“Perhaps we are always hurtling our bodies toward / the thing that will obliterate us, begging for love / from the speeding passage of time, and so maybe, / like the dog obedient at my heels, we can walk together / peacefully, at least until the next truck comes” (pg 6-7).
I judge books by their cover, at first glance, I do. I am intrigued by bold colors, attractive designs. I look at them and ponder how their packaging will compare to the experience of reading it. The dark blue and bright red paint on the cover of The Carrying struck me as dark, bold, almost foreboding. Ada Limón’s poems extract a very similar feeling in me—just more intensely so. More than that, this cover could not prepare me for the pages within— the poem’s grappling with the inherent tension of life and death, the haunting depiction of death, the lyrical revere of life.
Limón brings in the tension between life and death throughout the poetry collection. In The Vulture & The Body, the idea of the speaker’s fertility and the death of animals alongside the road is juxtaposed. While she is trying to produce life, she is dwelling on the death on her path-- “On my way to the fertility clinic, / I pass five dead animals” (12). From the first line, this contrast is immediately apparent. Limon continues with: “I see / three dead deer, all staggered but together, and I realize as I speed / past in my death machine that they are a family. I say something / to myself that’s between a prayer and a curse— how dare we live / on this earth” (12). How dare we live when we kill, how dare she try to create life when she drives a “death machine”, is a complicit part in the slaughter of the animals— the poem seems to ask. I interpreted the last line— “The great black scavenger flies parallel now, each of us speeding, / intently and driven, toward what we’ve been taught to do with death”— as while the vulture has been taught to consume death, she has been taught to move away from it (12).
Many of the poems in this collection also touch on the theme of life moving forward in the face of death or grief. Limón presents nature’s drive to keep living, that despite annual death it blooms again each spring, as a source of inspiration. In Burying Beetle the poem reflects that “people just keep / dying even when I try to pretend they’re / not... but I can picture / the plants deepening right now into the soil, / wanting to live, so I lie down among them” (29). The act of lying among the plants represents, to me, a desire to want to live as the plants do. Additionally in Instructions on Not Giving Up, the growth of leaves on trees after winter signifies “The strange idea of continuous living despite / the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then / I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf / unfurling like a fist, I’ll take it all” (66).
Notes on the Below applies the giving and taking of life to the nature of Mammoth Cave Natural Park. The poem reflects the speaker’s desire to understand the cave’s nature— “the core / that creates and swallows” so that they might understand the nature of “both the dead and the living”,“what it is to be quiet, and yet still breathing” (47).
However, the lines:
“Tell me— humongous cavern, tell me, wet limestone, sandstone
caprock, bat-wing, sightless, translucent cave shrimp,
this endless plummet into more of the unknown,
tell me how one keeps secrets for so long”
housed so much specificity in the beginning that it stalled my entrance into the poem. If it had appeared as,
“Tell me—humongous cavern,
this endless plummet into more of the unknown,
tell me how one keeps secrets for so long”
I would have found my way into the heart of the poem easier (46). Moreover, the increase in white space might emphasize the vastness of the cavern. The specificity works to emphasize the significant range of creatures in the cave (and therefore, it’s depth), and the attention to detail and reverence for the cave, but I would have enjoyed it more if it had been in the middle section of the poem.
This collection is wrought with enjambment and white space that enhances the experience of reading the poem in that they usurp expectations or amplify an emotion, sentiment, or feeling.
In The Vulture & the Body, the lines:
“What if, instead of carrying
a child, I’m supposed to be carrying grief” (13).
creates a pause that emphasizes the physical act of carrying. Additionally, the white space creates a sense of distance between the speaker and the concept of carrying a child, which is applicable to the overall sentiment of the poem, and the collection.
The enjambment is similar in Mastering:
“that perhaps the only thing I can make
is love and art” (72).
This break distances the love and art from the act of making it in a way that seems to hearken back to the distancing of the speaker from carrying a child. It also conveys a disconnected tone that mirrors how the speaker feels toward the man she’s talking to.
The spacing in Bald Eagles in a Field contributes effectively to the pacing and tone of the piece, especially in the last four lines:
“really, it was just a moment, dad and daughter
pulled over in the car, silent and breathing for a singular instance before all we knew
took flight” (40).
Through the use of white space, it is as though the words themselves take flight from the rest of the poem. This works to convey the feeling of what the language dictates. The couplets create gentle and graceful pacing that the last line softly breaks free from.
In the poem, Would You Rather, white space is enlisted to convey distance.
“You said our Plan B was just to live out our lives: More time, more sleep, travel—
And still I’m making a list of all the places I found out I wasn’t carrying a child” (67).
The white space here creates physical distance that mirrors and emphasizes a distance in the perspectives of the speaker and their partner. Later in this poem, another instance of white space creates a sense of distance.
“Down below the girder that’s still not screened against jumpers, so that it seems almost like a dare, an invitation,
we watched a seal make a sinuous shimmy in the bay” (68)
As the line is spaced below the previous stanza, it is as if the break mimics the action of peering down below at the seals.
The stanza breaks bring more meaning to the poem, The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to Be Bilingual:
“Don’t mention your father
was a teacher, spoke English, loved making beer, loved baseball, tell us
again about the poncho, the hubcaps, how he stole them, how he did the thing
he was trying to prove he didn’t do” (60).
The breaks separate the father from who he really is, which is what the people in this poem are asking the speak to do, to only talk about him stealing hubcaps. The separation conveys the lack of understanding of the point of her father’s actions and a sentiment of separation from the portrayal of her identity that is being imposed upon her.
There are moments where the enjambment works to create surprise, such as in the poem Sundown & All the Damage Done: “burnt meat smell / of midweek cookouts and wet grass” (48). Breaking on burnt meat had a sinister tone that was subsequently amended in the following line. Additionally in Cargo: “The supermarket here is full of grass seed like spring / might actually come” (58). It’s an unexpected turn from a bright, image of renewal to a tone of defeatism.
Although the line breaks in Mastering were overall effective, I wasn’t entirely convinced of the line break: “how he’s lucky it’s me he said it to because I won’t / vaporize him” (73). There isn’t a sense of surprise when we get to “vaporize him”-- we already have an idea that she won’t do something, which is likely to be something negative as he’s lucky she won’t do it. Although a line break doesn’t necessarily have to create surprise for it to be effective, breaking on “won’t” read as stilted to me.
Perhaps I am jaded to the idea that we were once stardust, having heard it used often in writing. I was therefore apprehensive about a poem titled Dead Stars. Although, this metaphor that within life is death is appropriate in connection with the themes of the collection. Moreover this poem had a unique take on this well-used concept-- that the speaker could become stars again, if they “launch our demands into the sky, made ourselves so big / people could point to us with the arrows they make in their minds, / rolling their trash bins out, after all this is over?” (23). I particularly enjoyed the imagery in this piece with the mention of the “the trash, the rolling containers a song of suburban thunder”-- it was a description that I could hear in my head very clearly.
I did, however, find myself dissatisfied with the title of the poem— I’m Sure About Magic. This title sets you up an expectation for a glimmer of positivity, of wonder, of optimism. But it ends on a sour note— “all wasted like your too short life down the drain” (41). What was wasted? The pots turned into jewelry, the fruit smeared on wrist? Limón likely wanted a sense of despondency to come through at the end of the poem, but it seemed at odds with the concept of being certain about magic. Perhaps the “about” wasn’t necessarily that magic exists, but that it doesn’t, or that it’s not a uncomplicatedly wonderful thing.
I additionally found the unspecified pronouns in Sun Down & All The Damage Done alienated me from the piece. I could not find a way in to understand fully who “him” and “her” were. I was also lost because at one point, the poem states that “if were to live as long as she did, I’d / have eleven more years” in one line, but then “As long as her, this / would be my final year” (48). How could you have 11 more years and also only one at the same time? Or is this 11 more years grounded in “more” than a different number than the speakers current age? I interpreted the “him” and “her” to be parents, because it makes sense to that you would consider your life in comparison to your creator’s. However, I wasn’t entirely confident in this reading, so I was unable to find a way into understanding why these particular lifespans have import on the speaker’s own lifespan.
The lines that Limon chooses to separate as their own stanza often either enhance a sentiment, of sadness, loneliness, or vulnerability. In On A Lamppost Long Ago, orphaning the line “when we get it wrong, his face closes like a fist” causes the line to sound particularly sad (49). A sense of vulnerability is evoked in placing the line “I do not know where else I belong” alone in the poem Ancestors (4) .
In this collection, time presents itself as an extension of death, for it propels us towards it. In what is probably my favorite piece in the collection, The Leash, Limón grapples death and time in a haunting way-- in that like the dog that chases after the truck, we as humans are “perhaps
always hurtling our bodies toward / the thing that will obliterate us, begging for love / from the speeding passage of time” (6-7). There was something about the single stanza form in this poem that felt like a way to hold onto to life, that breaking would be like letting go. There are two poems in the collection dedicated to time, placed back to back: Time is On Fire, and After the Fire. Time is on Fire obscures the concept of time and highlights its power-- that if time doesn’t exist, “maybe I don’t exist. One day: / nothing. Another: mushrooms or mildew, or some / inching sprout, or some leaf gone black and dead. / Time does that” (86). In this poem, the speaker’s pain and time seem intrinsically linked, that “each second is in” them, that time can go backwards, that “The arrow / we rise like a horse, mute and fast, retraces and races, / so that right now even as my valley burns, it rewinds / too, each black ash rubble pile pulls itself back / into a dear home” (86). After the Fire, true to its title, has a tone of cold sorrow that follows in the wake of the previous poem’s anguish.
This book began with the idea of naming as a form of creation and it ended in a lingering call to something unknown.