Reviews / June 2016 (Issue 32)

Living in the Moments: Shirley Geok-lin Lim's Ars Poetica for the Day and Do You Live In?

by Michael Tsang

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Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Do You Live In?, Ethos Boos, 2015. 105 pgs.

Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Ars Poetica for the Day, Ethos Books, 2015. 105 pgs.


The titles of Shirley Lim's two most recent poetry collections, Ars Poetica for the Day and Do You Live In?, are deceptively disparate. At first glance, Do You Live In? suggests a prominent sense of place whereas Ars Poetica for the Day plays on both the notion of pure art and of transience. In fact, however, the collections complement each other with their occasionally different but often interconnected emphases. For this reason, I believe that these volumes need to be read together—reading only one or the other would offer an incomplete experience of Lim's recent poetic vision.  

The "dialectic between travel and home" has always been central to Lim's work, writes Singapore-born poet Boey Kim Cheng in his foreword to Ars Poetica for the Day, which is why he is surprised to find an unexpected break in her poetic themes within the volume. For Boey, such a break symbolises the "beginning of a third life" for Lim and reflects a refreshing change in her perspective on life, inspired by the decision to retire from academia and by her successful treatment for illness. As a result, Boey rightly notes, some of the poems in this collection carry a strong sense of carpe diem, while also gesturing towards a return to Lim's training in English literature and to her Chinese, Malay and Peranakan cultural influences. Yet, for a reader unfamiliar with Lim's personal life, what is likely to stand out in these collections is the relationship between human experience versus time in Ars Poetica for the Day and versus space in Do You Live In?.

The organic exploration of the passage of time and the experience of the poetic self punctuates Ars Poetica for the Day. Temporality comes in many forms—apart from a sense of carpe diem, dealing with temps perdu also emerges from Lim's meditations on her post-retirement, post-treatment life. Take for instance the poem "Going Through Paper," where the speaker revisits old "[c]alendars—week after week, covering / years, decades—scrawled dates, meaningless / acronyms and unrecognisable / names." Has this not happened to all of us before, when we open our old diaries and realise that we no longer recognise our past? In "Old Love Poems," Lim combines her power of imagination with the craft of poetry to investigate the relationship between love, time and art. The poem ends by drawing a parallel between love, poetry and the present moment: "the foolish young / and poets, weary-wise, / trusting in music, / unheard and magnified / in their eyes." Despite the opposite characters of the foolish young lovers and the weary-wise poet, both invest in the aesthetics of the moment and preserve something beautiful, consistent with the theme of carpe diem.

At this point, it is worth reminding ourselves of the poem's opening:

lying on pages
like betrayed lovers
alone although not
abandoned, but
not beloved:

the bee's sting
that pricks lips
and raises rashes
to immunise
the reader
who's forgotten
love and its golden
oldie L.P's.

Love poems from the past may preserve the best moments of a relationship, and while they are proof of a long-ago romance, time has also elevated them to a higher purpose: the pain of revisiting these artefacts strengthen one's resistance to failure, and perhaps rekindles a faith in love. Poetry transcends time and teaches us how our present and future is shaped by our past.

Other poems, such as "Routines," see time through the repetitive quotidian: "The earth's writing, its graphics / began with this circle, morning and noon, / treading inside out, outside in […] Circular, daily, the days arriving, / unacknowledging circles ending." Notice in particular how the poem fuses a sense of place with the flow of time through the figure of a geography student:

No, the finger stays,
tracing the bright equatorial belt
clinching both hemispheres, ignorant
of how the earth spins,
The student loves these days
of ignorance, her finger-feet pressing
early routes, from home to school to home.

The experience of time therefore does not make sense without place or context.

There are also poems in the collection that draw on contemporary issues. In "Similes," Lim takes on terrorism: "Something streaks across the sky, / a trial missile, stealth bomber […] vests embroidered / with suicide verse that the mothers / stitch, smiling, for the city centers." A similar sense of social awareness is evident in the candidly titled "Homeless," which is composed of a series of plaintive statements: "Homeless is a language without a people. […] Homeless is a people looking for a history. […] Homeless are the migrants and refugees in boats […] Homeless are their burials."

"Home Stretch" muses on the concept of home, juxtaposing conventional images like "homely, homesick," or "home cooking" with retirement sites and funeral homes, and even treating "homing" as a verb of passage. But what I find most refreshing is that, towards the end of the poem, we are told that "home is where the heart is." If we accept Boey's proposition that "[t]o a migrant writer, home is never a given, neither fixed nor stable, and the act of homecoming is at best uncertain," then perhaps the present tense of "where the heart is" should be taken literally, as referring to the present moment. The home stretch may not be a single straightforward journey, but a prolonged trip involving multiple stages.

This notion ties in well with Do You Live In? Indeed, Lim's preface to the book is also titled "Home Stretch," highlighting how the two volumes interconnect. It may also provide a double meaning that speaks to the themes at the heart of both the collections—"home stretch" not only indicates the last part of a journey (in this case, perhaps, the later part of Lim's own life) but also her desire to extend, i.e. stretch, our definitions of "home." As Lim explains, the collection is one "not simply of wandering but also of settlement [across various locales such as] Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, [each offering] a different national and cultural location."

Lim goes on to write that the modes of life in these places are not exactly the main subject of the collection, instead the poems offer a "correspondence between observation of the external world […] and interior subject." I agree. It would be a mistake to see these works as simply continuing Lim's previous poems of trajectory and transit, without considering the ways in which she continues to nuance and refine her trademark transnational poetics. These poems demonstrate that home is not a permanent concept but a shifting, multi-layered one: home is where the heart settles at any given moment. Yet temporary settlement, no matter how brief, does not impede one from making penetrating observations about one's current place of abode or from standing in solidarity with the locals. A series of poems on Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement in 2014 best demonstrate this. In "The City in Fragments," Lim's poetry finds common-cause with the student protestors:

Summer's fetid breath suspends through
October and November. […] Still we try
to see the city through its harsh pale air,
[…] The occupied streets shape couplets
in a city of many poems. Hopes of freedom
unshackle, but only the freeman
will rise and stay.

Yet even though various moments in the text allude particularly to the Umbrella Movement, the poem also speaks to a collective yearning for freedom and a desire to stand unified against the state common to many social movements. For Lim, the power of the many is the power of "one people, yet interlocking" ("The Puzzle").

Elsewhere, Lim describes how in two and a half months protesters from the Umbrella Movement built "their city of desires, innocent, / illuminated and imminent", yet also how the occupation lingered, uncertainties plagued the future of the movement, energy dissipated and "the children's singing" broke lower, "suddenly uncertain / of its octave" ("The Bill"). Despite such setbacks, however, the poet surely believes in the transformative power of activism. "Freedom is unknown to clocks," concludes the speaker in "The City in Fragments," before going on to to comment on the impact of the protest experience:

for when they will leave these streets, life
moving on, their poetry safe in books,
changing the one unrevised history
to ordinary stories when Hope fledges free.

In the end, the time spent on the streets, the friends made in the gatherings, the renewed perspective gained on one's home are all poetic stories that break the power of grand narratives.

Lim repeatedly addresses the protesters as "children" (as in the poems "The Children's Movement" and "Beware the Children"), and some may find this a condescending misrepresentation of the protests as simply a student or youth movement. However, "children" is also a metaphor for Hong Kong and its emerging and relatively recent fight for democracy. Contrary to how the establishment in the city has been criticised as short-sighted and mindful only of short-lived economic success, the use of the word "children" entrusts Hong Kong's future to the next generation—thus: "Beware the hopeless, dreamless generation, / who'll stalk the city when grown, waiting done" ("Beware the Children").

The dialectic between one and many is expressed in a different take in the moving poem "1Malaysia" with which the collection opens:

The power of one
is also the power
of once […]
one mother,
one father, one house,
one town, one country,
one story.
[…] Then is also
the power of many:

binding embroidery
torn ripped tapestry
woven as one. Once.

The shared history of unity expressed in the first stanza is contested, or rather enriched, by "the power of many" articulated in the second. This multiplicity is first "torn" and "ripped" by conflict before the tapestry is forcefully "woven as one," thus bringing us back to the idea of oneness. Yet the poem does not suggest a permeant unity, but instead reveals how the idea of on(c)eness may be a kind of fiction, leaving the reader to ask: If our multiplicities need to be repeatedly "woven as one," is it even possible to have "one story"?

Although the title of the poem, "1Malaysia," refers to a specific government campaign stressing national unity, the lack of specific reference to the country within the rest of the poem deterritorialises the work, allowing it to speak to universal political and social themes and encouraging readers to focus on how ideas are related in different contexts. In this sense, it does not necessarily matter if you live in contemporary Malaysia or have encountered the "1Mayalasia" policy directly, as you may have experienced something similar where you do live.


I cannot help but wonder if it may have been more innovative and effective to collate these collections into a single, combined volume. While each book has a slightly different emphasis, many of the poems overlap generously in theme, subject matter and motif. Little odes on the alphabet fill the two books: "The Letter C," "Writing Alphabets," "M" in Ars Poetica for the Day and "Learning the English Alphabet" and "A" in Do You Live In? Likewise, poems like "Homeless" and "Home Stretch," discussed above, seem as suitable for one collection as for the other. And I have already pointed out how in Do You Live In?, geographical contexts that are only implied allow works to speak to universal concerns. By the same token, various poems in Ars Poetica for the Day evoke universal truths through cross-cultural contexts. Take "Letting Off Steam" for an example: "Always, you cry. / In American, a blue funk. In English, saddened. // In Chinese, swallowing bitterness."

Ultimately, both collections feel linked by their answers to the same opened-ended and ambiguous question "Do You Live In?" even if this question is only the title of one of the volumes. Throughout both books, one can see the different meanings of "live in" being explored, whether as in a place, "I live in Hong Kong"; as in a point of time, "I used to lived there" or as in an experience, "Let's live in the moment." Intentionally or not, Lim's exploration of these three elements—space, time and experience—intertwines these collections so intimately that reading them individually would feel inadequate. Asking the open ended question "Do you live in?" in a single, more substantial, volume may have been able to provide a new ars poetica for our day, bringing together Lim's cacophony of worlds, people, places, cultures, customs and practices, and providing a more synergetic exploration of the intertwining relationship between geocultural rootedness/routedness and poetic production.


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