SEPTEMBER 27, 2021
SANDRA LIM’S THIRD BOOK, The Curious Thing (W.W. Norton), is a continuation of her usual interests — eros and philosophy, surprising imagery and associative leaps — but most striking about this new collection is the insistence on a contemporary feminine interiority which Lim declares, poem after poem, as the source of the lyric itself. Here we encounter kinship with Jean Rhys, Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, poems about Lim’s mother and her grandmother. Patriarchs are notably absent, and the one man who is at the center of the poems is a mathematician who exists in opposition to the female speaker and fails to understand the poet’s sprightly soul. There is a frivolous radicality in writing the feminine in the 21st century; while reading Lim’s dazzling poems, I kept returning to Camille Paglia’s book Sexual Personae, wherein the controversial art critic claims that poetry is emotion incarnate, since “every word is a palpation of the body.” Per Paglia’s theorem, the practice of lyricism represents the slow, inexplicable music found in chthonian nature, the mystical spirit that “connect[s …] the body and mind.” Relating to Paglia, Lim’s poems enact this tension: she asserts that this Dionysian essence, where poetry coils from, is feminine and its counterpart — Apollonian order and intellect — is masculine.
The Curious Thing loosely follows the loss of a romantic love, although the particulars of the relationship remain mysterious. The lover, we gather, is the aforementioned mathematician, while the speaker is a writer, preoccupied by emotion, physical pleasure, and contemplation, rather than “systems.” This dichotomy — the über-rational, abstract world of numbers versus the irrational, concrete world of the body — ingeniously reanimates the ancient notion that order is masculine, chaos feminine. The chasm between their worlds is not unbridgeable, but it is profound enough to cause titillation and alienation. “I loved how true the imaginary numbers could be; / it was much more interesting than life—” the speaker admits of her lover’s work in a poem called “Bent Lyre.” Immediately, she modifies the realm of numbers with anthropomorphic attributes: “[Y]ou could have company / and you could have loneliness in it.” This astonishing, astute gesture of Romantic transference is her signature: of course, the poet turns numbers into poetry. She melts the rigidity of the system, bends it and makes music out of its severity. The poet sees the lyre everywhere, be it in the “berserk patterns” of the pigeons on the street, or in a formula of numbers.
Perceptively, Lim characterizes the masculine with an exacting, acerbic bleakness: wherever the mathematician appears, the words increase in assonance and are replete in consonants. He operates with an “axis” and a “fixed” “hardness,” his honesty is “bitter,” his love is of a “clandestine complicity.” Even the figurative language surrounding him is stern. When he relays an important confession, the arguments are withheld from the poem, but the emotion resembles a “head hitting the stone tiles of [the] patio.” These impressions accrue to the picture of a distant, taciturn, and perplexed man, one whose emotional negligence is unintentional: “[Y]our terrifying honesty could be bitter, but I forgave / the bitterness.” There are several poems in which the speaker regards herself through the male lover’s perspective: “I know that many times I misspent her hope: it was flowering and it was finite…” She is concerned with ontological nuclei, absorbed in surveying the madness “in the ultimate heart / of things” whereas according to “his fine mathematical mind” all is immovable: “[T]ime is fixed, / and ends are certain.” Unlike hers, his Weltanschauung is governed by “[c]larity and justice.”
But there is no “clarity and justice” where the artist — and hence the feminine — reigns. The divine feminine, Paglia posits, possesses an ur-knowledge of the disturbing, cold solitude at the center of human and natural existence, which stems directly from the underworld. Although Lim’s mathematician is concerned with facts and classifications, it is she who is closer to the fundamental truth of our human condition, which resides in the subconscious, or the childlike, harmless soul which nonetheless is capable of coldness: during a feverish episode in childhood, the speaker spits at her mother’s face. This interaction of pre-Oedipal abjection leads to a rift which gives the speaker her individuality: “A room of one’s own is splendid.” Of course, the room is both physical and mental; the inner core of secrecy is what sustains the poet.
“Then he hated her,” the lover says as he leaves: “She led a nasty mental life.” Nastiness, here, speaks to the psychological cruelty which is historically considered feminine. Like the sly cat “quietly leading its feminine life,” the speaker possesses a “private” core inaccessible to the male, and this makes her detestable. Yet, this privacy is her power: Lim links femininity and the lyric in a way that’s astonishing, that emboldens the gendered seclusion. There is no hardship that can deter her; on the contrary, even the solitude incurred by the scorned lover’s departure stimulates the speaker’s inner life — it makes the poet the poet: “In a poet’s household, some people secretly love bad news.”
Hence, it is no wonder that the act of writing appears as an objective the poet longs for as much as — if not even more than — love. With stylish swagger, she alludes to literary ancestors like Woolf, Vallejo, Flaubert, Goethe, and Charlotte Brontë: “I am hot and tiny, yet I wrote Jane Eyre.” Humor, a contemporary vernacular, and an insistence on artistic excellence seep through almost every page. In “Black Box,” one of the most brilliant and surprising lyric poems I have read in a long time, Lim dramatizes the inner turmoil a writer experiences in moments of platonic tenderness: the speaker drinks coffee with a friend, and a part of her interfuses:
It was the kind of story I like, and I wanted
to get it right, for later:
The hot morning in the café,
feeling encroached on by a cloud of dusty ferns and creepers
and the low earth of duty.
The female friend mourns the loss of her male lover, mirroring the speaker’s own heartbreak, and together they share their respective solitudes. Here, the mind and the body are confronting each other; what the poet yearns for is not real intimacy, but the mimetic and transformative act of art-making. In “Naxos,” the speaker admits that language fails her when faced with universality: “I love you, I wish there was some more / original way of saying it.” But the speaker’s bitter coffee — which is present in “Black Box” too — rapidly leads to the idea of writing: “And the little dark stone / of work that secures me, where is it?” Work intrudes upon her even in moments of perfect bliss. “[T]he low earth of duty,” then, describes the duty to friendship and love, yes, but also the fidelity to writing out of which springs everything.
The Curious Thing takes its title from “Something Means Everything,” a poem about childhood memories as relayed through the mother. Here, the omniscient speaker zooms back and forth between memories of present and past, trying to delineate the origins of her complex longing: “I like to imagine that I was at one time / truly formless and uncaring, only yearning toward / water and sleep, opening and closing.” Robbed of an innocent, almost photosynthetic simplicity, the adult speaker is cursed with having experienced true romance: “[A] love to measure past / and future loves against.” But there is a spiritual epiphany tucked away in this poem: we know the rarity of emotion comes from within and not without, it “is just what you have had with you / all along, the curious thing lying on your heart.” In an extraordinary turn, the speaker remembers seeing the “most beautiful young woman” on the street, “and when she turned to look down and smile / upon me, I saw she had no teeth at all.”
Beyond the facade of beauty lies foul terror, a quasi-psychedelic speechlessness: feminine beauty, the sublime, and the savage are transposable. What jolts from the black void of the toothless smile is chthonian creation itself: “[I]t was like a promise […] / a poisoning of spirit or its very healing.” This enigma is not solved; instead Lim rests on uncertainty, allowing us to sit with the salient, bewildering image. It is a testament to Lim’s brilliance that a volume of sparse lyric poems spanning some 60 pages proves to be such a complex, richly textured book glimmering with questions about psychoanalysis, philosophy, art, urban solitude, and romance. Lim is, through and through, a poet of the heart — she “long[s] for glamour and passion” and wants to be “escorted through / the grieving joy of words / set down right,” just like Jean Rhys, to whom she dedicates an entire poem. And like Rhys, Lim has a literary commitment to feminine interiority, a specifically gendered solitude. Yet, her work transcends the “cold” “festival” of the modern icon of female melancholia; by the end, experience has “made [her] brave,” she realizes that “[t]here is more to life than writing.” So, everywhere, the lyric mind tries to convey “the supreme gaiety of the heart.” Lim’s voice, which is fiercer and more dexterous than ever, brings into being a collection of powerful, dark, and inscrutable poems that defy gravity, just like “stone[s] / flung from a volcano.”