The female loneliness of “The Curious Thing” by Sandra Lim

THIRD BOOK BY SANDRA LIM, The curious thing (WW Norton), is in line with her usual interests – eros and philosophy, surprising imagery and associative leaps – but most striking in this new collection is the insistence on a contemporary feminine interiority that Lim declares, poem after poem. , as the source of the lyrics themselves. Here we meet kinship with Jean Rhys, Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, poems about Lim’s mother and grandmother. The patriarchs are notably absent, and the only man who is at the center of the poems is a mathematician who opposes the female speaker and does not understand the poet’s playful soul. There is a frivolous radicalism in the writing of the feminine in the 21st century; reading Lim’s dazzling poems, I kept coming back to Camille Paglia’s book Sexual personalities, where the controversial art critic claims that poetry is emotion embodied, since “every word is a palpation of the body”. According to Paglia’s theorem, the practice of lyricism represents the slow and inexplicable music found in chthonic nature, the mystical spirit that “connects[s …] body and mind. Relating to Paglia, Lim’s poems showcase this tension: she asserts that this Dionysian essence, from which poetry coils, is feminine and that its counterpart – the Apollonian order and intellect – is masculine.

The curious thing vaguely follows the loss of a romantic love, though the details of the relationship remain a mystery. The lover, in our view, is the aforementioned mathematician, while the speaker is a writer, concerned with emotion, physical pleasure, and contemplation, rather than “systems.” This dichotomy – the abstract and ultra-rational world of numbers versus the irrational, concrete world of the body – ingeniously revives the old idea that order is male, chaos female. The chasm between their worlds is not insurmountable, but it is deep enough to cause excitement and alienation. “I loved how real imaginary numbers could be; / It was much more interesting than life … “the speaker admits her lover’s work in a poem titled” Bent Lyre. “Immediately, she changes the number domain with anthropomorphic attributes:”[Y]you could have company / and you could be lonely. This astonishing and clever gesture of romantic transference is his signature: of course, the poet transforms numbers into poetry. It melts the rigidity of the system, bends it and makes music with its severity. The poet sees the lyre everywhere, whether in the “crazy patterns” of pigeons in the street, or in a formula of numbers.

Perceptually, Lim characterizes the masculine with a demanding and acerbic gloom: wherever the mathematician appears, words increase in assonance and teem with consonants. He operates with an “axis” and a “fixed” “hardness”, his honesty is “bitter”, his love is of “clandestine complicity”. Even the imagery surrounding it is harsh. When he relays an important confession, the arguments are hidden from the poem, but the emotion resembles a “head hitting the stone tiles of [the] patio. “These impressions come back to the image of a distant, taciturn and perplexed man, whose emotional neglect is unintentional:”[Y]our terrifying honesty might be bitter, but I have forgiven / the bitterness. There are several poems in which the speaker considers himself from the point of view of the male lover: the ultimate heart / things ”while according to“ his beautiful mathematical mind ”everything is still:“[T]the time is fixed, and the ends are certain. Unlike his, his Weltanschauung is governed by “[c]loyalty and justice.

But there is no “clarity and justice” where the artist – and therefore the feminine – reigns. The divine feminine, Paglia postulates, possesses an ur-knowledge of the cold and disturbing loneliness at the center of human and natural existence, which flows directly from the underworld. Although Lim’s mathematician is interested in facts and classifications, he is she which is closer to the fundamental truth of our human condition, which resides in the subconscious, or the childish soul, harmless and yet capable of coldness: during a feverish episode of childhood, the speaker spits in the face of her mother. This interaction of pre-Oedipal abjection leads to a rupture which gives the speaker his individuality: “A piece of one’s own is splendid. Of course, the play is both physical and mental; the inner core of secrecy is what sustains the poet.

“Then he hated her,” said the lover as he left: “She had led an unpleasant mental life. The wickedness, here, talks about the psychological cruelty that is historically considered female. Like the sneaky cat “quietly leading her female life”, the speaker has a “private” core inaccessible to the male, which makes her hateful. Yet this intimacy is her power: Lim binds femininity and words in an amazing way, which emboldens gender isolation. There is no hardship that can dissuade her; on the contrary, even the solitude engendered by the departure of the scorned lover stimulates the interior life of the speaker – it makes the poet the poet: “In a poet’s house, some secretly love bad news.

It is therefore not surprising that the act of writing appears to be a goal to which the poet aspires as much, if not more, than love. With an elegant swagger, she alludes to literary ancestors like Woolf, Vallejo, Flaubert, Goethe and Charlotte Brontë: “I am hot and tiny, yet I wrote Jane eyre. “Humor, a contemporary vernacular and an emphasis on artistic excellence permeates almost every page. In ‘Black Box,’ one of the brightest and most surprising lyrical poems I have read For a long time, Lim has dramatized the inner turmoil that a writer experiences in moments of platonic tenderness: the speaker drinks coffee with a friend and part of her interferes:

It was the kind of story that I love, and I wanted

to get it right, for later:

The hot morning at the cafe,

feeling overwhelmed by a cloud of dusty ferns and lianas

and the low ground of duty.

The friend mourns the loss of her male lover, mirroring the speaker’s own grief, and together they share their respective solitudes. Here, the mind and the body clash; what the poet aspires to is not real intimacy, but the act of mimicry and transformation of artistic creation. In “Naxos”, the speaker admits that she lacks language in the face of universality: “I love you, I would like there to be a more / original way of saying it. But the speaker’s bitter coffee – which is also present in “Black Box” – quickly leads to the idea of ​​writing: “And the little black / work stone that secures me, where is it? The work interferes in it even in the moments of perfect happiness. “[T]the low ground of duty ”, then describes the duty of friendship and love, yes, but also fidelity to the writing from which everything springs.

The curious thing takes its title from “Something Means Everything”, a poem about childhood memories relayed by the mother. Here, the omniscient speaker moves back and forth between memories of the present and the past, trying to delimit the origins of her complex desire:, opening and closing. Stripped of an innocent, almost photosynthetic simplicity, the adult speaker is cursed to have lived a true romance: “[A] love to measure past / future loves against. But there is a spiritual epiphany hidden in this poem: we know that the scarcity of emotion comes from within and not from without, it is “just what you have had with you / all the time, the curious thing that is in your heart ”. In an extraordinary turn, the speaker remembers seeing the “most beautiful young woman” on the street, “and when she turned to look at me and smile at me, I saw that she had no teeth at all “.

Behind the facade of beauty hides a foul terror, an almost psychedelic silence: feminine beauty, the sublime and the savage are transposable. What springs from the black void of the toothless smile is the chthonic creation itself: “[I]it was like a promise […] / poisoning of the mind or its very healing. This riddle is not resolved; instead, Lim relies on uncertainty, allowing us to sit down with the salient and baffling image. It is a testament to Lim’s brilliance that a volume of sparse lyric poems spanning around 60 pages turns out to be such a complex and richly textured book glistening with questions about psychoanalysis, philosophy, art, loneliness. urban and romance. Lim is, through and through, a poet of the heart – she “long[s] for glamor and passion ”and wants to be“ escorted through / the distressing joy of words / well posed ”, like Jean Rhys, to whom she dedicates an entire poem. And like Rhys, Lim has a literary commitment to feminine interiority, a specifically gendered loneliness. Yet her work transcends the “cold” “festival” of the modern icon of female melancholy; in the end, the experiment “made [her] courageous “, she realizes that”[t]here it is more in life than in writing. Thus, everywhere, the lyrical spirit tries to transmit “the supreme cheerfulness of the heart”. Lim’s voice, more fierce and dexterous than ever, gives birth to a collection of powerful, dark and impenetrable poems that defy gravity, just like “the stone[s] / thrown from a volcano.


Aria Aber grew up in Germany. His first book Significant damage won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and was published in September 2019.

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