My first poetry teacher told me that all poems are about longing and despair. They are? I asked. He laughed and said, Maybe, but don't take my word for it. You figure it out. I was 17 then, living in the woods of Northern Michigan, and I've been fascinated with poems ever since.
Twenty-five years later, I might whisper to you in secret that I think he's right. I will declare publicly and without hesitation that the poetry I love most is rooted in the fertile territory of longing and despair. This is part of the reason I'm so taken with the poetry of Sandra Lim, the University of Montana's spring semester Hugo visiting writer.
Lim was born in Seoul, Korea, but grew up on the West Coast and attended a string of top-tier institutions (Stanford, the Iowa Writer's Workshop and UC Berkeley). Her poems, however, possess a kind of radical intelligence and emotional wildness that was not born in any classroom. Her first book, Loveliest Grotesque, came out on Kore Press in 2006. The title alone is an indicator of the opposites that collide in Lim's writing.
Her poetry contains a kind of magic specific to the form: It takes the shame, fear, remorse and hurt we keep so close that it becomes part of ourselves and holds that tangled mess at arm's length. Lim brings this darkness into the light so that we can regard it with a healthy detachment. She turns dark matter into something lovely. I experienced the kind of relief one might feel after an exorcism as I turned the final page of Lim's second and most recent collection, The Wilderness.
Published by Norton in 2014, The Wilderness feels incredibly timely right now, after a January that has been cold and dark in ways beyond the literal. Most of the collection's poems are built around winter imagery—snow, ice, white as far as a person can see—and the distant notion of a thing called spring. One of the book's epigraphs comes from a character played by Sissy Spacek in the movie Badlands—a national park that has been on my mind in recent days.
In the poem "The Dark World," Lim writes, "I am terrified because I love the world but which one." Is she narrating the inside of my head? Yes, she is narrating the inside of my head. She nails in a single line the dilemma I've been dragging around all month like a wet wool blanket.
Lim has an uncanny ability to marry opposites like beauty and carnage in a single line, whether she's comparing a cut-up heart to lace, or spring to "a platter of the daintiest cakes." I wasn't surprised to discover that The Wilderness was selected for publication by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Glück, who, I would dare to say, writes anthems for longing and despair, anthems built out of dormant irises and Greek gods. Glück has been a favorite of mine since the time, as a teen, I first loved any poems at all. I'm happy that these years later I'm still reading and discovering new favorites, like Lim.
It is, of course, fair to ask why we should embrace difficult feelings like longing and despair. Avoid them, you might say. Down with longing and despair! Here's the thing: These are the feelings that make us human. If we deny them, crush them, or try to bury them like a broken piece of our mother's best china, we risk dulling our capacity for compassion and becoming something less than human (which is a dangerous way to be in the world).
Maya Angelou argues in the closing line of her essay "Graduation," " . . . we survive in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets (include teachers, musicians, and blues singers)." Poetry is a form of spiritual survival, and reading it during dark times can revive one's spirit. This is why sitting down with Lim's intuitive and insightful words on a late winter Sunday is good medicine. Even better? Hearing her read out loud. I'll be there with my human-size portion of longing, despair and this feral sort of thing called hope.
Sandra Lim reads from her poetry at the Dell Brown Room of UM's Turner Hall Fri., Feb. 3, at 7 PM.