Shirley Geok-lin Lim: Ars Poetica for the Day



The Well

After the apples were plucked and packed in care baskets,
After the fingers were burned pulling the loaves out of the giant ovens,
After the hard unpaid laboring years on things that demanded attention,
After she was sprung, surprised, gray-headed, to the surface where spring arrives
……….yearly and flowers do not plead to be picked,
After she opens her mouth in an oh! that falls out a pearl, an onyx, a crystal,
After the gems lie in a corner uncollected,
After she stumbles on a sidewalk, macular degeneration pricking black holes in the
……….new world,
After she breaks a hip, the one that carried the care baskets to the storerooms,
After she can no longer chew the fruit and the bread,
After the apples and loaves rot in the darkness,
She wonders about the well she’d been pushed into.



The Glass of Wine

A definite article finds
the difference between a passing
ordinary singular
and the emphatic—blushing
blood-red blood-shot-eyed evening
guide to take you to slumber,
moonless, in rooms you will not mind
that are old or that are new,
assigned to unremembering,
till squabbling bird calls wake you.



Mother to Son

You must believe me
when I tell you
there is a deep
secret you must learn,
a secret that can
never be shared.
Go now and learn it.


From Ars Poetica for the Day (Ethos Books 2015) and published with permission of the author.
A video and audio of the author reading “Learning to Love America,” taped for Bill Moyer’s “NOW” on PBS, appears here.



Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s Crossing the Peninsula received the British Commonwealth Poetry Prize, first for a woman and Asian. She’s published ten poetry collections, most recently The Irreversible Sun, Ars Poetica for the Day, and Do You Live In? Her poetry has been widely anthologized; published in journals like the Hudson Review, Feminist Studies and theVirginia Quarterly; featured on television by Bill Moyers, in Tracey K. Smith’s Slowdown, and set to music as libretto for various scores performed at Oxford University, for example. “Learning to Love America” is regularly performed as part of the NEA Poetry Out Loud Program.


Poet’s Note

These three poems appear in my 2015 collection, Ars Poetica for the Day, published by a Singapore publisher, Ethos Books. An unhappy child, I found life-redeeming pleasure in reading, especially poetry, and began writing poems when I was about ten. My poetry comes out of my early years growing up in Malaysia, as well as my years in America, particularly California. While the poems seem to sprawl across global spaces and national identities, at their core they are about the ordinary stuff—work, parenthood, health, aging, language, and as the title underlines, those arts that compose and console us daily—books, writing, wine.

“The Well” takes its inspiration from the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale, “Mother Holle.” While not a straightforward retelling, it focuses on the ancient theme of how hard work pays off; for her years of service, the good stepdaughter is gifted with gems falling out of her mouth each time she speaks while toads jump out of the mouth of the wicked stepmother’s lazy daughter. The poem questions and I hope subverts this message aimed at instructing young women to persevere at domestic work, work that uses up your life before you have lived among spring flowers.

“The Glass of Wine” begins with the seemingly simple choice of the grammatical “the” over the indefinite article “a” in the phrase “glass of wine” to play with the serious theme of alcoholism. What may be for many merely a glass of wine is also for some a definitive attachment resulting in what the poem enacts as the hazy sensations of overdrinking.

“Mother to Son” is in the voice of a mother addressing her son, to offer him what she frames as his life’s conundrum. Setting his quest as one to learn a secret, she tells him that the secret “can never be shared.” The poem suggests that as a woman the mother cannot teach her son the secret of manhood, but it also suggests the impossible challenge he faces, to learn a secret that can never be shared. In short, the secret he must learn will be one that is unique to him and one that he must bear alone for all his life.


Commentary by Amanda Moore

National Poetry Month is a good time to reflect on the wealth of wonderful work we have been fortunate to feature on Poetry Sunday over the last five years, more than 300 columns and poems since Rebecca Foust came on board in 2015 at Women’s Voices for Change and later invited me to contribute. This April, and in Aprils going forward, we plan to revisit columns published during our tenure, allowing the work of these phenomenal poets a new place in the sun and offering us the opportunity to revisit our thoughts and commentary in light of current circumstances. Whether you have been following from the beginning or are a new reader, we hope you will enjoy these reprises, and remember—Women’s Voices maintains a deep archive of Poetry Sunday columns here for your continued (re)discovery.

For National Poetry Month 2021, we are reprising columns by Asian American writers to recognize and celebrate the substantial contributions of Asian American Pacific Islander communities to our culture, and also to acknowledge the recent racist killings in Atlanta and the precipitous increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States in the past year. In revisiting these extraordinary poems and poets, we lift up their voices and stand in solidarity with them. Join us each Sunday in April to look back at work we’ve previously featured and to imagine the voices to come. Additionally, visit Stop AAPI Hate for more information on active ways to support the Asian American Pacific Islander Community.

I chose Shirley Geok-Lin Lim’s work to revisit this month because I have taught her marvelous poem “Learning to Love America” to high school students and have always admired its nuance and form. The three poems from Ars Poetica for the Day featured in 2017 are compact and make use of compression to deliberately and meaningfully address their subjects without wasting a single syllable. From the anaphora in “The Well” that creates a sense of the extended descent down the well of aging, to the powerful Langston Hughes allusion in the title of “Mother to Son” (read his poem by the same name here), Lim’s poems are wonderful examples of how even the smallest elements of a well-crafted poem can have huge effects. “The Glass of Wine” meditates on this very idea, highlighting the weight and power of a definitive article, “the” instead of “a,” in a narrative that addresses alcoholism. Rebecca Foust’s original column on Lim’s works plumbs the depths of how these short lyrics address such grand ideas, recognizing that “Lim’s poems are set in the circumscribed worlds of home and Academia, but this is merely the way the author accesses larger issues of exile, identity, and artistic inspiration.” For a deep dive on each poem’s craft, read Foust’s 2017 column here.



Amanda Moore‘s debut collection of poems, Requeening, was selected for the National Poetry Series and will be published by HarperCollins/Ecco in October 2021. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies including ZYZZYVA, Cream City Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Currently a Brown Handler Resident at the San Francisco Friends of the Public Library, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member, and she lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: Clementine Nelson.

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