Three Poems from Ars Poetica for the Day by Shirley Geok-lin Lim: “The Well,” “The Glass of Wine,” and “Mother to Son”


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.



Shirley Geok-lin Lim was born in Malacca, Malaysia and received Fulbright and Wien International Fellowships to complete her Ph.D. at Brandeis University. Her first poetry collection, Crossing the Peninsula, received the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, a first for a woman and an Asian. She is the recipient of two American Book Awards, the second for Among the White Moon Faces, a memoir narrating her immigration from a British colonial childhood to the United States. Awarded the Multiethnic Literature of the United States Lifetime Achievement Award and University of California Santa Barbara Faculty Research Lecturer Award, she’s published ten poetry collections; three short story collections; two novels (Joss and Gold and Sister Swing); a children’s novel, Princess Shawl, translated into Chinese; and The Shirley Lim Collection. She served as UCSB Chair of Women’s Studies and as Chair Professor of English at the University of Hong Kong, and is a Research Professor at UCSB.  Her most recent collections of poetry, published in 2015, are The Irreversible Sun, Ars Poetica for the Day, and Do You Live In? Ars Poetica for the Day is available here

Read a review of Ars Poetica for the Day here.

A video and audio of the author reading “Learning to Love America,” taped for Bill Moyer’s “NOW” on PBS, appears here.


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.

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