What Sparks Poetry

Books We’ve Loved

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems.

In Books We’ve Loved, we’ve asked our editorial board members and select guest editors to reflect on a book that has been particularly meaningful to them in the last year, with the intention of creating a list of book recommendations for our valued readers.

Sandra Lim on Roo Borson’s Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida

Written in the spirit of Basho’s famous journey to the far north, Roo Borson’s Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida artlessly folds together the reflecting mind and the wayward, brimming world. It’s a book I dip into now and then, when I desire something intent, nascent-seeming, clear as water. During the pandemic, it seemed a particular source of practiced grace. Writing about nature is difficult; it’s hard to do without resorting to cliché, without being obvious or precious. But Borson doesn’t seem to worry about the burden of human consciousness in her registrations of nature; in “Summer Grass” she writes,

                            The swans are reasoning beings;
            the young cygnets, hatched from pins
            and old mattress stuffing, bright-eyed, learning
            what has bread, and what doesn’t.

She finely accumulates detail in her descriptions, absorbing the tensions of her own human awareness of nature, and the notions of animal consciousness and even the absence of consciousness. She manages to remain both reverent and witty; in the same poem, she interjects, “Do you still love poetry?”

As with Basho’s journey, hers is studded with passages of prose that use the language of a dairy or personal travelogue: casual, seemingly artless, but self-conscious:

The grasses are tasselled with seed, the crickets beginning, in stops and starts, suggestive trills. All of this happens in memory of course, recalled under the lamp’s warmth as you lie in bed with your eyes closed, too tired to read. Later they’ll sound more insistent: exploratory, expository, epistolatory, before become exhausted.

Prose passages like this one can seem like dummy runs for poems, or rather, that is their contrived-yet-guileless effect. Somehow, her work reminds me that we don’t really count in the scheme of things. And yet that news is startling each time, a kind of friendly pleasure in a book filled, like Basho’s, with death and partings and weather.

Writing Prompt

Write a poem about a journey. Like Basho, describe the people you meet and leave.

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Sandra Lim

Sandra Lim

Sandra Lim is the author of two poetry collections, Loveliest Grotesque (Kore Press, 2006) and The Wilderness (W.W. Norton, 2014), which won the 2013 Barnard Women Poets Prize. Her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Baffler, jubilat, The New York Times, Poetry, The Yale Review, and elsewhere. Her honors include a 2020 Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Levis Reading Prize, and grants from MacDowell, The Vermont Studio Center, and The Getty Foundation. Born in Seoul, Korea, she is an Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and lives in Cambridge, MA.