Prose Feature: In Search of New Worlds: A Review of Sandra Lim’s THE WILDERNESS (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014) by Rosanna Oh

April 24, 2015

Louise Glück, who chose Sandra Lim’s The Wilderness for the 2013 Barnard Women Poets Prize, praises Lim’s astonishing second collection for how, “[i]n its stern and quiet way, [it] is one of the most thrilling books of poetry [she has] read in many years.” Such praise might sound counterintuitive—“thrilling,” after all, suggests more readily a luxuriating in sensations than “stern” implies. But this confusion disappeared as I became better acquainted with the soul behind the poems. On one hand, Lim’s poems are unassuming and economic in their presentation and plainspokenness. On the other, they are works of great interiority, which is not necessarily emotion. The poem “Amor Fati” begins:

Inside every world there is another world trying to get out,
and there is something in you that would like to discount this

The stars could rise in darkness over heartbreaking coasts,
and you would not know if you were ruining your life or
beginning a real one.

Here, Lim begins with the premise that nothing is what it seems. Like Whitman who avers in “Song of Myself,” “Urge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world,” Lim celebrates potentiality by creating multiple worlds, both natural and invisible, in each poem. But these lines also suggest that, in order to create, one must confront uncertainty and the possibility of devastation. Where there are stars, there is also darkness. What, then, does it mean to survive in a world that can be ruined and created? The “wilderness” in the title, I think, hints at the answer—or at the very least, promises an adventure.

From the outset, Lim’s learnedness shines through in even her bleakest poems. Her book seems to be the product of years of patient study as a scholar, as well as an observer of daily life. Lim centers these poems with familiar subjects and themes (gardens, family history, winter, American landscapes), and yet she is unafraid to challenge her reader with philosophical profundities that probe, rather than obfuscate, problems of consciousness. In “Nature Morte,” Lim invokes Emerson: “We live amid surfaces, writes Emerson, & the true art of life is to skate well on them.” Though I am no theorist, I find that this sentence best articulates a thesis for the collection. For Lim’s speaker, everything is a “surface” because everything is subject to not only human perception, but also the imagination. The first line of “The New World” considers how our humanness can expand and limit reality: “The world we see is never the world that is.” Word and world are Lim’s primary materials. Both are units that constitute the surfaces of which—and on which—she writes. In “Envoi: Orpheus,” the world is a canvas that “arranges itself around artist.”

Much of Lim’s poetry approaches the concept of literal wilderness—that is, the natural world. Chronicling seasons in exquisite detail, the book sometimes reads like a nature diary. But Lim has a gift for innovation. I am most struck by her ability to turn the most accessible settings, like a house garden, into a new world. In “Human Interest Story,” the night sky is a surface onto which human beings project:

To relieve ourselves of open-ended narrative, we read into the
winter stars all evening. There are just stars and stars and stars.

We know what it’s like to fall in love and be disassembled, but we
still want to pull death right off the bodies of one another.

Readers familiar with S/Z might recall Roland Barthes’s famous passage in which he compares the sky to a writerly, or open, text. For Barthes, the sky operates as a metaphor for an open text, a text that opens itself to an infinite number of interpretations. For Lim’s speaker, reading the constellations is a way of making meaning and, therefore, avoiding the disorder associated with an “open-ended narrative.” With chilling detachment, she acknowledges that such evasion is a delusion, that chaos is part of human nature. The soul has an instinctual tendency to risk disaster by “fall[ing] in love” and “be[ing] dissembled.” To observe that “There are just stars and stars and stars” is to recognize how small we are and how large the universe is.

Throughout The Wilderness, the speaker inhabits a state of becoming. Lim’s speaker looks to modes of art—namely music, writing, and painting—as a way of exploring the shifting boundary between destruction and creation. The first poem, “Small Container, Fury,” is a collage of scenes, ranging from Rembrandt in his studio to the speaker herself at work. The poem is fraught with verbs in the present or progressive tense: “Rembrandt paints his carcass of beef,” “Humbert and his girl are driving across America,” and “As I do my work, I think, let me topple, / wear thin.” Spring is “holding out love and death / like a platter of the daintiest cakes.” Lim recreates a world so immediate, so in flux, that it can change at any moment. By arranging these scenes in parallel with one another, Lim explodes the parameters of space and time, and, therefore, simultaneously performs acts of destruction and creation. In doing so, she reminds us that the soul dwells in chaos, with an “open-ended” rather than linear narrative.

Much in the same way a curious child might ask questions, Lim’s speaker asks questions as a means of confronting and engaging with the world around her. In ”Ver Novum,” she asks, “What is the heart of the problem?” and “The heart’s best trick?” In “The New World,” she asks three in a row:

What is the lecture of the darkest pines, the way they hang their
stillness against us?

If I beggar myself for love, do I move from night into more night?

If I swallow a mouthful of ground glass, do I not slip past

However directly Lim presents her questions, it would be a mistake to assume that they necessarily ask for answers. To me, these questions themselves constitute an object of study, for they illuminate further Lim’s phenomenological concerns. The first question illustrates a hierarchical relationship between the natural and the human, in which the former can give a “lecture” to the latter. The second and third questions are complexly-wrought conditionals that reveal the speaker’s internal logic. They present relationships between human emotion and time, as well as between silence and human interaction. In doing so, they reveal a mind as complex as the world it perceives.

Elsewhere, Lim paints other self-portraits and landscapes set in springtime, a season of violent yet beautiful transformations reflected in the playfulness of her language. In “Ver Novum”: “Maytime! My mint growing out of its mind, / my garlic groaning quietly.” In “Garden Quarrel”: “There was something theatrical in the air, / like the coming of a circus.” Lim’s language is always simple and precise, but its occasional zaniness draws attention to itself as a construction. Her wordplay, like “mint” and “mind,” is defamiliarizing but also productive—it exposes the gap between language and what it strives to represent. One gets a sense that her language is a volatile surface. It can sustain a vision of startling beauty, but then a slight turn of phrase can transform that vision into an illusion. Often, Lim’s language fragments so that her poems take on a manic quality, jumping from line to line, as though to emphasize its capacities to break and to make something new. One section of “Ver Novum” provides a catalogue of flowers:

        crocuses and pansies,

snowdrop, scilla, a Tête-à-Tête
daffodil. Tulips, peonies,

azaleas, and hyacinths.

Here, as elsewhere, Lim imbues poems with psychological tension by combining severe simplicity with vibrancy. Lim lists the flowers matter-of-factly, but her inclusion of snowdrops and Jack-in-the-pulpits make an otherwise ordinary garden haunting. Meanwhile, her line breaks work against the garden’s apparent quietness, suggesting disruptions in the speaker’s continuous line of observation. This insertion of ruptures also suggests a mind that actively orders the world it perceives. At the end of the poem, the spring garden shares more similarities with T.S. Eliot’s wasteland: “Spring, which says it’s never been unfaithful, / mixing insult and provocation.”

In Lim’s poems, the Emersonian notion about surfaces is as much about people as it is about aesthetic theory. The human soul is its own world. “Pierre looks out the prison window and laughs and laughs, / because the world is inside him,” observes the speaker in “The Dark World.” Again and again, Lim’s speaker constantly turns the mirror on herself in poems of relentless self-examination. “Feeling atonal and unconciliatory,” the speaker in “Rite of Spring” sees a fortune-teller and attends a performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring “to see what art in general is about / and what people are really like.” In her loneliness, she becomes an aesthete who searches for meaning through art:

I wanted to watch the shape
of a movement,
the trajectory of a body as it makes

the shapes that it will in a limited ambit,
revolving around an implied center.

What she ultimately finds, however, is irresolution. Art professes to have a wholeness but, in fact, it is composed of gestures with an “implied,” rather than real, “center.” “Movement,” “trajectory,” and “shapes”—which all suggest structure and order—are things to be desired in the chaos that is reality. Unlike the speaker in Mark Strand’s “Keeping Things Whole” who declares, “I move / to keep things whole,” Lim’s speaker searches for rupture, where meaning can either be lost or created. If “The Rite of Spring” leads to any definitive conclusion, it is that the human soul defies comprehensibility and is large enough, as Whitman puts it, to “contain multitudes.” The music itself is a shocking mix of contradictions—the civilized and the wild, art and ritual, life and death. It is a piece in which a “young virgin dances herself to death / to bring forth / the flowering of spring.” While she marvels at the beauty of life, the speaker is also terribly aware of the pain that accompanies its birth.

To live in the world, then, is to know that nothing is immutable. But is this a good or an evil? Exploring this question in the context of religion, Lim suggests both. The second and third sections of “Garden Quarrel” retell the story of Adam and Eve’s fall. After eating the apple, they suffer a hunger so huge that it has “the grandeur / of a famine” and deprives them of their sexual appetite: “No one is waiting for life to begin.” But later, eating the apple is an act of creation because it is the subject of Lim’s moral imagination—Eve “eats it carefully, / inspecting the potential of the snake with each bite.” In another poem, “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” religion teaches that an afterlife is possible.

     In the mornings the Lord did say, Get up and be birdlike
and I would consent once more
to live within this peculiar dream

          —my soul correcting by inches, holding itself out
                    to the world that will not quite hold it—

Like John Berryman before her, Lim chooses Anne Bradstreet as her subject because, as one of America’s earliest poets and its first published woman writer, Bradstreet is a figure that holds historical as well as metaphorical significance. An immigrant and pioneer, Bradstreet acts as a bridge between the Old World and the New World, much in the same way as Lim when she writes about her Korean family in poems like “Human Interest Story.” And like Bradstreet, Lim is interested in how religion, which is predicated on the existence of a spiritual world, alters one’s relationship with reality. The more it envisions that invisible world, the more the soul grows dissatisfied with its present world where existence is merely a “peculiar dream.” Despite its attempt to adjust to daily life, the soul hungers for a world that is expansive enough to “hold it.” Religion encourages us to believe that the final frontier, as it were, goes beyond mortality.

For Lim’s speaker, art is an extension of this world and the path to other worlds; to write is a world-making act. It is important to know that such labor arises from a genuine curiosity and love for beauty. The penultimate poem, “The Dark World,” brings the book full circle, back to its beginning. As in the first few poems in the book, the speaker in this poem takes pleasure in the idea of creation, which is not only life affirming but also daunting. “I’m terrified because I love the world but which one,” the speaker confesses, “I’m half open and half shut.” Eventually the poem ends with a prayer exalting life: “Let me stay awake, as whole worlds keep arriving with / raggedness, with their synoptic force.” In the last poem, “Cliffs,” the journey to build new worlds begins again. Atop a cliff, the speaker has reached the limits of the world as she knows it. The sublimity of the landscape before her inspires awe as it did for the Romantics. In fact, its beauty renders her speechless: “Words are afraid up here.” But for Lim, an artist and pioneer, these are the best conditions for creation. Discovering new worlds through writing is an exhilarating enterprise. The prospects are dazzling. The wilderness awaits. Like the limitless sky, Lim’s poetry bursts with potentiality. All we need to do is to look up:

The outlook is thrilling; it satisfies.

It goes even further than the view from the heights of love.

It eats the roof off the sky.

—Rosanna Oh

Rosanna Oh

Rosanna Oh’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Unsplendid, Measure, Best New Poets, and elsewhere.

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