Poets & Writers

A Poet a Day: Shirley Geok-Lin Lim

"Riding Into California"

A Poet a Day: Shirley Geok-Lin Lim

During these trying days of social distancing, self-isolating and quarantines, days rife with fear and anxiety, my colleagues and I thought you might like some company. So each day we will be introducing you to poets we have met over the years. The only contagion they will expose you to is a measure of joy, reflection and meditation brought on by “the best words in the best order.”
— Bill Moyers

“If you come to a land with no ancestors to bless you, you have to be your own ancestor,” Shirley Geok-lin Lim explains in the first few lines of her poem “Riding into California.” Listen to her reading and view an excerpt of her interview with Bill Moyers, recorded in 1999 at the Dodge Poetry Festival.

      Riding Into California

If you come to a land with no ancestors
to bless you, you have to be your own
ancestor. The veterans in the mobile home
park don’t want to be there. It isn’t easy.
Oil rigs litter the land like giant frozen birds.
Ghosts welcome us to a new life, and
an immigrant without home ghosts
cannot believe the land is real. So you’re
grateful for familiarity, and Bruce Lee
becomes your hero. Coming into Fullerton,
everyone waiting at the station is white.
The good thing about being Chinese on Amtrack
is no one sits next to you. The bad thing is
you sit alone all the way to Irvine.

Shirley Geok-lin Lim was born in Malaysia under the Japanese occupation, of an ethnic Chinese background, in a Malay-dominant society. She became the first Asian and woman to win the Commonwealth Prize for poetry. Watch the entire show featuring more of her poetry.

See all poets in the A Poet a Day Collection.