In “The Vulture & The Body,” a poem in the first section of Ada Limón’s superb fifth collection, The Carrying, the speaker asks, “What if, instead of carrying / a child, I am supposed to carry grief?” It’s a gut-wrenching moment, one of many throughout the book that emphasizes the omnipresent fragility of life. These poems find death in everyday occurrences, close calls, and, in many cases, infertility.
Although the subject matter is often mournful, the endurance of nature also comes to light. Even though an individual may perish, there is consistency in the life cycles of bumblebees, dandelions, and race horses—all of which are examined with gorgeous language and imagery that makes Limón’s collection hard to put down, even in the moments that cause a deep, sorrowful ache. The tone is conversational yet eloquent, as if the speaker is retelling the most whimsical or challenging moments of their day after mentally working out the details of the story all afternoon. At times, these dialogues become brutally honest and confessional. In other instances, they’re more convivial.
Take “Of Roots & Roamers,” for example. The speaker muses about the varying flora cross the United States and notes, “So / much of America belongs to the trees.” It’s easy to see how the massive, slow-growing redwood or live oak comes to signify permanent beauty in contrast to our own messy ephemerality. The poem continues:
Even when we can’t agree on much,
there’s still the man returning from his
late shift at the local bar, who takes
a long look at the bird’s nest in the maple,
pats the trunk like a friend’s forearm,
mumbles something about staying safe
and returns home.
The trees, then, are confidants. They are the less-panicked backdrop around which more frantic plants and animals fight to survive. Although trees eventually come to their demise just like everything else, their immovable existence offers an evergreen sense of safety and companionship. Meanwhile, poems such as “The Leash” are more transparent, flush with existential terror. After beginning with a flurry of bombs and guns and bullets, “The Leash” zooms in on the speaker walking their dog:
Reader, I want to
say: Don’t die. Even when silvery fish after fish
comes back belly up, and the country plummets
into a crepitating crater of hatred, isn’t there still
something singing? The truth is: I don’t know.
But sometimes, I swear I hear it, the wound closing
like a rusted-over garage door, and I can still move
my living limbs into the world without too much
pain, can still marvel at how the dog runs straight
toward the pickup trucks break-necking down
the road, because she thinks she loves them,
because she’s sure, without a doubt, that the loud
roaring things will love her back, her soft small self
alive with desire to share her goddamn enthusiasm,
until I yank the leash back to save her because
I want her to survive forever. Don’t die, I say,
and we decide to walk for a bit longer, starlings
high and fevered above us, winter coming to lay
her cold corpse down upon this little plot of earth.
The Carrying, in such moments, touches on our current political strife as well. Given the horrifying and inhumane actions of this administration, the contemporary focus on life and death does not seem accidental. However, Limón also reminds us this is nothing new. “A New National Anthem” suggests, “Perhaps / the truth is, every song of this country / has an unsung third stanza, something brutal / snaking underneath us as we blindly sing / the high notes with a beer sloshing in the stands / hoping our team wins.”
Many of the larger personal and political cogitations in this collection root themselves in desiring a child, but the concept of motherhood is more universal. By the collection’s close, in “Sparrow, What Did You Say?” the speaker opines “I’m good at this, this being alone / in the world, the watching of things / growing.” It’s not total acceptance, but hope remains. The Carrying perhaps doesn’t only refer to the burdens we carry, but also the small joys that carry us through the incessant turmoil of existence. It’s difficult to balance such polarized emotions, but Limón deftly navigates these extremes.
By Ada Limón
Published August 14, 2018
Ada Limón is the author of four books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Kingsley Tufts Award. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and American Poetry Review, among others. She lives in both Kentucky and California.