The WIlderness by Sandra Lim
W. W. NOrton & Co., Inc., 2014; 96 pp
Reviewed by Wesley Rothman


γνῶθι σεαυτόν—know thyself.

I let it look right through me, having no choice in the matter,
its no-space and its no-time, they bring me to my knees.
It straps me to my body, as if I were made for it,
it begins its waste with a slight forward pull…

                                                                        O philosopher
of destructions, nevertheless my heart is pounding—


Sandra Lim’s Barnard Women Poets Prize winning collection The Wilderness is a hearty, dark chuckle in response to the axiom, “know thyself,” less in favor of humility, and more because the attempt to truly know thyself is like commanding a person to chart every inch and impulse and instinct of the Earth.

It was a great relief that my thoughts
had taken over feeling about our sorrows.

I wanted to turn over all my wildness to them,
so that they could harbor it in English-language sounds.

“Vous et Nul Autre”

The attempt to know oneself is foolish yet so necessary, so futile, and these poems remind us its paradox; the attempt to know ourselves, what we go through in emotion and thought, in relation to other humans, our goals and desires and downfalls, this attempt is maybe what makes life something we call alive.

Consider the strange and riotous interior, through which so many nameless things fly.


What is death
but reason
in flawless submission
to itself

not reason

something stonier


Even the formal sensibilities of The Wilderness suggest a departure from civilization into a self, a stumbling about in the bush, fumbling to chart the blank spaces of a map when we don’t realize the blank space is infinite, or when we don’t have a handle on scale.

A journey like this appears to hold out the promise
of a rescue, an immense life in the formlessness.

So we come to stand on the deck of an aged ocean liner.
The sea hoards nothing, our senses are alive and bright.
The captain says we are opening into a territory

of raw wishes and the “merely” beautiful,
past heartbreak, transcendence, past return.
How could this territory have anything to do with us?

There is something exciting about it, nevertheless.
Something mistaken and wholly familiar,
hatchet-minded, and eager with beginning.

“Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”

Lim does some of this mapping with the language and forms of these poems, constantly reminding us that even in the most unfamiliar territory of ourselves, in the most familiar language, there is still more of it, and always will be.

If I swallow a mouthful of ground glass, do I not slip past languages?

“The New World”

Sometimes a conceit makes itself necessary in the safety of the impasse between word and world.


The voices and tones, varied yet central, in The Wilderness strike out into the frontier we’re often too distracted to realize extends endlessly in every direction.

O night! In this lunacy, we could be so happy together,

thinking about thinking about
                                          the sun’s brightest provocations.

“Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”

The wilderness: I cannot get around the back of it.


The Wilderness demands attention and patience, the spirit of excursion, maybe some recklessness, and a certain comfort with the lack of resolution.

At the crucial point, there is yet more than one way
Of proceeding, but it seldom appears that way.

“Envoi: Lazarus”

These are not easily digested poems, they are not familiar at first but deliver a resonance we imagine we’ve experienced, and their language—or maybe their logic—will fluster you at times; but that’s often how expeditions go, isn’t it?

Change the flesh into word.

That word may sound broken into:
you can hear life beating

on its fiery way within it, brutalities
and banalities going about their custom.

“Ver Novum”

When have you and the map automatically clicked?

The sustained helplessness you feel in the long emptiness of days is matched

by the new suspiciousness and wrath you wake to each morning.
Isn’t this a relationship with your death, too, to fall in love with your inscrutable life?

“Amor Fati”

I wanted one work of mine
to be as fresh as this world and more

spacious than my consideration of it.

“Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”

The Wilderness has gotten pretty close to this speaker’s desire.