I do recall our awkward first conversation. Shirley was very shy, indeed laconic. That seems impossible, knowing her today, but I swear it was so. She had recently started teaching at Westchester Community College. We were both displaced young poets, adrift in suburbia, eager to connect with our own kind. But we couldn’t seem to find a connection.
Finally, I asked a polite but banal question about her graduate studies in English. Shirley replied that she had worked at Brandeis with J. V. Cunningham. His was not a name to impress most people, but to me, Cunningham was a gold standard. He was the greatest American epigrammatic poet — ever. He was also a formidable scholar, mordant curmudgeon, and semi-recluse. Tell me more, I said. And she did.
A year later Shirley sent me her first book, Crossing the Peninsula & Other Poems (1980). Published in Kuala Lumpur by Heinemann Asia in a tiny format, the book gave the impression of slightness. I always worry when reading a book of poems by an acquaintance, Will I like it? Will it be interesting or awful? In Shirley’s case, I was immediately engaged, though I recognized her debut volume was a very unusual collection.
Most first books have a grab bag quality. Young poets want to show all their steps toward creative maturity — different styles, subjects, and stances. Lim’s book did that, too, but with an unusual economy and panache. The poems had ambitious subjects — Adam and Eve, Christ, shopping, divorce, Cezanne — but they were mostly short. They didn’t waste a word. (Surely the terse Prof. Cunningham’s influence at work.) Few young poets show such control, especially mixed with such an appetite for ideas and experience.
I was raised in an extended immigrant family, so I’ve always been alert to the complexities of people shaping their identities in a new country. Some want to preserve their old lives on new soil. Others open themselves to transformation in the new society. Lim is the poet laureate of the second group. She has an omnivorous imagination eager to devour ideas and experience in the new culture. Paradoxically, she is also the peripatetic elegist of the first group — exploring Asia in search of her complicated past.
At the end of her first volume is a short poem, “To Li Po.” For me, the poem served as a key to much of her work. It shows Lim reading the classic Tang Dynasty poet as a sort of foreigner. Her mixed ancestry of native-born Malayan with a Chinese grandfather allows her to feel a connection to the master poet, but she must approach him as an outsider to his language and culture.
I read you in a stranger’s tongue,
Brother whose eyes were slanted also.
But you never left to live among
Foreign devils. Seeing the rice you ate grow
In your own backyard, you stayed on narrow
Village paths. Only your mind travelled
Easily: east, north, south and west
Compassed in observation of field
And family. All men were guests
To one who knew traditions, the best
Of race. Country man, you believed to be Chinese
No more than a condition of human history.
Yet I cannot speak your tongue with ease,
No longer from China. Your stories
Stir griefs of dispersion and find
Me in simplicity of kin.
There is no single identity for Lim to discover and adopt. She must create a new person capacious enough to fit her international origins and adulthood. In America the complexity of her identity is doubly complicated — first by immigration and then by marriage and motherhood. As a poet, Lim doesn’t take much from Walt Whitman, but she does fulfill one of his great bardic boasts — she is large, she contains multitudes.
I soon added “To Li Po” to a new edition of An Introduction to Poetry, which I co-edited with X. J. Kennedy. Since then I have hardly published an anthology which did not include one or more of her poems. It gave me pleasure to share her work, especially “Learning to love America,” which has gradually become an anthology standard. It has also become a favorite poem to memorize and perform among high school students in Poetry Out Loud.
It may seem from my account that Shirley and I were the chummiest of friends. The truth is that I hardly knew her except through her poems. We met face to face in New York only two or three times. After those early sightings, I lost touch with her for 20 years. The books, however, continued to arrive at unpredictable intervals and published in an exotic sequence of places — New South Wales, Singapore, Hong Kong, London, or Albuquerque. (My bibliography seemed provincial in comparison.) I had no idea where Shirley was or what she was doing, but it was clear she had gone global. I followed her profuse creativity on the page. The charm, humanity, and freshness of her poems never ceased to captivate me. As my admiration steadily grew, I was puzzled why she remained so little known in poetry circles.
Twenty years later we met at another poetry reading, this one my own at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It took me a moment to recognize her. She was, I discovered, a professor there, indeed a very celebrated professor, but not in poetry. Shirley was now a major voice in Asian-American and Women’s Studies. At last, the situation was clear. Like Hollywood, academia believes in typecasting. In the specialist world of the university, you can only be known for one thing. Shirley was a celebrated cultural studies theorist. Her poetry, as the theorists say, had been marginalized.
I can offer no opinion on Professor Lim’s academic work, but I feel confident in declaring her poetry a rare achievement. In book after book, she has created a more impressive oeuvre than many writers who have professorships in poetry. Another UC Santa Barbara professor (long before Shirley’s time), the brilliant Hugh Kenner, once described American Modernist innovation as a “homemade world” — unorthodox creativity free from pomp, precedent, and pretension. Shirley’s best poetry has that “homemade” quality. Like Wallace Stevens, she has put a planet on the table, a “homemade world” of her own experience.
Lim is a poet of exile and assimilation, loss and recovery, journeys and explorations. To her own astonishment, she has finally become a poet of arrival and abidance with Santa Barbara as her Ithaca. In each of her last few books, she has struggled with her relationship to the mythic Golden State and its quotidian reality. In “Learning to love America,” she pokes, she mocks, she tastes, and she ultimately embraces her new home because — in a poem made up of “because” clauses — it is now the reality of her complicated life.
because to have a son is to have a country
because my son will bury me here
because countries are in our blood and we bleed them
because it is late and too late to change my mind
because it is time.
Her forthcoming collection, In Praise of Limes, is the culmination of her imaginative odyssey. She praises, rebukes, teases, and caresses her adopted California, a land of fruit and fire, a paradise perpetually in the process of being lost. In Praise of Limes is a book rhapsodic and elegiac by turns. Lim is caught between hope and anxiety but never remote from the bliss of being alive:
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.
Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s In Praise of Limes will appear in March from Sungold Editions.
Dana Gioia is an award-winning poet and critic. Former California Poet laureate and Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia is a native Californian of Italian and Mexican descent. Gioia has published five full-length collections of poetry, most recently 99 Poems: New & Selected.