Trying to describe Genny Lim’s latest book of poetry Paper Gods and Rebels is like trying to describe Lim herself. What can one say about an award-winning playwright, poet, and vocalist who is also on the Board of Directors of the Before Columbus Foundation? Without question, Lim’s poems are diverse in topic and style. They address themes that one might expect: otherness, gender roles, violence, war, and sacrifice. But in this collection, Lim focuses most on poems that center on the experiences of women. The poet is present in some poems, but in others, Lim shows us the experiences of other women in different places around the world. The setting of the poems move from San Francisco to Sarajevo, from Gaza to Egypt, from Burma to Bali and Venezuela, among other places. Regardless of the setting, Lim gives us the history of struggle and loss in all of these places, among all of the women that she shows us.
Poems like “Butterfly’s Dream” and “Exile” are poems that represent the themes in the collection well. “Butterfly’s Dream” is the poem that pivots into the broader scope of being a poet, a dreamer, a sojourner while “Exile” seems to speak to the experiences of all of the women in the poems:
and it is women, who suffer all
like nuns cloistered in shadows
under eaves and mangroves
with desires small and undecipherable
as dust motes.
Paper Gods and Rebels tells so many stories in concise lines and sharp images. There are even poems in translation, and there are many historical references and translations of phrases that Lim provides for the reader. Still, I wonder if the breadth of the poems distract a bit. As a reader, I move from place to place. I am disjointed. This is in contrast to the beginning of the collection, in which the first 16 poems center on what seems to be a single family history that moves from China to San Francisco. This may be the autobiographical part of the collection, but it is so focused that it creates a clear vision of immigrants and their descendants, of living in poverty, of the struggle to survive.
I know that the other poems have similar themes, but they move so much from place to place and event to event that I don’t know where to focus my attentions. I am not arguing that a poem about living in Egypt is any more important than a poem about living in Burma. However, because the poems are so expansive, there are times when I think that the impact of the descriptions of experiences and events are lessened. I wonder if an entire collection of poems about Venezuela and experiences there would hold greater import and have more emotional impact than having a few poems about that experience mixed in with poems about the experiences of people in other countries.
That said, Lim’s collection is packed with poetry. There are 91 poems in the collection, and each one is dynamic and moves smoothly across the page. Still, I wish that I could linger in those places that Lim describes a bit longer. I am waiting to read more about Burma and Venezuela and Gaza. But I suppose that’s what a good writer does, right? Keeps the reader wanting more.