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Sandra Lim


Sandra Lim

Spring comes forward as a late-winter confection, and I cannot decide if it advances a philosophy of meekness or daring.

This year's snowdrops: is it that they are spare, and have a slightly fraught lucidity, or are they proof that pain, too, can be ornate?

Even a propped skull is human nature. And its humor is monstrous, rich with an existence that owes nothing to anyone.

Fat little pearls against the ice, battering softly, try even fewer qualities--

To say that you love someone or something to death is to hover around the draw of irrevocability.

More faith is asked of us, a trained imagination against the ice-white.

Ver Novum

First day of spring-
it's maintaining, calling, shining.
Probably it hurts its business a little.


She sings in response:

What strokes my abdomen, titillates my fur?
My coils sweeten, all tensed and set.

The season is a burst harp.


Soirs, evenings. And yet it has some afternoon in it as well.
I don't need much more than this to fall in love.


Reading deeply had incarnadined her cheeks.


Maytime! My mint going out of its mind,
my garlic groaning quietly.
I feel like a complete change of circumstances.


This time of year challenges you
like a little magician

fanning the day's cards
brusquely in your face.

Pick a card, any card.
Change the flesh into word.

That word may sound broken into:
you can hear life beating

on its fiery way within it, brutalities
and banalities going about their custom.


It was like an oar going into water, gliding.

You could hear the clatter of the stars
coming out, like falling stones

in spring rain, remote from theology.


She sits down to dinner
in a casual trattoria,

surrounded by Dionysian big cats,
her racy expat friends.

She sets down a brisk narrative of her life
in loony detail and Taurean pleasure.

She used to sit and cry, thinking about it,
loving it no less.

The spectacle is not discouraging!
The way she beholds it has the sin of pride.


April and March, overcurious about sex,
thump against the screen door.

Lovelessness in these months
seems a travesty,

like wigs in sherbet colors, too loud against
the season's paradisal light.


Snowdrops looking tatty.
They don't feel the threat
that I would feel.


Investigating his wish to die,
he goes to a teaching hospital.

The puppet feels the hand at times,
wildflowers, their underneath.


The season lays palely
on a white platter,

its calm faded eye looks
far beyond us.

We sense our own claims


For fear of the winter's teeth,
the spring queen had them pulled.
Now it cannot chew,

it must subsist on slop.
Now its face has no mouth,
and its hair never saw scissors.

The queen folds her mind over it,
as if discovering a new crystal.


If word can become flesh,
now leaning its forehead against cool glass,

now discovering a passion
for Thomas Hardy,

can't it be the spur that coaxes
out the strangest beast

within the beast, the spirit?


The cat in heat is
in the grip of a new idea:
She barks!


The sense of the season is pursued through
its reprimands: crocuses and pansies,

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

azaleas and hyacinths.
Jack in the Pulpit.

Affection chains thy tender days.
Candles burning into their tins.


In the spring the quinces


Like a water-flower dropped
in a glass of water,
spring grows--


at times meaning
the world, its fan of pages;
other times, only conscious

of something turning.


The grip of solitude--


All my wet trees, breathing happily


From half-dark to half-dark,
I read autumn poems in spring.

Buson writes about stepping
on his dead wife's comb
in their dark bedroom.

In fact, she outlived him by thirty-one years.

The chill from that comb, and the snap
of eros and solitude and imagining,
all in flower.


Threes conclude into ones,
as in the Christian mysteries.
Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce.

What is the heart of the problem?

The flaring March lily subverts
all our emotional gourmandizing,

like a serene, inviolable erotomane
cupping its ear to listen to our true secrets.


The explorer with his walleye
and fading map peers into the distance.

He is so far from where he started,
and wasn't this the point?

To have the cookbook turn
into parable, or vice-versa,

it didn't matter. Now, it was as if
he were a new pair of scissors

biting into a clean sheet of paper.
Rupture, instead of continuity.

He wills his eyeball into place
and walks boldly into the conditions.


The heart's best trick?
For the one and only spring you will be given this year,
let your happiness crawl all over the floors.


Spate of thundershowers in spring.
It has an intellectual appeal,
pointing to nothing.


Now the coldness merely asks you
to tear your life apart
and begin again.

Pilgrim, throw it away, make it larger.


Spring, which says it's never been unfaithful,
mixing insult and provocation.



The stars gave up their deep drifting and touched bottom.

No clouds toppled across the snow wilderness.

No gloom-dark tree-glitter winding and twining its silks.

Blankness, egg-quiet.

The level sprawl of the world drew away tinily, in every direction.

Afternoons remained unknown to each other.

Yet loss keeps thudding past my house, telling me I'm not done.

My hearts, still leaping like rats.


                          -from The Wilderness, selected by Guest Editor Phillip B. Williams



Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

Sandra Lim was born in Seoul, Korea and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. She attended Stanford University, and holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Berkeley and an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Sandra Lim is the author of two collections of poetry, Loveliest Grotesque (Kore, 2006) and The Wilderness (W.W. Norton, 2014), winner of the 2013 Barnard Women Poets Prize, selected by Louise Glück. Her work is also included in the anthologies Gurlesque (Saturnalia, 2010), The Racial Imaginary (Fence, 2015), and Among Margins: An Anthology on Aesthetics (Ricochet, 2015). She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Getty Research Institute. A recipient of a 2015 Pushcart Prize, her work has appeared widely in journals such as Literary Imagination, Columbia Poetry Review, Guernica, and The Volta.


Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

A Review of Sandra Lim's The Wilderness by Leia Darwish, first published at Blackbird 

The usual qualities we consider with poetry—image, metaphor, voice—do not matter so much in The Wilderness as much as the strange and unanswerable dialect of the confessional philosopher-poet. This unforgettably different collection, Sandra Lim’s second, moves to expose the intimate moment of first scripture: the lines inscribed on the cave walls of the mind. Though love and death stand in as tentative subjects, The Wilderness obsesses over an ineffable space between things. Lim’s book challenges everything we think we know about a poetry not fully realized on the page—not fragmentation, but deconstruction.

This collection, with all its strengths and weaknesses, represents a braver accomplishment than war poetry, poetry of grief, or experimental poetry. With her psychological concern, Lim cuts to the sources of universal human experience. These poems deliver all the seduction of innuendo without the candy coating: “Let the world eat me,” Lim muses in the opening poem, “but / then, let the world sob, not me.” Declaration here takes on the function of imagery—the imagery of thought. In the same way that John Berryman’s nervous syntax offers us insight into his psychological condition, Lim’s specific wilderness reveals itself through her obsessive and disconnected syntax, for example:

The world could be like a faraway planet to which I declare,

Free at last: I shall see my hunger for meaning go.

These schizophrenic insertions, these nearly incessant, manic demands for assuredness, interrupt the flow of her experience in day-to-day life. What first presents itself as a brand of collectedness, emerges, over time, as its exact opposite: desperation.

Faithlessness is a heart glancing down
a plumed avenue
in which one is serenaded by myriad, scattering birds.

Lim compulsively charts and reveals the abstract wilderness. The speaker, for example, in “Certainty,” confesses, “The wilderness: I cannot get around the back of it.” Ultimately, declarations begin to reveal themselves as landmarks—imagine a barren plain littered with tuning forks, each sending out a signal to the others, and resonating, making a tone not easily understood by the conscious mind but one that seems to penetrate with our subconscious. Over the course of the book, as these tuning forks build up, we are imbued with this feeling of recognition so exact it feels it cannot have come from such abstract language: “A blankness without meanness,” she writes in “Fall.” Equally interesting, is how this bypassing of the ego, or conscious mind, keeps the reader at a certain distance. The reader then encounters this complete wilderness of self-efficient ideas, ideas that appear to communicate across a network that doesn’t necessitate the outsider, as an outsider. Resonance requires distance, and alienating the ego is a productive, necessary step in achieving resonance with the subconscious.

You stepped away from this world
so that you could consider it from afar.

While I might feel lost inside the sometimes cryptic, sometimes time-shifting “Ver Novum,” I don’t for a second question it. Lim cannot hide her communion with Berryman, in her language, in the long homage to an homage, “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” but the most functional echo I can hear is in the unflinching voice of her speaker. Lim delivers such difficult, deconstructed language with the same dogmatic refusal to meditate or mediate, to guide the reader, that is both the hyper- and anti-awareness of self that we find in The Dream Songs. A final paradox: these poems seem to be an exercise of restraint on one level and indulgence on the other—poems with all the cross-outs left in but all the punchlines left out. In the sparse “Unfleur,” Lim delivers heady statements about grand abstractions but offers a reflection that is helpful only in the way the footnotes to The Waste Land are helpful—that is, one that only further complicates.

What is death
but reason
in flawless submission
to itself

not reason

something stonier

Much talk of white space in poetry focuses on silence and subtext—as if holding a blacklight up to the space between stanzas would reveal the omitted details. However, Lim’s white space is less a withholding than a distancing. The white space, the blankness, adds air to the already stark lineation of poems like “Ver Novum” and “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” but it may be most effective in the more narrative or philosophical poems, like the two “Certainty” poems or “The New World.” Either the text is prose or the lines sprawl so far to the edge of the page they have the effect of prose, of continuous thought chopped up into several little paragraphs. The nature of the text determines the nature of the blank space—these poems feel like blocks of prose that have been stretched out to magnify the inherent distance between thoughts. There are times when the statements themselves explicitly suffer from a kind of awkward deconstruction:

It was a great relief that my thoughts
had taken over feeling about our sorrows.

I wanted to turn over all my wildness to them,
so that they could harbor it in English-language sounds.

I don’t know where to look in sentences like these, but what defines this collection is that the lines I would like to cut are also the lines that draw me closer. These utterly charming, utterly inevitable cowlicks are essential, like a soul, sometimes revealed, sometimes exposed. The poem strobes like a swaying skirt—in the movement, sometimes you catch a little glimpse. These cowlicks of disquiet are endemic to the collection. To engage with The Wilderness as a reader is to find this pain—the convoluted syntax, the traffic jam of sibilants, multisyllabic adjectives and adverbs—charming, ultimately and undeniably refreshing. From “The New World”:

Thunderous wakefulness is ceaseless needles through the casing.

or, in “The Concert”:

Next to a soul,
the body’s curious reticence obtains.

These lines read a little like translation. What could be said precisely with a specific term is said with a phrase, as if no term in English exists to express what Lim intends. There is magic to her imprecision: the more words, the more nodes of relation. This is not the satisfaction of the unequivocal. Each word carries an etymology, a personal history. And so to say something with four words instead of one is to explode, unpack, and deconstruct all the various emotional and historical relations inherent to a single life experience.

“Cheval Sombre,” the lithe, palindrome-shaped poem almost at the center of the collection, suggests that form, while it may be artifice, satisfies a need, as “a soul needs a presence / of desire.” If applied using an architecture of expectation—in this case the eighth line acts as a mirror after which lines 1–7 repeat in reverse order—the gibberish gains an air of inevitability. In this, the most lyrical poem of the collection, a delightful plain truth: the purpose of form, of poetry, is to give our gibberish some inevitability.

“Some kind of belief runs off me in strings,” Lim writes in “The Vanishing World.” Clarifying that belief would be the very work of writing poetry for most other poets, but here we get the thought unmetaphored, as it were, unmoored. This is the euphoria of “fragility and disquiet” Édouard Glissant describes in Poetic Intention as “the suspension between a pessimism knotted to the present and that series of sparks and vibrations the future already holds.” In the throes of disquiet, the artifice of the mellifluous is sometimes sacrificed for a chance to access the elemental psychological wilderness from which such poetry is formed. 

              Click here to read a review of The Wilderness at 32 Poems


Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

An Interview with Sandra Lim by John Gibbs, first published at Switchback

Switchback: You have a new book of poems, The Wilderness (W.W. Norton Company), that just came out last month. It’s been eight years since your debut collection, Loveliest Grotesque (Kore Press) was published. How has your writing changed in the time in between? Should readers expect to hear poems differing in style, manner, and design from your first collection?

Sandra Lim: In my first book, I think my language was perhaps more baroque, more in love with saturation, sensation, and the energy and special effects of pattern and enhancement. When I was writing The Wilderness, I remember wanting the poems in the book to burn a reader’s hands; but I desired a stark lucidity in the language that would achieve this burning. The tone and subject matter may seem more philosophical overall in this second collection, but I think there is a sensuousness that continues from first to second book.

SWB: In 2013 you were awarded the Barnard Women Poets Prize, which is given to the best second collection of poems by an American woman poet. Your manuscript was selected by Louise Glück, former Poet Laureate of the United States. Could you share with us your thoughts on receiving such a prestigious prize?

SL: Oh, it feels great. I was so happy for the book to be taken in the first place, but then to find out that Louise Glück chose it was amazing. I had heard that she enjoyed working with poets during her Yale Younger judging days, so I was really excited to be able to talk with her about my manuscript. I’m just really grateful—I feel I’ve been given more courage, more fellowship.

SWB: In terms of size and reputation, Norton is a much larger publishing house than Kore Press. Can you talk a little bit about your experience in working with two vastly different presses in publishing your books?

SL: In terms of manuscript copy, I appreciated that my editors at both presses gave me a lot of independence and freedom. Of course, the biggest difference is just the sort of distributive reach that a place like Norton has; it’s still very early in the life of my book being out, but I do hope to gain more readers with The Wilderness.

SWB: Your work has been described by other writers as being postmodern. Do you see yourself as a postmodern poet or as a poet who sometimes writes postmodern poems?

SL: I suppose I think of myself as a lyric poet foremost, but perhaps one who is keenly interested in the intuition for form or formal arrangement that keeps exerting itself in, or clarifying, the poem at hand. In other words, it may be that the way in which this formal aspect of the imagination is made explicit in some of my poems is what can give the work its postmodern texture.

SWB: I noticed a lot of the poems in your first collection have a collage-like quality to them. “There Is No Wing Like Meaning” is composed of independent prose blocks and references a number of writers’ notorious aphorisms and sayings. “Equilibrium” has a kind of neat dialogue going on between the poem itself and the footnotes, where other texts are referenced. Did the references in these poems come about from your treatment of a single subject? Or did they come together independently and you found the co-mingling of an array of voices an interesting thing in and of itself to constitute a poem?

SL: I love to keep notebooks full of quotations, and “Equilibrium” grew out of a certain number of references and quotations that I started to group together and kept circling around. For that poem, I started to hear tonal juxtapositions, continuities, and musics that made sense to me. I was trying to arrive at a place of understanding or feeling that wasn’t come by thematically, exactly.

SWB: What poets do you find yourself returning to most frequently? And what writers have you been reading most recently? Anything new or unexpected on your bookshelf?

SL: I have often returned to Sappho, Wallace Stevens, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Sylvia Plath, Anne Carson, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound. But I also tend to read a lot of fiction. Recently, I’ve been reading Grace Paley again, some Nabokov, Leonard Michaels, and in the category of the new and unexpected, a volume of plays by Annie Baker, The Vermont Plays. The plays are surprising and wonderful.

SWB: There’s a poem in Loveliest Grotesque that begins, “I pound the steaks, / you verb the noun” (“In Radiant Serenity”). The poem then continues in this kind of Mad Lib-esque manner, which urges the reader to complete the poem. This is an extreme example, but do you find yourself leaving meaning and content more open-ended within your poems, so readers can arrive at independent interpretations of their own?

SL: I always want the word choice and the meaning in my poems to seem inevitable. But I want the intensity and the widening clarity to be ego-less, somehow.

SWB: A poem of yours called “Sonnet” personifies color in an interesting way. The opening goes: “Red is the color but / Green holds the mood and / Black is the outstretched hand.” Continuing in this fashion, the poem reminds me of a recent essay published in Poetry by Dorothea Lasky entitled “What Is Color in Poetry, or Is It the Wild Wind in the Space of the Word.” In it she discusses, among other matters, her personal relationship to color. In addition to “Sonnet,” how do you use color(s) in other poems?

SL: I’ve actually never consciously thought about wielding color in such a way, but for Loveliest Grotesque, the color red seems to insinuate itself into a lot of poems. In The Wilderness, the cold fire of white pervades, I suppose. Perhaps I want to associate color in poems with general license and points of departure more than any kind of mimetic move.

SWB: As a kind of follow-up to that last question, it’s clear that Lasky has a poetic obsession with color. What are some of your obsessions you can’t seem to shake in your poems? And, when you discover an obsession, do you then write toward that obsession or do you ignore it, knowing it will reveal itself subconsciously?

SL: Love and creativity are still a great source of drama for me. As for writing toward or away from subjects, I guess I have done both at different times. There can be something very static about obsession; so one goal in writing is for the poem not to seem entirely willed, and therefore inert or repetitive.

SWB: Your poems rely heavily on abstraction and movement by association. One of your poems (“The Sea, The Sea”) ends with the line “I fear its sharks, lack of oxygen, sailor bric-a- brac, but at a distance I take pleasure in its undulating order and disorder.” I think the metaphor speaks to your own work as well, in that there’s a vastness your work covers, which implies a certain intimidation. What advice would you give to readers who might resist the vastness and intimidation of your own work?

SL: I hope that this sense of vastness and complexity may signal a feeling for my ambition for the poem and for the act of reading. The act of reading deeply, to me, is nothing short of being changed, sometimes uncomfortably so. I guess I would invite readers to welcome in both the contending and the manifest in the work; but I hope it gives pleasure overall!

               Click here to read an interview with Sandra Lim at Poetry Northwest


Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading


               Click here to view a reading by Sandra Lim




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