Stripping Wallpaper from the Sky by Jules Leigh Koch, Interactive Press 2015, was launched by Mike Ladd at the South Australian Writers’ Centre on Thursday 8 October 2015.
Thirteen years ago this is what I said about Jules Leigh Koch’s second book, each goldfish is hand-painted: “Jules Leigh Koch is a poet who, like the French and Australian Impressionists works en plein air. He is a colourist, a sketcher with words, who sets up his easel at the beach, in city streets, suburban back yards and gum forests. With affection he records the quotidian details of our suburbs because they are ours. This is the environment we have made. It’s where so many of us live. While not blind to their faults and disappointments, this poet takes on the function of celebrating our lives. His metaphors are full of cleverly inverted perspectives: the jetty has been cast out. The poems seem simple and modular like the suburbs themselves, but look a bit deeper and you’ll discover the playfulness of his language and real human warmth. Jules Leigh Koch works with quick dabs, bright splashes of colour and deftly caught feelings.”
I think this is still fundamentally true of his new collection Stripping Wallpaper from the Sky. After all, Koch has a recognisable style that he’s been honing for decades: short lines, compressed imagery, unpretentious language, and metaphor, metaphor, metaphor.
Now in some circles metaphor is out of fashion. But I still think it’s one of the key poetic tools. It builds connections between the world and us. It works against isolation. At its best it offers new views that refresh our ideas of the world. And Koch really loves metaphor. In fact, he has a poem that’s called ‘After Love-making I Think in Metaphors’ – and I’m wondering if he even thinks in metaphors during it!
He is a romantic, no doubt about it. I often think of Oscar Wilde’s quote “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” when I read Jules Leigh Koch’s work. The stars haunt his poems, as does the moon in various phases, the sunset, clouds, the sea, the romance of rain, but it’s not some naive retreat into nature or an easy escape into myth making. In fact, he’s simultaneously very grounded in urban and suburban reality, there’s an edge and an unease, juxtaposed with the starry. His poems talk about failed relationships, addiction, alienation, and suburban bleakness as well as the beauty around us and above us.
These are some of the metaphors from Stripping Wallpaper from the Sky: “the artificial lake is calm as a sedative”, “sunset is a blood clot” and insomnia is “a tap dripping against flesh and bone.” For a man alone in a bar his drinks go down “like flares with no landing ground.” Sunlight “tears itself along a wall”, bird sounds are “high voltage machinery” and daybreak is operated by “ropes and pulleys.” On the steps of the Salvation Army hostel a “chemically troubled” woman waits “as calmly as a getaway car” (and that’s not calmly at all.) Birds have had their flights cancelled by fog, a kettle has an umbilical cord, sunlight is electric shock therapy, windows are guillotines, and stars are screws that hold the night in place.
Now I’m starting to think I have to modify my earlier description of Koch’s poetry. Maybe the comparison isn’t so much with the impressionists but with the surrealists, because Jules Leigh Koch finds the surreal within the real in his coastal, suburban and urban settings. And here I’m thinking particularly of Rene Magritte. Even the title of this new collection Stripping Wallpaper from the Sky reminds me of one of those strange Magritte paintings where exterior becomes interior and vice versa.
Some of Koch’s surrealism is found in the ordinary everyday – like the lady bowlers who are sponsored by a funeral parlour. Other examples are a little more out there, like this one:
today I will try
to defuse a bomb
the one ticking somewhere
between your heart and genitalia
I will do it blindfolded
not to see the damage
or fallout created,
outside your bedroom I wait
with a bunch of white lilies
and my mini screwdriver kit
White lilies, a screwdriver, a blindfold, a bomb – I leave you to play with that sexual symbolism, but I can almost see it as a Magritte painting, maybe entitled ‘Boudoir of the Assassin.’
In The Essential Rene Magritte, Todd Algren has written a very interesting chapter on the poetic strategies of Magritte. Juxtaposition, dislocation, hybridization, metamorphosis – all these strategies used by the painter could also be applied to several poems by Jules Leigh Koch. But Algren describes another Magritte poetic strategy called “elective affinities” that fits Koch especially well: “he juxtaposes two related objects based on affinities or associative relationships between them” for example “the painting of a giant egg inside a bird cage, the most obvious affinity between the two being a bird.”
That’s it! When Jules Leigh Koch talks about jetties casting themselves out, happy hours spilling into each other, a construction site shovelled in with shadows, a fogbound airport postponing the flights of birds, he’s using elective affinity as a poetic strategy. Now I think I’ve finally nailed down Koch’s technique. But wait a second. Magritte himself also said: “People who look for symbolic meanings fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the image. No doubt they sense this mystery, but they wish to get rid of it. They are afraid. By asking, ‘What does it mean?’ they express a wish that everything be understandable.”
So forget this analysis. Just let Jules Leigh Koch’s images ripple over you like one of his suburban beachscapes, enjoy a wander in his streets, and a patch of his sunlight.
Mike Ladd lives and writes in Adelaide. He ran Poetica on ABC Radio National for 2 decades and currently works for Radio National’s features and documentaries unit. His new collection of poems and short prose Invisible Mending (2016) is published by Wakefield Press.