Jee Leong Koh

The Samurai

for Zeke Allis (Harlem Shake, February 10, 2019)

The tune found him in AP History—
the West was Wild, before the Civil War—
a cowboy tune picking its way across
a stony desert or a wary street,
hum-hammered in head until written down.
His mom and dad surmised a samurai—
too much Kurosawa—but the conceit,
the double, no, triple-crossing crossover,
appealed to him, the “unseen prodigy”
as he described himself in Middle School.
You call your teachers by Joachim or Claire
in MSC. The joke is every contest
you cannot win because nobody wins.
The Bronx High School is different. He has
more friends, more family, more enemies.
You find ways to distinguish yourself from
the pack while working your way up—a sailor
in “Anything Goes,” the Russian soloist
in “Fiddler,” kicking up a Russian storm,
and in “The Drowsy Chaperone,” finally
a principal, the groom’s best man, who brings
the schoolhouse crashing down with his tap dance.
Singapore, which he visits every summer,
when he would eat his favorite cha siew noodles
and hang out with his cousins who are bound
for medicine or engineering, Singapore
is in his childhood, also in his blood,
and makes him special to American peers
somewhat, mysterious as Dr Who,
the show he shared with his pal Cameron,
who lives with his mom alone, as does he
in a more figurative sense, as do we.
Once he decided for the arts, she then
decided he must make a success of it.
She brought him the commission. He composed
from his ambiguous tune an orchestral work,
developing a part for every section,
pitching the color right for different strings,
an epic sound in the tradition of
Lord of the Rings, The Game of Thrones, old Westerns.
He named the work “The Samurai with No Name”
after Clint Eastwood’s anti-hero but
insisted at our recent interview
the work’s not autobiographical.

Photo Credit: Mihyun Kang
Photograph by Mihyun Kang

Jee Leong Koh is the author of Steep Tea (Carcanet), named a Best Book of the Year by UK’s Financial Times and a Finalist by Lambda Literary in the USA. He has published three other books of poems, a collection of essays, and a volume of zuihitsu. His new book of poems, Connor and Seal, is forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press in Spring 2020. Originally from Singapore, Jee lives in New York City, where he heads the literary non-profit Singapore Unbound.