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

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

These three poems come from Ars Poetica for the Day, a slim volume of poetry I discovered when I met its author, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, at the 2017 West Chester Poetry Conference last June. Like her book of poems, Lim is understated and modest, and also quietly fierce. Her reading at the conference included work openly critical of the state of political affairs since the 2016 election—one was an unforgettable riff on “A Visit from St. Nicholas” that left many of us wickedly delighted, and also moved.

Ars Poetica for the Day collects 77 poems in 85 pages; most poems occupy a page or less, and there is plenty of white space. Except for a handful of longer pieces, the poems are spare, giving the reader a sense of having been pruned to their essence. Many are epigrammatic, and I can imagine reading one each morning and then pondering its lesson all day. Written by a woman who is a professor and scholar but also a wife and mother, many deal, at least on the surface, with what one poem calls “the art of being home.” You can see this from the titles in the table of contents: “Home Stretch,” “Housework,” “Returning Home,” “Homeless.” But within that setting, the book is preoccupied with deeper concerns and treats larger subjects of identity, place in the world, Art, and also poetry: its sources and reasons, its unfathomable power to console.

All this makes me think of a comment by V.S. Naipaul I’ve mentioned before—how he knows within a few lines of reading something whether a woman has written it, because, according to him, we are preoccupied with smaller (and by this he means lesser) subjects. It seems to me that this construct confuses the message with its means of delivery. It’s true that many of 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. As a friend of mine said when discussing Naipaul’s comments, “There is infinite space in the nucleus of an atom.” These poems are like that nucleus and also like the tents in the Harry Potter books: small packages that open up to larger spaces, worlds even, within.

“The Well” is one such poem, and I was not surprised to read in the Author’s Note of its archetypal, fairy-tale origins. Its thirteen lines of free verse employ anaphora, a rhetorical device that repeats words and phrases at the beginnings of lines. Here, the word “After” opens every line but the last one. The repetition gives emphasis to the word, leading readers to a full appreciation of its evocative connotations so that we understand how “after,” even out of context, is a word signaling loss. Another effect of anaphora is incantatory: just saying the same word at the beginning of lines has its own haunting and compelling power, a quality made use of by some of history’s most memorable orators, such as Martin Luther King. Thus, even before we get to the gorgeous remaining language, just that structure sets up a powerful scaffolding.

The poem’s lines are all end-stopped with punctuation, a deliberate decision made, I think, to enact the sense of closure and entrapment captured by the poem’s last, unforgettable image of the speaker having been “pushed into” a well. Of 22 verbs, half are in the passive tense or in the form of gerunds and participles, choices that grammatically enact the poem’s themes of coercion and entrapment. The apples are “plucked” rather than us seeing the speaker picking the apples; her fingers are “burned” by the loaves of bread. The speaker is acted upon in various ways until line 4, where she is “sprung” to a new place where “spring arrives / yearly and flowers do not plead to be picked.” After this, we see her able to take independent action: she “opens her mouth,” and gems fall out. I take this to be a metaphor for the speaker finding her voice and inspiration in poetry. When the “gems lie in a corner uncollected,” she still acts, but in ways that show how her power has been diminished by all those “hard unpaid laboring years”: she “stumbles,” “breaks a hip,” and is no longer able to “chew the fruit and the bread.” All this leads to the last, real awakening when she “wonders,” finally understanding that her lifelong domestic labors are a kind of stifling, dark trap.

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