Shirley Geok-lin Lim
Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s first collection of poems, Crossing the Peninsula (1980), received the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. She has published five other volumes of poetry: No Man’s Grove (1985); Modern Secrets (1989); Monsoon History (1994), a retrospective selection of her work; What the Fortune Teller Didn’t Say (1998); and Listening to the Singer (2007), a collection of poems out of Malaysia. Bill Moyers featured Lim for a PBS special on American poetry, “Fooling with Words.” She is also the author of three books of short stories; a memoir, Among the White Moon Faces (1997 American Book Award for non-fiction); two novels, Joss and Gold (2001) and Sister Swing (2006); and a children’s novel, Princess Shawl (2008). Herfirst novel was welcomed by Rey Chow as an “elegantly crafted tale [that] places Lim among the most imaginative and dexterous storytellers writing in the English language today.” Lim’s co-edited anthology The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women’s Anthology received the 1990 American Book Award. She has published critical studiesandedited/co-edited many volumes and special issues of journals, including recently Transnational Asia Pacific; Power, Race and Gender in Academe; Asian American Literature: An Anthology; Tilting the Continent: An Anthology of South-east Asian American Writing, and special issues of Ariel, Tulsa Studies, Studies in the Literary Imagination, and Concentric. Her work has appeared in journals such as New Literary History, Feminist Studies, Signs, MELUS, ARIEL, New Literatures Review, World Englishes, and American Studies International. Among her honors, Lim received the UCSB Faculty Research Lecture Award (2002), the Chair Professorship of English at the University of Hong Kong (1999 to 2001), University of Western Australia Distinguished Lecturer award, Fulbright Distinguished Lecturer award, and the J.T. Stewart Hedgebrook award. She has served as chair of Women’s Studies and is currently professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
(For Kerrie Coles and Brian Joyce)
At 6 a.m. I set off for the Pacific,
her heaving bosom stretched between
rival lovers gazing from opposite beaches.
Silicate, shell and stone roil beneath her touch,
back and forth, groaning, while she slips
away and toward, teases sun rising
and setting, and the surfer men come daily.
I also adore her, threaded to her fine
eyebrow horizons, changeful swells that raise
my thirst no matter how much I swallow.
I can never be a woman like her,
forever wet, incipiently
violent even when calmed. In Newcastle
young boys and older throw their bodies
passionately at her each morning,
naked male skin carried toward dark rock
and cars. By sides of streets they strip,
wriggle into work clothes, as day
collapses into schools, offices, coal-mines
and their women’s arms, awake and sullen
in the world of dry air. They are mermen,
stolen away from their mothers’ hips.
And I? Drawn early down to Bogie Hole,
treading the slippery convict-shattered
stone steps, descend to the maddened
slamming of her spittle against tumbled
boulders, gulp the white and yellow sprays
that break, withdraw and break, in digital
seconds never returning. Like our men
moving on to other bodies, while the Ocean
Woman breathes in, breathes out, breathes in,
cradling her surfers past danger and drowning.
Before that old crone curse, arthritis,
comes down on me, I walk up Newcastle
Beach to Bogie Hole, where the governor
had a pool carved out of ancient basalt
by Irish convicts. Surf smashes on the rough
hewn blocks thrice every minute
it seems–and white foam sprays in ceaseless
upsurges of power. What power, I ask,
as I peer over the handrails, studying
sea-moss slime-slippery steps cut
into cliff face steep down to Bogie Hole,
studying as if a curious text
the heart skips over, falling in love
with falling, before backing off
from the savor of salt fatalism.
Not yet, my feet say, stepping away.
Today, for the first time I see
dolphins jumping above the surf line,
black fins racing over the Pacific
natural as my feet walking
in sunshine along Bathers’ Way.
What has brought me to Newcastle
no one knows, least of all me.
Blue skies and Pacific air the same
as home, leaving home is mere
practice for leaving all, all
the leavings learned again and again,
until goodbye becomes
addictive, the last look
behind, the first look forward,
what you carry everywhere
and everyday. Temporary living
is what childhood taught me.
Packing up, sleeping on others’
mattresses, and always hungry
for the new morning, and night
to be endured, supperless,
sharp as a paring knife peeling
another brown spot.
Writing a Poem
(At the Lock Up)
as if they were the sweet nectar of day,
which they are. It is impossible
to think or write. Its buzz takes away
feelings, takes over ears, is drilling a hole
in a loose tooth as you sit in history’s
dental chair, frantic and still, the drill
hammering gums until only
spit oozes, dribbles, spills over, fills
cavities you didn’t know you had,
only the drill lives in your head,
only the sharp dull dizz-dizz-dizz.
This is how the poem ends, dizz-dizz. . . .
(At the Hunter Street Mall)
I went on another date with my writing today. We’ve been dating for a long time. I don’t know why we keep meeting. It never ends in sex, although sometimes it’s led to my reading a book in bed. Often he does not bother to appear. I wait and wait, throat burning in dread, my tight chest overflowing with aches and burrs of anxiety, until I cannot bear the humiliation, even if no one is there, no one’s watching, and I don’t care, I finally leave, abject and alone, for something else, a nut muffin, or worse, a plate of limp over-salted French fries. I never get really angry. I wish I would, and then maybe I’d say goodbye.
But when he does turn up, I’m fascinated by his blather, it can throw a surprise like an amateur hitting an underhanded blow. Yet I’ve heard most of his stories so many times I can end his lines for him. You could say I find him a bore, so I don’t know why I keep listening.
He’s capable of mumbling. Between duhs and ums he may say something I like, and I carry it back in my mouth, imagining it’s a bit of worm a magpie crams into the hungry crop of its chick, and I take it out when I am alone, greedy, before I actually swallow it.
We’ve been dating like this since I was nine. I wouldn’t call him a pedophile but he’s not a big brother either. No, it’s not a healthy relationship, although it isn’t exactly sick. And, yes, he’s created problems, particularly with girlfriends who get jealous because of his attentions. They don’t see how long-suffering I’ve been. My husband doesn’t care. He understands first love comes first. Besides, he’s my last love, and they don’t offer the same fruit, apples to bananas. I get fed up, today, feeling my age, and want to sit in the shade instead, eavesdropping on busy hummingbirds pillaging fuschias and lilies. They’re attractive even if empty-headed. Still, every April, they lay their eggs, and at least one fledging sticks around till summer ends.
I’ve seen him hobble on one long strong leg,
the other a dangling stump, third a crutch,
in swimming shorts and tee, and sit by Nobby’s Beach,
on the wood-slatted bench near the hot parking lot
and sucking surf tucked distant meters away.
He said this sandy stretch, the boast of Newcastle,
appears like acres of salt tears he hadn’t shed
when they’d lifted him out of Shark Alley
winters ago, after the juvenile gray snagged
the limb from him, harder to cross with hobble
and crutch and one good leg than he’d first imagined.
Most afternoons between lunch and sunset crowds
he sits watching the black-suited amphibian
boys hurry with bee-waxed boards into the waves.
Yes, they do look like elegant seals in and out
of ocean. Ignore his gaze that says nothing
except wonder where among the particles
of the Pacific his flesh and blood now surge
with the spindrift and its tide, sensation
of thigh and calf and foot and toes clasping
like that bite threshing its fish head still
in the surf most afternoons on Nobby’s Beach.