Shannon Nakai reviews Sandra Lim’s THE CURIOUS THING

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Shannon Nakai

The Curious Thing

By Sandra Lim

68 pages. Norton, 2021.

Gracing the cover of Sandra Lim’s latest poetry collection, The Curious Thing, is a rumpled bed with hand-drawn etchings: signposts of human presence, the scrawlings indicative of a deliberate call to write. The thirty-one poems, rife with literary allusions–Goethe, Flaubert, Woolf, Bronte, Rhys, Spinoza, to name a few–and detailed in their references to specific cities, myths, Grecian attention to the corporeal and natural world, and constant cups of coffee, unfold a narrative of narrative-writing. The speaker examines the tensions between the contradictions of living, and through literary lenses and the pieced-together plot points of her own experiences, she constructs an unflinchingly reflective, multifaceted exploration to uncover the impulse, the inherent necessity behind the collective writing of the human story.

Her first poem “The Protagonists” opens with a bold, declarative persona, an uninhibited Neruda-like confidence in the announcing of wants. The collection’s first poem, “The Protagonists,” with its opening couplet, “At one time, / I asked for everything–” is immediately followed by the poem “Chicago,” which carves out deliberate actions, a tasting for life– “still nibbling / at what lay before me.” Lim exudes a sort of innocent or rather, unspoiled and unabashed curiosity: planning things, smelling the deliciousness of life’s pleasures, denying herself nothing, all set against a retrospective first-person speaker that contrasts how devoid of doubt the former self used to be. Immediately following “Chicago,” the poem “Something Means Everything” echoes this refrain of then vs now, as Lim writes of the enlightening of the spirit during the sickness of the body. “I think I lived to myself,” she muses, referencing Woolf’s room of one’s own–a gendered autonomy, how physical space creates agency for the marginalized storyteller, especially in this more introspective sense, as she focuses on the telling of one’s own story. In other words, she ponders the naming of the unnameable thing. This titular motif, the search for the thing, suggests physical ubiquity in its many locations both geographically and on Lim’s pages (nearly all poems reference the noun “thing” in some capacity), but Lim also offers that its universal presence is achieved because it is carried with us at all times: “it is just what you have had with you / all along…”. Here, Lim tries to piece together some sort of reckoning, one that transcends physical experience into spiritual awakening. Poems like “The Immoralists” echo her charge of living vigorously and intentionally, though she self-deprecatingly observes that her pursuit is channeled through the lens of bookish proclivities. “None of us wants to grow old / in a library,” remarks the speaker of “The Immoralists,” ironically amidst constant literary allusions. How dynamic and lively is the life of a reader, so much so for the one reading her own life.

The speaker negotiates the desire to reproduce (referencing her “youth and feminine momentum” in “Boston” or “a curious sense / of sequel” in “Chanson Douce”) against the conundrum of a possible reference to infertility, but to a greater extent, to the not-having of what this dynamically declarative speaker wants:

             Can you still be afraid
             then, for what you don’t have,

             and what you’ll never have? (“The Future”)

Explicit in its literary allusions, the poem titled “Jean Rhys,” pays homage to the author of Wide Sargasso Sea, which rewrites, or more specifically, reclaims the famous Jane Eyre novel in a postcolonial light, the madwoman’s turn at the mic. Lim writes, “If I could jump out of the window / one bang and I’d be out of it.” The speaker admires Rhys for stripping the thing down. Lim’s method of stripping takes on a deconstructionist approach, locating the dichotomies: cold versus heat, but her poems reverse the sensations (a festival of coldness, a cold that could burn down indignation; the dark and cold state of summers); grieving joy and slow sadness versus frightened happiness, the “stirrings of happiness” of which she constantly resists and refuses; a poem entitled “Pastoral” that is anything but; company and human presence versus loneliness; a deepening desire for the stories versus the irresolute sense of logic– “So many things will lie / unrealized, that’s the math” (27). In one poem, Lim references Actaeon, a conquest of human sacrifice, and in another poem, a speaker describes her grandmother in Seoul who enacted conquests of her own.

Lim’s boldest, most vulnerable and introspective stripping down occurs ostensibly in the collection’s longest and most figurative poem, “A Shaggy Dog Story,” but also in one of her most concrete poems, “Portrait in Summer.” The latter poem features fights, flies in the kitchen, the hot dog smell of streets. The speaker’s response to “the only major mystery left to life / is death” is to prop an ashtray on her body. In an act that seems to thumb one’s nose at beliefs while simultaneously making room for them, she considers presenting a Venus de Milo to a coffee shop’s hodgepodge of religious icons:

            It would all have the mixed effect of a moral
            dullness and deep fear. I notice this is the only
            place in town without a television.

Her irreverent remark and the enjambment of the adjective “moral” suggests playfully that her story might also reject a moral, both in the literary and religious senses. The only location in town without both the storytelling and the desensitizing presence of a television screen implies that the very act of living, of thinking critically, demands faith of some sort, because not everything is explained or explainable. Whether one flicks ash in an ashtray or delves into a literary journey in search of self, the question of meaning demands a response, and this is perhaps Lim’s most urgent theme. The speaker in “That Are” directs self-aimed frustration towards this “stupid, trilling thing: / what I desired was to become obscene.” The desire to shock, to be declarative and dynamic, is negated in its body-out-of-soul experience, where the speaker may arrive in her stripping-down of the thing without the meaning. As she muses, “So when I stay stupid, I simply offer meaninglessness. / And when I say trilling, I only mean a leaving off of past sound.”

Thankfully, Lim does not leave her reader here. In “Spinoza Says,” she offers us a crushing vulnerability–her heart, she describes “is a boot with a hole in it, I think / this is what writing could be.” The poem explicitly cites the writing instructions of Spinoza and implicitly nods to Vonnegut’s instruction to craft a story by making the character want something–indeed, the first line of The Curious Thing takes a cue from this. Want, then, is necessary in the human narrative, whether it’s a want of hanging on, as the speaker in “San Francisco” collects physical objects; or a want to get it down in writing, to strip down the thing. “There is more to life than writing,” the speaker admits in “The Mountaintop,” but ultimately Sandra Lim concludes that, though the perfunctory nature of existence continues on regardless of one’s critical engagement of it, each poem in The Curious Thing, such as these lines from “A Shaggy Dog Story,” apprehends and celebrates the inextricable presence of deliberate human activity and its perpetual need to name its meaning:

             And here, life is going on, too:
             a coffee pot, four towels, a book,
             a lamp, and a bed.


             You admire the bold loneliness of a real life
             as never before.

             And when the world treats you well,
             you sometimes come to believe
             you are deserving of it.

Shannon Nakai is a poet and reviewer whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Cincinnati Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Atlanta Review, Cream City Review, Heavy Feather, Cimarron Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. A former Fulbright recipient and Pushcart Prize nominee, she holds an MFA from Wichita State University, where she teaches creative writing and literature. Follow her on Twitter @shanviolinlove.