Heat, in Sandra Lim’s stunning new collection The Curious Thing, is understandable. Can be described. “Our bodies swelled and stank,” she writes of two violent lovers in “Pastoral,” “and we caved to it all day, under a cloud of flies.” Lust, want, ambition—these are understandable, even if disturbing. “Infinite dogginess,” she calls these phenomena, or, more generously: “You can see the flower starting up / In people,” even though you may be “like me, / a touch affronted by your own / underlying avidity.” Cold, on the other hand, the cold of winter, the cold of a cold person, cold of leftover chicken, the cold that is everything’s final state—this is the mystery. This, proposes the poet, is the edge of things. And we feel that cold at the edges of these poems, in the elegant silences, in the way the poems are “shorn of all expository,” in the way that coldness presses against the poems, which—like a violence within against a violence without—push back, try, as the opening poem articulates, to take up the challenge of representing “the supreme gaiety / of the heart.” How, to put it crudely, do you speak of happiness in the context of a world full of sadness?
For this is, truly, a book about happiness, a book that moves carefully through that particular minefield, full of its illusions and sentiment traps, trying to find a language for the sweetness that nestles with the bitter. Lim, who was born in Seoul but spent most of her childhood in San Francisco and studied at Stanford and UC Berkeley and Iowa, is a professor of creative writing at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. Her new book folds all of these places and more into its vivid brevities, not only in the city poems that crop up every so often—“Boston,” “Chicago,” “San Francisco,” little portraits and self-portraits in and against those vastnesses—but also in glimpses of a grandmother who refuses the glimpses, who in every old photo has blocked her face, or in the poet’s journeys through the literary landscapes of Jean Rhys, Luis Buñuel, Goethe, and Spinoza. And Lim’s imagination draws her back always, it seems, to the land of her childhood, San Francisco: when a lover spurns her, the speaker of one poem remembers “how dark and cold summers could be.”
Remembering: Though the book is deeply engaged with the action of memory, Lim’s poems have none of the heaviness of memory, none of the rank weightiness of nostalgia. They are never chatty, but they draw on the walls of the colloquial. Neither casual nor strained. Part of the power is in the brutal, quick associations, the way the poet moves so efficiently and fearlessly, bewildering pronouns and opening delicious ambiguities. Understatement combined with precision. But Lim’s gift is also for the odd—“odd” is too tame a word, better maybe to say “wildly fresh”—phrase or line, lines that retain both their strangeness and their enigmatic rightness, feeling somehow neither gratuitous nor off-puttingly opaque. “I think I lived to myself,” she writes, remembering a childhood fever—in a poem that offers the metaphor in the book’s title, “the curious thing” that is “lying on your heart. / Like that childhood fever, it’s private, without account.” Or, in a poem recounting a meeting with someone who seems as grim and fierce and sad as death’s very lover, the poet feels the press of surrounding “ferns and creepers / and the low earth of duty.” The low earth of duty? It would be violence to parse such a treasure of poetry. “For her,” she writes in the next poem, “every confrontation left a burnt place in creation …” If cold is the final mystery, it is also the fire in these poems—the edge that Lim writes against—leaving a record of itself seared in lines.
JESSE NATHAN: The poems in this new book speak from a number of perspectives, not only other selves, but parts of a single self. There is the fat censor who “replaces me” in the first poem, and there is the speaker in another poem who describes her own “Life” as a “moron of joy.” I’m curious about these multifarious and sometimes contradictory voices and viewpoints articulated—one poem says, “I didn’t love him,” and another, maybe to another lover or maybe to the same one, wishes for a more original way to say, “I love you.” What is a self, in your view? Is it discontinuous? Can it be continuous?
SANDRA LIM: There’s this wonderful quote from the thirteenth-century Zen master Dogen: “Acting on and witnessing oneself in the advent of myriad things is enlightenment.” I like this idea both for the sense of detachment and plenitude. Whether one is writing about setting one’s life in order, witnessing a crisis, or feeling out one’s own mind and (sometimes unseemly) heart—one can explore the self not as a fixed object, but as something to be revived in the things around it, in the things it notices.
I think this number of perspectives also allows me to value or honor, if only in the moments of the poems themselves, experience over certainty. But there’s no competition between certainty and states of feeling and being; instead of trying to control the outcome, the poem’s speaker is alert to trade-offs, comedy, defensiveness, appetites. In this light, I consider the self as continuous but not intrinsically one thing or another: perhaps I think of the self as the mind’s internal confrontations with itself and with life.
Dispensing with the expository at times helps me avoid falling into received reasoning and generalities as I approach writing about the self, which I still think of as one of the great human and poetic subjects. The ability of a consciousness to be open to all that exists, not only to what is identified with or preferred, allows it to discover something new, even when drawing on age-old currents of feeling—or so I desperately hope! In a poem, I’m keen not to merely affirm something that I know or to ironize the conditions of my knowingness. There’s the excitement or drama in the writing and in the education of the spirit, you’re figuring something out, it’s dynamic. I’m naturally an obedient apprentice-type by temperament, but “obscene” seems to me a more adequate way of describing the consensus we call reality at times. A thrilling materiality gets let in with that word, like something released in the mind or in the poem that resists becoming in any way allegorical.