Grotesque, from the Old Italian grottesca (feminine of grottesco, from grotta), literally means “cave painting”. It refers to a style of art that blends human and animal forms, resulting in a fantastical distortion of the natural into a caricature of itself. It usually portrays something absurd or terrifyingly ugly. Sandra Lim’s first book of poems, Loveliest Grotesque, deftly plays with these layers of meaning: she gives us a surprisingly lyrical look at the best parts of the darkest sides of ourselves.
Lim’s poems themselves are a strange blend of formal and experimental elements. She’s fond of the sonnet form, and also offers readers examples of the ballad and pantoum. The structural—rhymed and metered—elements of these forms are balanced with a playful, post-modernist sensibility. For example, “Sonnet” (pg. 18) alters the form’s expected rhyme & meter scheme:
Red is the color but
Green holds the mood and
Black is the outstretched hand.
Grey is the uniform
While Pink keeps the dream
Yet Brown’s the dominant theme….
Lim gives us triplets rather than Shakespearean quartets or the Petrarchan octet/sestet, with not a hint of iambic pentameter. The colors-as-characters feel like a wink at surrealism, children’s literature, or allegory.
“In Radiant Serenity” (pg. 5), another 14-line poem (perhaps also a sonnet), brims with word play and puns:
I kill a bottle of wine,
hawk the goods,
and work the ellipsis.
You verb (like a smirk).
I verb you; you verb and verb.
The reader can imagine any variety of combinations of specific nouns and verbs in place of the generic place-holders, as well as that unidentified parenthetical remark. It’s as if Lim has provided us with a sonnet-template, and the reader can (indeed, must) actively participate in the making of the poem.
I am particularly taken with the idea of the “grotesque” as being related to cave paintings, especially because the Italian root comes from the feminine form of grotto, or cave. In Jungian terms, the cave symbolizes the unconscious. It is a symbol of the womb; the mother; the vagina; sex; and the birth process. In myth, it sometimes symbolizes a place of initiation or rebirth. It is often a dark and dangerous place.
Lim engages with and pushes back against this stereotypical view of the feminine. She re-imagines literary heavyweights Madame Bovary and Antigone—gives them new voices—and many of the poems consider the topic of women in general.
One of my favorite poems in the collection is “They Say Women Are a Nuisance on Safari” (pg. 36). It made me think of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, in which the cowardly, cuckolded title character finds courage (and consequently, a few minutes of happiness) while on a big-game safari, only to be shot by his wife.
Made tricky by ambiguity, we tasted young, and
like its general nature, we wouldn’t stop. Oh bang
bang. We were punctual and figuratively that
sort of grace.
Lim takes the stereotype of feminine savagery to the extreme: these are women who cannibalize their young. The word “bang”, used in such a cavalier tone, brings to mind both guns and the sexual act. Lim’s over-the-top characterization makes the reader very aware of this stereotype, which in turn allows these women to challenge—and even transcend—it.
All of Sandra Lim’s poems in Loveliest Grotesque walk this increasingly blurry line between beauty and terror: they are brutal and whimsical, lyrical and blunt. I recommend them for their unwavering dedication to the many-sided ambiguities within all of us.