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Paul Scott Stanfield reviews a compelling new collection of poetry.

Sandra Lim, The Curious Thing (Norton, 2021), 68pp.

The term “elliptical poetry” does not crop up in discussion these days quite as often as it did in the five years or so following Stephanie (then publishing as Stephen) Burt’s 1998 and 1999 essays outlining the phenomenon, but the phenomenon itself may still be among us, as alive as Schrödinger’s cat. Sandra Lim’s compelling new book, The Curious Thing, is a case in point. Burt wrote of elliptical poetry that it was “always hinting, punning, or swerving away from a never-quite-unfolded backstory,” and Lim’s poems similarly do not disclose presences so much as make them felt. The poetry in The Curious Thing, like the rumpled but empty bed on its cover, suggests that some turbulence both ordinary and extraordinary passed through, leaving its inscrutable traces, these beautiful, riddling forms.

The first-person singular pronoun recurs throughout the book, but it is mobile. Quoting Burt again: “Ellipticals love poems that declare ‘I am X, I am Y, I am Z,’ where X, Y, and Z are incompatible things.” “A Shaggy Dog Story,” a ten-part poem that anchors The Curious Thing, begins with just that device:

I am hot and tiny,
yet I wrote Jane Eyre.

I died on a rainy Thursday
in Paris.

Much later, I came home to a household laid waste
by a tin of fatal corned-beef.

I take my pen name
from a small French village; I drink like a fish.

The “I” elsewhere in the book is similarly migratory. The book’s second section feels like a series of stills from a now-ended affair or marriage, but the “I” seems to be now one person, now the other. Mysteriously, it is when the first-person metamorphoses into the second, when “I” becomes “you,” that one feels most within the gravitational pull of the writer herself. “Something Means Everything” begins in what sounds like a familiar mode of first-person lyric reminiscence: “I had a long and mysterious fever / when I was four years old.”  When the pronoun shifts from “I’ to “one,” the stakes seem to rise, and then with a shift to “you,” we seem to be given a key to the book as well as its title:

You don’t know what your story is about
when you begin it. And a love to measure past
and future loves against: the danger may be that it carries
the force of original thought, when in reality,
it is just what you have had with you
all along, the curious thing lying on your heart.

The slight side-step from first person to second, just that much distance, creates the distance needed to see one’s own story, what is closest to the self.

Similar small side-steps create the distinctive tone of the book. The reader often has a sense of something left unsaid, of a phenomenon seen from an oblique angle, of being transported from one place to a quite different place in the blink of a phrase. A passage of simple, concrete description might end in a surprising abstraction: “The hot morning in the café, / feeling encroached on by a cloud / of dusty ferns and creepers // and the low earth of duty.” An unexpected adjective might flip the polarity of an image: “My leg twisted beneath me / at a serene new angle.” Apparent non-sequiturs articulate an unguessable but powerful logic:

I meant to bring him a statue
of Venus de Milo for good measure.
It would have all the effect of a moral
dullness and deep fear. I notice this is the only
place in town without a television.

Why should the surprising absence of a television seem congruent with the idea that a statue of a beautiful, armless woman would, by its conjuration of dullness and fear, more than meet some need? I cannot say. But that congruence, once Lim asserts it, seems inescapable.

The sense of what Burt calls “a never-quite-unfolded backstory” is continual. In The Curious Thing, it is a never-quite-unfolded autobiography that includes particular cities (poems titled “Chicago,” “Boston,” and “San Francisco”) and authors (“Jean Rhys,” “Spinoza Says”) as well as childhood memories and the affair or marriage that flashes by in vivid and enigmatic montage in the book’s second section. The Curious Thing has the matter of confessional poetry, one might say, without confessional poetry’s tell-all manner, especially in the long poem “A Shaggy Dog Story.”

The poem opens with the parceling out of the “I” quoted earlier, as if to forestall any simplistic identification of the poem’s speaker with its writer, but also has affinities with classics of poetic spiritual autobiography: Wordsworth’s Prelude and its spots in time (“I was face down again in the dark blue / mud // where the cold and rocks and glints and verdigris / tried to draw me”), Eliot’s Ash Wednesday and its Dantean gestures (“In the middle of my life / I felt a heave of something like nausea”). It does not even back completely away from the prophetic:

Part of what makes life shameful and exciting
Is the fact of being gripped
By something true that you just barely intuit

I breathed in its complex scents

It may be in a spirit of modest acceptance of prophethood that the poem following “A Shaggy Dog Story” is titled “The Mountaintop.”

“The Mountaintop” sounds like a survey of the terrain the book has traveled, and takes up the second-person address in which the book frames its most confiding moments. It begins:

In truth, you still expect to order your life
in peace; you continue to long for glamour and passion.

To guard against the destiny
you don’t really know, you work furiously.

Pensive and unathletic as you are, you have
your own intricate schedule,

With your shopping bags and appointments.
You always forget you’re a bag of blood.

Again, the side-step into the second-person creates space for honest self-assessment. Even the difficult experiences have their own paradoxical reward (“The dreams become fresh and astounding once more, / renewed by the drama of betrayal”), work can be so absorbing it is a kind of vacation (“Even the self you take to be so real / falls away as you labor”), and balance is found: “Something has made you brave. / There is more to life than writing.”

The Curious Thing strikes its own balances, achieving directness by indirection, bold in its subtlety and subtle in its boldness.


Paul Scott Stanfield was educated at Grinnell College and Northwestern University, and has been a member of the English Department at Nebraska Wesleyan University since 1989. He is the author of Yeats and Politics in the 1930s and of articles on Yeats, other Irish poets, and Wyndham Lewis.

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