It is rare to read books at the intersection of poetry, science fiction, interracial dating, and LGBTQI+ romance. While the publication of novels like Torrey Peters’s Detransition Baby (which depicts a relationship between two trans women) shows that mainstream publishing is willing to take a chance on showcasing LGBTQI+ relationships, and the ground-breaking work of speculative writers like N.K Jemisin is creating a space for people of color to be part of the narrative of the future, I can’t think of a single book that tackles all of these themes at once, and does so in the context of a poetry collection. What’s more impressive yet is that Jee Leong Koh’s poetry collection Connor and Seal shows very little sign of struggle, or that Koh is biting off more than he can handle. The collection comes off as effortless and natural, an ode to the particularities, challenges, and transcendence of one couple’s relationship.
Connor and Seal depicts the lifelong romance between Jamaica-born Seal and Nebraska-transplant Connor in the city of New York, from the day Seal is born in 1983 until the day Connor dies, alone in a transhumanized future in 2066. The poetry collection is divided and framed by two perspectives. The Connor section compiles a set of poems that are different in style and structure, but ultimately belong to Connor’s point of view. The Seal section works as almost one long stream-of-consciousness poem.
Inside of the Connor poems, Koh aspires to create the breadth and depth of Connor’s adulthood and coming-of-age. One of the most impactful of these poems is “Arrival New York,” which captures the excitement of coming to a city with a thriving queer culture after living in a more repressed part of the world. As Connor finds his way to New York from provincial Nebraska, the earnestness and truthfulness of the voice combine with the eagerness and abandon of the rhythm to staggering effect.
Grown men deep
kissing on the streets.
Derrick, Sam, Alberto, Jee,
can such places be?
The poem, much like in the represented stanza, is littered with rhyming, which serves to amplify the playful and innocent tone of the writing. Much like a child reciting a nursery rhyme, Connor’s explorations come with a sort of excitement of someone who is rehearsing a certain way of being or living, but has yet to have the maturity to understand his actions. Repetition also serves to highlight this naiveté. Almost every stanza concludes with an iteration of “Derrick, Sam, Alberto, Jee, can such places be?” It isn’t clear who these four people are—except Jee, though it’s hard to tell whether this is a purposeful break of the narrative wall to speak to the writer, or an imagined Jee who might be part of Connor’s friend circle. Still, the repetition brings out a certain sort of wonder in Connor’s voice. He’s now in a city that allows him to be anyone he dares to be, and as a result, he is astonished, surprised, and overwhelmed, but in the most euphoric sense.
Connor’s time in New York passes, and he meets Seal at a bar. The progression in which Connor and Seal go from hooking up to wanting to be together feels entirely natural. The two fall for each other in a way that is almost identical to how gay men in real life would partner. The poem “Cocktail Napkins” for example involves Seal and Connor tallying their compatibility on a napkin. Koh lists Connor’s and Seal’s ages, interests, and career choices. While Seal is older than Conner by seven years, and Seal is a financial analyst while Conner writes grant applications, what confirms their compatibility is that “he’s a bull top and I’m a bottom. // Win-win.” Speaking as a gay male myself, it does often feel that age difference or lifestyle choices matter little in the face of physical sexual needs, and Koh captures that in a way that feels spontaneous and imagined, but also very true to reality.
The poem “Song” takes this need for a bottom to be sexually satisfied and makes it into a hymn. As the narrator sings from Connor’s perspective, “He’s a bull, top // of the shelf, // in the china shop,” Koh once more employs rhyme to enhance the sensibility of his stanzas. Koh breaks the stanza “top of the shelf” and puts “top” alongside “bull.” This stylistic choice allows “top” to rhyme with “shop,” but it also emphasizes Seal’s status as a bull, the driving male that Connor wants to be under. The language in “Song” remains playful and gaudy, lustful yet also meek. Connor is not the innocent boy we saw in “Arrival New York.” He has feasted off of the city, but he’s hungry yet for love.
Because Koh is imagining a future in which Connor and Seal spend the rest of their lives together, he chooses to introduce science-fiction tropes as the years around his characters pass. Koh creates not one, but two sex robots who sexually please Connor and Seal, just as he imagines sex parties where people pay to be artificially inseminated by androids. I ultimately got the sense that these are not necessarily authentic attempts to imagine the future, but rather Koh having fun with his concepts. The poem “Tom’s-a-cold,” for example involves Connor being “hooked up” and “thrashed” by his sex robot Tom. The robot speaks in a staccato stagger as he says phrases like, “Sir, permission to come.” If a sex robot were in fact meant to be indulged in, I doubt he would say something like that—it seems clear that this is Koh injecting humor into his premise.
Nonetheless, Tom holds as much seductive power as any other man over Connor.
like Tom’s, clean-shaven desert.
I can’t stop myself from holding out my heart for him.
my paws, he bends his head, cool
and debonair steel under the mess of real hair.
The unique description of “steel” as “debonair” or “eyes” as a “clean-shaven desert” remind the reader that Tom is inanimate. Yet something about Tom and his glassy look makes Connor want to offer his heart even more. More than likely, it has nothing to do with Tom. It is Connor’s desperation for sexual pleasure, or the need to connect in a very specific way, that Tom brings out of him.
That loneliness, or rather, that sense of disconnect between Connor and Seal despite spending a life together, is fully developed in the “Seal” half of Koh’s collection. The poems are built of pages of four-line stanzas with no punctuation or capitalization. Seal’s reflections appear written from a mind dispossessed of a body:
beehives are trucked to wanton cornfield blue
assyrian refugees in flatbed ferries
when brooklyn bees are fed maraschino cherries
blood honey robitussin red for you
Once again, rhyming is employed to provoke a certain response to the character’s voice, but in Seal’s case, the rhyming is not youthful. It comes off almost mythical, prophetic, furthering the possibility that the Seal in question is not a human Seal, but a Seal that is part machine, part human.
Koh employs distance in perspective as well as metaphor in order to further the possibility that the narrator is a post-human Seal. He describes, for example, waking up: “i now raise as if rolling a stone.” The stone image creates the sense of something removed and big, material but not fully sentient. Likewise, there is a very specific techno-sensibility on display by describing the sun as “a bit of deep programming code” which “swivels its suspect electronic eye // logging on at hotspots to its wifi.” Koh wants us to be aware that the relationship between technology and humanity is changing, and that the humans of the latter part of this century will most likely be involved in that transfiguration.
As the poem moves forward, it becomes less clear whether Koh is making reference to the actual physical world, or a merged digital reality into which Connor is synchronized. The abstraction works in Koh’s favor. He knows that he is fundamentally writing a poetry collection and not a tract of futurism, and so by being imprecise, he can get lost in his images without having to worry whether or not they are clear or not.
What is clear is that despite the plethora of images in Seal’s mind, visions of Connor, both in past and in present, dominate his imagination. Whether it involves how high the sun was “the morning he bottomed” or “the all american with esquire good looks” Connor once had, Connor lives lifelessly in the ether of thoughts which make Seal whole, and it is the value that Connor has brought to his life in the past, present, and the future.
I doubt that Jee Leong Koh had this particular mix of genres in mind when he decided to write Connor and Seal. He most likely had a story to tell, and the shape it took required him to imagine life long after 2019. Nonetheless, his imagination in Connor and Seal is rare in contemporary poetry. By making the artistic decisions he has in Connor and Seal, Koh not only provides a raw and visceral portrait of a life well spent between two partners; he has also rendered the pathways that LGBTQI+ life can take as the forthcoming decades unfold.