A travel suitcase opens its mouth to the fainting sky, unleashing a whirlwind of densely typed papers to a waning sun. The sun hovers above a sandy gray beach, holding five small words on the cover, “man on extremely small island,” the title of Jason Koo’s new, De Novo Poetry Prize winning book of verse.
The pages past the cover offer a more vivacious landscape; Koo’s impressive 88 page collection of poems combines his mastery of meter and spacing with his views on subjects ranging from tuna-fish sandwiches to love. Broken up into four sections and 26 poems, “man on extremely small island” is a semi-autobiographical work; Koo takes elements from his personal life and meshes them with fictional characters and scenery to create a dreamy, flowing universe within the borders set by its covers.
Though it has been subject to great critical acclaim, Koo’s work is not exclusively meant for the scholarly reader. Even as American poetry becomes more of an esoteric art form, Koo has successfully walked the line, effectively presenting everyday occurrences with skill and finesse. Although many of Koo’s most gripping passages seem to ramble, his words are juxtaposed not to make sense, but to please aesthetically; in “Target,” the second piece of the novel, he ends a poem about unrequited love with “and the problem is you’ve fallen out of love/ with the world. You’ve come to hear/ An underlying ‘Goddammit!’ in everything, and never notice the trees/ tossing their heads in the wind like conductors.” Though the book consists of poems which can stand by themselves, one can see a clear trend towards maturity even though the poems deal with widely disparate subjects. Koo uses his control over the English language to create chillingly beautiful images, even if the phrases themselves seem incoherent. The varying interpretations of his work are largely determined by the readers’ methods of dissecting the language.
Much like his words, Koo’s poems are filled with contradiction and contrast; the focus of his poetry ranges from profanity to artificial intelligence, from limousine gatherings to romantic rejection. However, to say that “man on extremely small island” has no overarching theme would be doing it an injustice. The book, with its many twists, digressions, and subplots, follows Koo’s search for maturity and truth. Koo seamlessly interweaves anecdotes about his family life, his Korean background, and his friends. He returns to the theme of his heritage in the final piece, in which he explores his trip to Cooperstown, NY with his father Bon Chul, and delves into his lost childhood. In this closing poem, he details his strained relationship with his father, touching on ephemeral qualities of and the importance of family. “I start to wonder if it’s too late for father and son,” is a far cry from the expletive-filled passages of the first half of the book.
The way Koo presents his words to the reader is nearly as important as the poetry itself; what he lacks in rhyme, he makes up for in rhythm. With clear breaks in structure—varying from labyrinthine line spacing to clear cut, left-adjusted paragraphs, the poet skillfully chooses where to split his lines to achieve the most poignant effect. He isolates words like “anger” into lines of their own to end poems about beauty and love. He divides whole sentences, leaving a dangling comma at the edge of a stanza to build up the reader’s anticipation. This technique, combined with his usage of quotes from prominent poets including Shakespeare, Kafka, and Neruda, starts off sections of the book and transforms banal language into artistic genius.
Heralded as one of the greatest modern Asian writers by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Jason Koo has mastered the art of penning easy-to-read poetry. With surprises at every turn, thought provoking quotes sporadically dashed into blank spaces and empty pages, and deep, introspective messages lined in his expansive lexicon, Koo successfully molds what is slowly becoming a complex form of art into an accessible medium for expression. A glance at the back cover reveals a silhouette of what can only be the author walking, shoulders hunched, into the same muted sky previously mentioned, very simply imprinting himself upon his intricate opus.