Afterimage by Werner Kho
First published at Singapore Unbound's SP Blog.
In his debut poetry collection, Afterimage, Werner Kho embraces the blurred lines between beginnings and endings in an attempt to pinpoint the elusive yet powerful phenomenon identified in the title. An afterimage is an image that continues to appear to the viewer even after the original image has disappeared. Afterimages are ghosts, memories, mental reconstructions of voids both real and abstract, and, as Kho demonstrates, they permeate human relationships as much as they do the physical world. Afterimage contains fewer than thirty poems, yet its precise, lyrical language reflects Kho's sensitivity to human emotional fragility as well as his potential as a writer.
Although clearly grounded in personal experience, most of the poems in Afterimage address a generic ‘you’. A few include dedications, but the dedicatees are identified only by their initials. This strategy allows the collection to highlight the universality of loss and the irony that grief is so often stigmatized in mainstream society. Often, it does so through a tangible narrative. Consider Kho’s poem "(Re)lease.” With a title that plays off the notion of tenancy and repetition, Kho contemplates the processes of decay that, too often, characterize our relationships and spill over into the physical spaces we inhabit. Here, Kho deftly sketches the shared nature of the rented apartment, showing how the years accumulate and “A kitchen can only be done over/ so many times, before// its bones show.” Although each party in the relationship might see “doing over” the kitchen as a form of reinvention and even shared healing, physical spaces, like emotional ones, can only tolerate a finite number of reconstructions. The poem ends with this sombre truth:
The beginning overlaps
an end, a floor we had trodden,
only to have it stripped bare.
In this final tercet, Kho portrays the loss of a relationship with restraint. That the beginning “overlaps,” enjambing into “an end” is disarming not because it represents the demise of hope but because it happens so soon. The footprints have barely set into the new carpet before the characters in “(Re)lease” find themselves stripping the floor bare again. Nevertheless, the ending is framed in open-ended terms, with the indefinite article ‘an’ rather than the definite article ‘the’. Perhaps the afterimage, inescapable as it may be, is not entirely destructive of hope.
At the center of Kho’s collection are two poems exploring photography, where afterimages, produced by camera flashes in the eyes of the sitter, have figurative as well as physical meaning. In the first, “Photograph,” Kho’s speaker ruminates on a photograph they sat for but never saw printed:
I wondered how much
time was left before the light
washed everything out,
and I, engulfed in the entirety
of a flash, would remain
in the range of your viewfinder.
A photograph has the capacity to immortalize and idealize a single instant in time and, in turn, to obscure everything that comes before and after it. The narrator’s description of this sitting, with its “golden hour,” suggests idyll and joy. The photograph sanctifies the relationship and preserves a brief moment of bliss; however, it lays down an inerasable testimony to reality that perhaps was never meant to last. Its light blinds the photographer, or at least narrows the viewpoint to a moment that the sitter is unable, because of the brightness, to capture for his own memory. After the light “washes everything out,” what remains is the image of the sitter, ghostlike, incomplete, and simplified from a three-dimensional being into a two-dimensional array of colour and shadow.
The second poem, “Dark Room,” moves us from the studio to the titular darkroom, and it is possible that the photographer has now become the speaker. The act of producing the photograph is framed in destructive terms, with the speaker describing the developing negatives as the soldering of “ash into a jaw” and the red light coming to him as “a distant fire.” It is clear the two poems regard photographs with ambivalence, as objects that provide moments of peace and inspire a fierce desire to escape. Here, "Everything is washed// out under light; the opening/ of the door, an exit wound." By capturing his relationships in photographic form, or allowing others to capture them, Kho’s speaker has made himself vulnerable and preserved a part of himself that he later realizes he prefers to forget. As a result, the act of departure—the "exit"—also leaves a wound, which opens afresh as he remembers the parallel act of sitting for the photograph. His eyes remain glazed over with the afterimage—in technical terms, the negative of the image—that blinds him as much as it helps him see.
Keeping this distance between past and present in mind, Kho turns a photographic eye towards memories that retain an emotional luster. In "Birthday," Kho’s speaker decides, after years of out-of-tune, homely renditions of "Happy Birthday," to "stop waiting for the messages/ at midnight. [...] stop/ holding my breath as the wax melts." Yet, in giving up the tradition of midnight birthday messages, the speaker finds himself holding onto love now lost. In the speaker’s memory, the birthday songs and photos in earlier stanzas are subordinate to the longed-for messages from another party. By voicing that he denies them, the speaker paradoxically consecrates these messages as remnants of what once was, unable to dismiss them even if they are no longer worth trying to maintain. Amid a mental landscape of candles and celebrations, the speaker’s resolution that he does not need to “wait” for something that should already be his hovers uneasily between moving on and remaining entranced by the relationship’s afterimage.
These issues of memory and belonging show through vividly in Kho's more tangible poems as well as in his abstract ones. In "Contra," a poem consisting of five aphoristic tercets, Kho’s speaker recalls the age-old question of whether or not God can create something he cannot lift: "How do you hold a weight/ so heavy, wrought/ from your own hands?" Here, the question concerns not faith but loss, and the irony that death cannot occur without life. Kho continues, "all of eternity/ is taking place at once." In a collection about loss and grieving, “Contra” seems to aptly describe how memories haunt us despite our awareness of the distinctions between past and present. Even with this knowledge, loss feels like an "eternity," and time seems to lose its essence amid the confusion of being alone in so intimately connected a world.
Kho's awareness of language is evident throughout the collection, and he refers several times to the acts of writing and speaking. In the poem, “Translation,” Kho’s speaker reveals:
[…] We shared
a mother tongue but argued
in different languages; words
cut sharper when they
jarred like that.
Kho’s speaker and their beloved struggle because they have acquired different languages of argument. They no longer share the same subconscious acceptance of tone and syntax through which they once conveyed meaning to each other. Now, the need to translate from one language into another distorts the ease of communication. These languages “jar” like two musicians playing in different keys: even though they share a “mother tongue,” their most instinctive selves—which emerge during their arguments—exist in different, incompatible languages.
In the poem "The center of every poem is this:" Kho uses the cento form, an amalgamation of lines from other poems, to attempt to come to terms with these mangled dialogues: "I’m a poet, if there is a past,/ I have forgotten it." Clearly, though, the speaker has not forgotten: each poem in Afterimage lives in the shadow of the past. Kho’s use of the cento form helps frame disparate narratives and memories into a whole and lay down his inheritance as writer and man. No matter how much the poet may distort reality in order to heal, the past—and the people who shaped it—still stands. Just as there can be no poetry without a spark from the past, there is no afterimage without an image.
Afterimage is striking for its framing of loss in psychological as well as physical terms. In "An Anatomy," Kho gives voice to the delicacy of human life and reminds us of who we are within our bodies: "You are two continents/ pressed into accordion ribs, you are a combination// of bruises faded into blushes." Regardless of the circumstances, the pains and the contradictions in separation are always present. They imprint themselves on the body and grow themselves into the people whose lives they touch. In Afterimage, Kho at once mythologizes them and makes them feel entirely tangible. He spreads them out across an Earth constructed from pieces of the people he has loved. He uses similar spatial imagery in “Geography,” where his speaker demonstrates how, despite nominal closeness, the two souls remain separate:
[…] But no matter
how much I tried to calculate the distance,
the time I’d take to reach, I found
the sea growing, the earth shifting
their plates underneath, as if to say
this world wasn’t mine to travel.
Kho evokes the popular metaphor of a relationship as a body of water, which his speaker struggles to “navigate” because its surface topography is constantly changing. The image of tectonic plates shifting above the molten depths of the relationship further colors the lover’s escape from the speaker’s grasp. As the sea grows and he must recalculate and learn to swim farther, the speaker fails to find what he is searching for, yet grows more world-aware and more resilient. He realizes that other people may appear as monumental as continents within his viewfinder, but, even so, an entire world exists beyond them.
Here, as in every other poem in Afterimage, Kho reminds us that loss and grief are not only inevitable and challenging but also eye-opening, validating, and even empowering. His speakers do not necessarily find closure, and the collection does not offer an overarching emotional narrative of discovery or acceptance. Yet, this may be the point: Kho’s poetry testifies to the ambiguity of romantic relationships as a category of experience and thereby illuminates the digressions, vacillations, and repetitions of poetic and personal memory. Kho’s speakers are conscious of their ties to the past, and, in that sense, they are not wholly absorbed in it. Afterimage, as a collection, leaves a specific impression of relationships in ruins. This afterimage makes the near-ubiquitous presence of the past all the more evident.
by Maggie Wang
Maggie Wang is an undergraduate at the University of Oxford. Her writing has appeared or will appear in K’in, Ruminate, Shards, the Literary Nest, Rigorous, and APIARY, among others. She has also won awards from the Poetry Society and the Folger Shakespeare Library. When not writing, she enjoys playing the piano and exploring nature.