by Carmen Nge
I eat a green mango. Solid,
sour, it cuts the back of the throat, torn
taste, like love grown difficult or separate.
More chillies, more salt, more sugar,
more black soy—a memory of tart
unripeness sweetened by necessities.
(excerpt from “Mango”)
Shirley Lim is a poet of rich metaphors and a long memory. Despite having lived in the United States for a few decades, Lim continues to write of a past still hauntingly vivid, with metaphors grounded in a reality painfully Malaysian. Her most recent book of poetry, Listening to the Singer, is powerful volume steeped in a nostalgia emptied of romanticized nuances. Like green mangoes, her poems stimulate our awareness of the sharp, sour zing to come.
Lim’s most heart-wrenching poems are about her mother—a woman who left a gaping hole in her psyche that is present still. A luminescent absent figure, Lim’s mother inspires anger but the poet controls this emotion rather productively; hers is an anger distilled, lacking a venomous edge and ripened to aesthetic maturity.
Like most women, Lim’s mother desires the finer things in life: Western fashions, fancy cars and material comforts. The poet tells us that she “confused life with wanting” but the poems harbour a more complex subtext, one that paints the picture of a society that opens few pathways for women at the time. As a child, Lim would not have been equipped with a feminist lens but as an adult poet, she understands that being a woman is far from easy. The arguments and beatings her mother endures at the hands of her father compels us to empathize with both poet and mother.
Nevertheless, Lim refrains from demonizing her father. Poems about her father are loving portraits, although shot through with a bitter sweetness. Lim’s impressions of her father are concrete and vivid, full of the minute details of everyday life: what he ate when sick, the car he drove and the drinks he consumed for his many ailments. Here is a man the poet knows best, broken under the weight of family responsibility and wracked with health problems. Lim’s poems about her father are longer, less terse than those about her mother.
Lim’s poems about people are her strong suit. They are full-bodied and fleshed out, rich with thick descriptions that serve as metaphors for longing and loss. Her poems about places—Malacca, Santa Barbara, airports, beaches, to name a few—are objectively detailed and her adjectives clinically precise. Lim paints a picture of a Malaysia teeming with life—tropical insects (gnats, black spiders, moths, lizards) share the humidity of a monsoon clime with an ocean breathing waves and foam.
But the fecund physical and emotional landscape is tightly controlled; Lim often adopts traditional poetic forms—rhyme schemes that structure her memories into well-defined stanzas. Despite their perceived restrictiveness, these rhyming structures in fact amplify the musicality of Lim’s poetic voice. Some of her poems are like pantuns in English, adopting familiar forms like the pantun berkait.
Although she tackles an extended time frame that reaches into the present, Shirley Lim’s poems are strongest when they move into the bittersweet crevices of the past, scraping against abrasive memories and scooping out their soft, pulpy substance. Unafraid of their consequence, she excavates her personal history in a manner that reminds us how important it is never to forget and yet, how malleable and recondite our remembrances.
This review was first published in Off The Edge magazine, Merdeka (September) 2007 issue.