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

When Lim is talking about the tasks performed during those “hard unpaid laboring years,” we can take her literally, recalling that women are ever the ones stuck with the tasks of caring for  home and family and others needing “care baskets,” but I see another meaning here as well. Like many of the poems in Ars Poetica for the Day, this one seems concerned with art, specifically with making poetry. I don’t know about Lim, but I have often found myself relegated to the role of patron and supporter of the arts when what I wanted was to have my work taken seriously. This has taken many forms, but for me came to a head during an event I curated and also catered a few years ago. The event featured readers from a journal whose most recent issue included two of my poems, but it did not occur to anyone—not even me until later—that I should have been included among the readers. (That was when I made my vow to stop baking brownies for events.) I thought of this again at a recent screening of Dolores, a film about the inimitable and under-appreciated Dolores Huerta, in which Angela Davis mentions the way people tend to see Cesar Chavez as the leader of the farmworkers movement and Huerta as its “housekeeper.” I don’t know whether Lim intended the poem to speak to our society’s tendency to sideline women artists and relegate them to the role of caretakers, but it spoke that truth to me.

One strategy that keeps the poem from being a feminist rant is its restraint and reliance on images to make its point. Look at what we see in the poem: apples, baskets, loaves, ovens, flowers, those wondrous “gems,” a sidewalk, a hip, storerooms, fruit, bread, and finally, a deep well. We also see a speaker working for years at taking care of other people’s needs, then one day late in life “surprised” by the realization that there is a larger, more elemental world where she can simply live and enjoy flowers without thinking about picking them for arrangements for the home. That realization leads to self-discovery and expression—the pearl, onyx, and crystal that fall from her mouth—and when those gems are unseen and unappreciated, this in turn leads to a deeper sense of entrapment. At the end, she becomes physically incapable of performing the mundane tasks, cannot take sustenance, and finally, even the food itself “rots in the dark.” This is the nadir of despair, but it does give rise to the poem’s central and cautionary discovery: domestic work can consume a life.

“The Glass of Wine” is another short, free-verse poem grappling with larger issues. More lyric than “The Well,” it captures a moment in the speaker’s experience—drinking a glass of wine—that opens up into a larger realization. Writing poetry about wine is an old tradition and one followed by several poems in this book, but “The Glass of Wine” stands out for its innovative use of the principles of grammar and syntax. The poem consists of one sentence carefully parsed over nine lines, plus one more one-line sentence, and it opens with a figure from the world of grammar and syntax, a “definite article.” Definite articles include “the,” “that,” “those,” and “these”—signifiers that the noun which follows is going to be something specific. Contrast, for example, “the glass” with “a glass”—the former is more limited and points to a specific glass while the latter designates a single undifferentiated glass in the universe of glasses. In the language of grammar and syntax, “a glass” is an ordinary (nonspecific) singular, and Lim’s phrase “A definite article” is in and of itself a sly pun on these ideas.

So, what we are talking about here is not just any “glass of wine,” but one very particular one with profound (“emphatic”) effect: it becomes a “blushing / blood-red blood-shot-eyed” guide that takes the speaker into oblivion and eventual hangover: “slumber / moonless” in rooms to which she can feel indifferent, a place of “unremembering.” The imagery—especially that luscious personification of the glass of wine—is remarkable, but it is this attention to language and the complexity of wordplay that really make the poem stand out for me.

“Mother to Son” is an even briefer poem—just 28 words in 7 lines, and five of those words (“you,” “a,” “secret,” and “learn”) are repeated, so there are really only 22 words in the poem, excluding the title. As titles go, this one does some heavy lifting. Consider the poem without it—still a powerful utterance and one with the feeling of an epigram, but utterly lacking in context. Because of the title we envision these words being spoken by a particular person in a particular kind of relationship, and the experience becomes more personal and concrete. The entire poem is spoken in the imperative voice, a choice underscored by the use (and repetition) of the word “must”—which conveys urgency and import. “You must believe me,” she says, and “you must learn” the secret. Although the secret is not revealed, we know that the process of seeking it out is crucial, perhaps the most important lesson the speaker can impart to her son.

The poem is not, strictly speaking, in the form of a haiku or its more sharp-tongued relative, a senryu, but its brevity and pith borrow from those traditions. The closest equivalent in Western tradition may be the epigram, “a form of writing which makes a satiric or aphoristic observation with wit, extreme condensation, and above all, brevity.” [Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, eds. Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan, University of Princeton Press 1993, 375.] The wit in “Mother to Son” is understated, but it can be found in the last three lines where, after piquing our interest with the existence of this great, deep secret (the secret of life, perhaps), the speaker delivers the zinger: it cannot be shared; her son (and we) must learn it for ourselves.

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