Over several decades, Shirley Geok-lin Lim has cemented her position as one of the Chinese diaspora’s foremost anglophone poets. Originally from Malacca, she has lived abroad since 1969, mostly in California, where she taught in the English department at the University of California in Santa Barbara University. In this, her 11th poetry collection, among her best to date, Lim has shaken off a long preoccupation with place and displacement to write striking poems on the natural world.
In poems that dazzle with rhythmically perfect run-on lines, Lim focuses on what is in front of her image-forming eye in her adoptive home of California. While still taking swipes at consumerism and ecological apathy, Lim is also celebratory. Concurrently, she has redeployed and recombined her long-honed poetic strengths, pushing them yet further in terms of form and technique.
“April Heat Wave” offers a lovely evocation of contentment with all known limitations confidently held open by the absence of punctuation in this third line:
I’ve forgotten how not to hope. We throw open
the windows, draw water we do not have,
as if wishes are promises are heaven
on earth, and here and now forever safe.
Likewise celebratory, the villanelle, “Illegitimi Non Carborundum”—an imprecation to “Stay strong!” in troubled times—is followed by a poem called “Things That Make Me Happy”, a title which could have been given to a child’s poetry exercise.
The next poem, “Summer Camp”, possibly reflects Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s childhood desertion by her mother and loss of her father. Here it is in full:
The sign says, “Parents:
Lost and Found.” Do not
trust it. Parents are
so seldom found, so
easily lost. “What
are you doing next?”
a parent asks. “We’re
doing nature,” a child
says proudly. “Berries,
nuts, and seeds,” the young
woman says, in combat
boots and dirty tee-shirt.
This could almost be Lim herself as the pensioner-child enjoying “doing nature” via her poetry increasingly, as she is now free to do in “retirement”.
A whole section is informed by California’s fires, and “Saving My Own Skin” calls on collective experience to own up for our responsibility in bringing about the global climate emergency.
“Gopher Stones” stands out here, with its British English usage such as “minded” and “middens” in the style perhaps of some unplaceable literary reference:
Some mornings I’m minded to pick
stones from the middens
This one is longer than most here, with a lovely conversational tone. Poetry is doing its job—allowing time to dissolve for the reader:
Walking, I’m filling my pockets
with stones. The gophers unearth new
ones each morning, the unsealed
ground pocked with gaps for breathing
in burrows where we’d keep them
Lim’s treatment of the natural world here is briefly assured, conversational; nature in part as we are used to admiring it—enough to be accessible while always anticipating that redness of tooth and claw. This contrasts with “Wild Life”, its title equally referring to “the fine ladies of Santa Barbara” as it does to the mouse it addresses: nice people shrieking at nature’s disappearing traces. Nor is nature idealized or unnaturally friendly in the other short poems in this section.
In “Praise Song for the Pause”, Lim points out the pandemic’s one major upside: the natural world’s recovery due to fewer emissions and traffic noise.
The collection’s title In Praise of Limes borrows from one of Auden’s poems, “In Praise of Limestone”. Like Auden, Lim writes lyrically rather than narratively, with a newfound lightness and playfulness allowing her sense of rhythm to further its already considerable reach in many of these poems.
The number of sonnets in this collection, some in freer style with shorter lines, is impressive. “Wake!” is a delightful reworking of traditional sonnet rhyme schemes. Lim uses immediate repetition throughout the collection, building momentum via its rhythm. In “Wake!”, repetition of ‘trodden’ is used to effect the turn in the middle lines rather than at the end:
is ending. Or it begins. Leaves mass sodden
under barren wood, regularity
of time worn, underfoot, trodden. Trodden,
the walker who’s slept through the century,
somnambulant as snails trailing tear
Rhythm and rhyme work together similarly in other pieces such as “This Frost”, “The Wind” and “Eucalyptus Country”. Lim works with line endings to great effect and slant rhymes are another speciality, as here in “This Frost”:
… headed, flits in purple sage
covered with hoarfrost;
no easy breathing on this lost
morning, particles on hedge
cutting a trench in chests. This
is frost no scraping can clear.
Wintery fig trees bear
branches stippled with ashes
The sheer number of outstanding pieces in this collection is impressive; twenty-four of the sixty-three poems here have already appeared in poetry journals, a very high ratio compared to others.
If all rhyming poets could do so with such cool facility as Lim does in “Alarm”, tucking quiet rhymes into plain sight in the middle of clauses on two-beat lines, poetry might become more popular:
The alarm sounds,
across the ground
sleepers, and I
caught in its absurd
With her recent poetry Shirley Geok-lin Lim has shifted the loci of displacement from her native Malacca or her adopted Santa Barbara to linguistic playfulness; with In Praise of Limes, she has further carved out and defined her own singular poetic voice.