across so many
Of those days, reflection of the ship departing.

But the beginning of our life together: immortality.
I can see the light lengthening the small floors
Of our apartment, where you always seemed to be
Stationed, working on your yoga classes, writing

In your little notebooks with your five different
Colored pens or trying out different poses, sometimes
Popping up into a handstand, your long hair softly
Extending down the space from your head to the floor.

What was I doing then? Is it possible I was just
Watching you? Not doing anything, writing, reading?
Just secretly observing you, marveling over you?
Those days we’d start to cook and halfway through

The warming of something we’d be kissing unable
To stop, hands all over each other, mouths probing
And probing, clothes yanked onto the floor, furniture
Pushed back, soon the smell of something burning.

The first time I hurt you, you asked me if I remembered
Those times, our dirty text messages now some form
Of purity. I said yes. You said, a little sadly, Those were
Good times. I thought of Yeats’s phrase a little sadly.

Those were times not long before the first pain,
Only a few months removed, more than a little sadly.
Hard to believe we could live through bed bugs then,
Still happy, me sealing up all the things in my bedroom

In big blue Ziploc bags and staying at your place,
Not touching you at the door when I got there but going
Straight to your shower and taking off my clothes
And sealing them in their own blue bag, then striding

Naked into your living room like some warrior king.
Those cold days emerging out of your apartment feeling
Not quite formed, but endless, not knowing anything
About New York but thinking you were the key, going

To the little coffee shop where you introduced me
To the cappuccino, feeling out of place while we waited
In line, thinking everyone there had a PhD in coffee.
How much smaller my world was then, how happy.

I liked to say to you as things got worse how happiness
Didn’t matter, how our lives, our work, were what
Mattered, if you had these things you believed in you
Didn’t stop to think about whether you were happy,

That was a luxury, an elixir that didn’t last. But now
I know I didn’t think it mattered because I was happy,
Despite the sadness, there was always you there, endlessly
Beside me, I took and took and took from that source

Without offering the least endlessness in return.
I never thought it was possible to lose you, I now see,
That now see such a stupid phrase I’m doomed to repeat
Endlessly, floating in the now sea of these seconds

Without you, no current toward a future, no horizon.
If I could just make it last, with a little more effort,
A little happy, how simple it all seems, touching your face,
Seeing you again, kissing you kindly, making you happy.

Claire's Corner Copia

These streets still wet with rain, the blue
Mailbox on the corner, the yellow and purple flowers
Whose names I still don’t know, the bicycle
Hooked to the parking meter, the old, huge trees
Disappearing up high in the fog, the flags
Against the white of the hotel across the street,
The awning fluttering above the window
Where I write, all of this making up a world now
Without you, unbearable the mailbox, blunt there
Bluely, letters still dropping down inside it,
Mattering their destinations, preposterous the rain
Touching the soles of shoes and dampening
Footprints all over the city, moistening the going,
As if any of it mattered, no you in it, no rowing
To the going, I see these stupid trees, sixteen years
They’ve been here without me walking under them
A student, singing stupid songs of me in my head
Mattering, making up the leaves, I couldn’t tell you
How they looked then because I wasn’t really
Looking, was I, just thinking of meeting a you who could
Make that me mean something, join it to the world
As a world, and in the meantime I’ve gone
And met you and made that world and wrecked it
And now I’m back here looking at these trees
No different, except now I’m not simply without you,
I’ve lost you, sixteen years added to these trees,
These streets, these parking meters taking credit cards
Instead of quarters, this window harboring so much
Looking, so much light shafting through, so many rains
Like this one feathering against it, and all of it sits
Like subtraction, the years, the world, puffed up in me
Then withdrawn, like the flags swelled and sailing
Then dropping limply back against the light.

All All Right

                                    all somehow all right,
Never too much, despite too much
Not mattering, all right the morning,
All right the coffee, reading, cereal, all right
The crunchies in the cat’s bowl, all right the asshole
Thinking she was cute calling the cat
Fat, all right don’t get so upset about that,
You can’t remember what got so not
All right, she said it was okay to be sad,
She said it in such a she could give a fuck way,
You were just another man, as in Ugh, men,

But all right. The city buildings
Nonplussed in the sky, all
All right, yup you again, all right,
You had more hope about a you
You kissed on a street corner
All right then that hope was dashed
All right, you don’t matter that much, all right,
She’s not thinking about you that much,
All right, you knew that already,
You think I think I matter that much?
All right, it’s okay to be sad, all right,
What’s not okay is for you to be telling me
What’s okay, okay? I’m not okay, okay.
I’m not okay with being okay, okay, I’m not all right,
All right? All right all right all right.

I’ll be all right, I said to you
As I hugged you one last time before
You left. Why was I
Saying that? I think about your hat
Sometimes, the purple, green and yellow one
You always wore until one night
You almost left it in a cab
And had to hurry back and flag the cab down
And stopped wearing it
Because you worried you would lose it like that.
How two people come together
All right, I ask the sky, how deteriorate
Though looking all right, how one person manage alone all right?

Nothing answers, or everything does,
All all right, all, so all, all, all all right.

Morning, Motherfucker

Just popped the collar of my robe in this motherfucker,
I.e. kitchen, as I make some sweet-ass hash browns.
Is that the start of a poem? It’s barely the start of breakfast.
Noon light comes streaming through the window.
Is that the start of a poem? My landlady—what a word—
Just told me to be out of here by July 1. At first I wrote
Just told me to be out of her. Slightly different poem.
The millionaires buying her brownstone, milling past me
As I cranked this up in my robe at this motherfucker,
I.e. dining table, wondering if it could indeed be a poem,
Demand it. I’m gonna squat right here in this kitchen,
I.e. motherfucker, with my million-dollar syntax and hash browns
And make those motherfuckers mill around me for life.
I’ll miss this motherfucking beautiful neighborhood
Of Whitman & Auden & Crane & Mailer & McCullers
& Miller & Miller & Smith & Wolfe & motherfucker
How many more writers could live in these brownstones?
How many more ampersands could live in contemporary poetry?
Now there are probably no writers here except me.
Oh, and little known former Poet Laureate of America
Phil Levine on Willow St. And fellow Asian American male poet
Ken Chen, also on Willow St. I wonder if they too pop the collars
Of their robes as they make some sweet-ass hash browns.
Mailer surely popped the collar of his robe. He probably
Put on boxing gloves to take his hash browns out of the oven.
Hart Crane I can’t see ever making, let alone eating, hash browns.
Just too much cranium to contain in one kitchen.
Whitman couldn’t have eaten just one hash brown, or two,
He had to be making whole schools of hash browns,
40,000 hash browns forked with 40,000 motherforking forks.
He would’ve written about all the potato fields they came from,
Sunsets over the cool brown earth that made their beds.
Henry Miller likely would’ve fucked his hash browns.
Auden would’ve had his hash browns at an appropriate time
Scheduled into the morning. Last night I talked about
That motherfucker’s face. What a motherfucking poet’s face.
Was Auden ever young? Did he come out of his mother’s vagina
Already wrinkled? Imagine that vagina. Auden’s face
Like a hash brown out of that vagina. I’m feeling better,
In spring, in this motherfucking beautiful light. I’m dancing
In this motherfucker, i.e. kitchen, as I flip these hash browns
And think I can start to begin to forget you some day.

Single Gay Uncle

Single Gay Uncle, he thinks, looking at the drink
            in his hand. That’s what I’ll call this.
                    —Alexander Chee

In an Old Soul glass, add one part what you think
You should like and one part what you do like,
One part the person you hope you are, one part

The person you are. Muddle. Add a dash of bitters.
And another. And another. Add that night you sat
Next to the one other Asian at another all-white

Williamsburg bar and she could barely look at you,
Trying to shake you off like some butthead brother
As she split sweet potato fries and talked parallel

Parking with the cute white lesbian next to her.
Add the tattoo of a target on the slope of her chest
That said HAPPY in the bull’s-eye. Add the Korean

Characters on her inner wrist that you could say
But not understand, until she deigned to explain
They meant day by day, she lived her life day by day,

You see, as if the philosophy were better in Korean, add
Gimchi and galbi and gochujang and you could make
A cooking poem out of this and dedicate it to your mother.

Add the afternoon in the backseat of mom’s minivan
On the way home from tennis when she asked you,
Point blank, if you were gay, because you’d never had

A girlfriend and seemed sad and lonely all the time.
Maybe the lack of a girlfriend was a reason, maybe
The all-boys school where you got taunted as bowlegged

Didn’t help, maybe the fact you spent your weekends
Studying for the SAT made things worse, but sure,
Diagnose the problem as gayness, she might as well

Prepare you for an America where everyone assumed
You were gay or effectively so, brushing your cock aside,
Especially if you were neat, slim, well dressed and

Wrote poetry. Add the night you kissed a blonde
Former Miss Austin (supposedly) in the bathroom
At your friend’s 40th birthday party shortly after

She invited you into said bathroom to (it turns out)
Watch her pee, you thought she wanted to make out
But then you watched her pee, acting casual, then

You did make out and this had to be a coup in the history
Of the subjugation of Asian American men’s sexuality.
But after you emerged triumphant from the bathroom

And chatted with your friends in the kitchen and one
Took a picture of you and Miss Austin, she grabbed
The phone and flushed it where her pee had gone

Because she thought it had naked pictures of her on it,
Apparently this was an ongoing problem for Austin
In the state of Texas, and so you couldn’t celebrate

The coup because you had to make peace, conferencing
With her in the master bedroom where, rather than
Some loony makeup sex starting, she said she thought

You were gay, she only trusted you in the bathroom
Because you were gay, i.e. Asian, oh you knew she was not
What you should like but what you did, all the men

At the party did even as they made fun of her for being
Insane and you by association, now the story was
How you’d gotten your friend’s phone flushed down

The toilet for whatever you did to make this girl go
Batshit cray in the bathroom. Add the party years later
In Houston where your friends laughed over the story,

Their laughter laced with resentment, as if they’d
Never forgiven you for having gotten so lucky, at least
You got to taste what you did like a single gay time.

Add enough bitters? The rocks should be there
Already. Stir until chilled, until the glass says uncle,
Until you don’t know how you feel about you anymore.