By Nathan Blansett | Contributing Writer
The Curious Thing
W.W. Norton, 2021
I like short books. It always strikes me how seductive, potent, and complete something can feel by virtue of what is excised, omitted. Of course, a short collection of poetry risks inadequacy. But a large, long collection risks turgidity. I especially admire volumes that strive to the economy and distillation to which lyric poems themselves conventionally aspire. Sandra Lim’s third book of poems, The Curious Thing, one of the finest books published this year, is a brisk one.
These poems display fierce concision. But we should be wary of using a descriptor like “austere” to situate them. Lim’s voice has always been more opulent than arctic, even if the speaker of her 2014 collection, The Wilderness, did trek through a wintry internal landscape. That book’s closing poem, cleverly titled “Cliffs,” arrived at an edge: “Words are afraid up here. / The rapture and the terrifying exposure.” Then: “Snow hurries to the meeting, wanting to cover the waking in my body. / I could fill up the sea with this waking.”
Such plangent music can risk inertness—or relentlessness. So it comes as a relief that the stated challenge of The Curious Thing, disclosed in its opening poem, “is to convey the supreme gaiety / of the heart.” The textures of daily life (sharing “bitter coffees on the terrace,” a bartender who “decants striped red straws / with their determined gaiety into a glass jar,” even “shopping bags and appointments”) keep these poems amorous and supple. Colloquial ease is never far: “You always forget,” writes Lim, “you’re a bag of blood.”
But such élan belies a seething intellect. “There is something attractive,” said Marianne Moore, “about a mind that moves in a straight line.” Reading these poems one capitulates to their ferocity of expression and precision of sentiment. In “Chanson Douce,” holding a newborn feels alien to the childless speaker, who is “anxious, supreme, and invaded / by longing,” and occasions a sobering memory of
time ago, wishing I had something
new, and the strain of it
nearly killing me. There was
no deeper meaning.
Elsewhere, the sense of abandon described in the novels of Jean Rhys is licensed as a kind of ars poetica:
I hear you, Jean. Yours is a voice
disabused; and inside the cold of it,
there’s a sort of festival.
The word “festival” strikes one here almost like a profanity.
Three of the most exquisite poems in this collection each possess for a title the name of a different American city. Delivered in past tense, each poem limns youth’s obvious pleasures and anxieties—and, less obviously, youth’s ineluctable boredom. In “Chicago,” the speaker remembers mornings she
heard the train roar and go up
into the center of things. […]
I would take long walks and say to no one,
When I was first married…
Later, in “Boston,” she sets up a vividly drawn scene of emotional paralysis:
When I first moved to this city to take a job,
and the snows began to fall, a slow sadness took hold of me.
Someone left a tiny pencil drawing of a sailboat
on the ceiling of my bedroom, and I would stare up at it each night,
thinking that it would eventually stir.
When “Boston” first appeared last year in the New York Review of Books, the considerable attention the poem garnered on Twitter (it seemed everyone, for a while, and with good reason, was re-tweeting it) made me wonder what exactly Lim tapped into. Twitter, in addition to expanding our notion of what an audience for poetry might be, does increasingly seem a useful gauge to measure a poem’s “success.” Her poem goes on for only three more lines:
I met someone that first spring, and I didn’t love him.
But I very much wanted someone to look at me,
in all my youth and feminine momentum.
The unadorned clarity of the speaker’s admission is moving. The phenomenon she describes is not especially uncommon, or even shocking, and to feign or dramatize otherwise would read as ersatz. Here is one reason for this poem’s reach and resonance. We live under dishonest, bombastic, precarious systems in an era where “the snows” fall later and later or simply not at all. Poems like “Boston” offer what we need: the truth articulated plainly and immutably.
Nevertheless, wistful scenes like “Boston” are but foils to a larger drama: the account of someone who, almost at the exact middle of the book, can suddenly “draw a line down the middle / of my life.” Now, estranged from youth and its attendant stasis, our speaker realizes “there was my body, inside of my soul. / It had different aspirations.”
What are those aspirations? Lim makes clear the barriers: “my inconsistencies,” for one, and the consuming, perplexing shock of one’s mature desires. “I wonder if you’re like me,” the speaker asks, “a touch affronted by your own / underlying avidity.”
It is the enduring human need for satiation these poems are after; we as readers start to strain for it, too. So the ending of a poem like “Barking Noises” gratifies with its literal scene of appetite:
All three clocks in the apartment
pointed to half-past four
when he left. No one disbelieved the clocks.
She sat at the kitchen table
until the windows got dark. She dipped
a cold chicken drumstick into a saucer of salt
and ate it. It was delicious.
The metaphysical poets, T.S. Eliot observed, “[felt] their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought […] was an experience.” To sit and eat alongside Sandra Lim’s mind, a mind poised against self-deception, tastes delicious. “My own timidity, pale as meal,” she writes, “will turn out to hold some ruthlessness, too.” Her readers and contemporaries are luckier for it.
Nathan Blansett’s poems appear in The Southern Review, New Criterion, Bennington Review, and elsewhere.
Sandra Lim is the author of three poetry collections—The Curious Thing (W.W. Norton, 2021), The Wilderness (W.W. Norton, 2014), and Loveliest Grotesque (Kore Press, 2006).