Some New Possibilities of Being: A Brief Tour of Ada Limón’s Poetry
If you read this past week’s New Yorker, you have seen Limón’s latest poem. If you didn’t, you can read it here: “The Burying Beetle.”
What I appreciate most about Limón as a poet is her openness. Her collections vary significantly in voice and theme, but they all share incandescent honesty that pulls the reader closer. Here’s a quick tour through Limón’s four collections, with links to the poems available online:
“First Lunch with a Relative Stranger Mister You,” the first poem in Limón’s first collection, Lucky Wreck, opens with Limón’s frank, wry voice:
We solved the problem of the wind
with an orange.
Now we have the problem
of the orange.
Also in Lucky Wreck, “The Lessing Table” describes the dissolution of a couple through the gradual shrinking of their dinner table. “The Spider Web,” consists of seven sonnets, each beginning with the last line of the previous. This collection grapples with a number of themes, from death and love to the very universal feeling of becoming too intrigued by the lives of one’s neighbors “A Little Distantly as One Should.”
Limón’s second collection, This Big Fake World, is a funny, sad, and uplifting narrative told from the perspectives of three characters: a woman who runs a hardware store, a patron of the store with a troubled marriage, and his friend Lewis, who writes regularly to Ronald Reagan. The collection reads like a poetic novella.
Limón’s third collection, Sharks in the Rivers, is a dive into the natural world. Though her poetry has always featured a connection to nature, Sharks is a full embrace of the poet’s connection to the animal world, the ocean, and the woods. The collection contains the beautiful and elegiac “Marketing to Those of Us Left,” about the death of a friend. It also contains one of my absolute Limón favorites, “Return to Flush and Flutter.”
In “What it Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use,” one of Richard McCann’s favorites, Limón writes about a conversation with a friend about the existence of God.
And how we stood there,
low beasts among the white oaks, Spanish moss,
and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets,
woodpecker flurry, and I refused to call it so.
So instead, we looked up at the unruly sky,
its clouds in simple animal shapes we could name
though we knew they were really just clouds—
disorderly, and marvelous, and ours.
Limón’s fourth poetry collection Bright Dead Things is a National Book Award finalist, a Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award finalist, a 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, and one of The New York Times’ Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year.
When we talk about Bright Dead Things, we often start by mentioning one of three poems, “Triumph Like a Girl,” which opens the collection, “Service,” which depicts the poet’s darkly comical and strangely powerful encounter with a female pit bull, and “Bellow,” which addresses the frustrations of the writing life.
In her National Book Awards interview, Limón called “Triumph Like a Girl” an “invitation” to “have a radical hope, to believe in a magical winner’s circle…It was what I needed at the time, to join the power of the animal world.” “Service,” she says is about “standing up for yourself, even in the smallest way or in the strangest circumstances,” and how this small defiance allows “for some new possibilities of being.”
Limón describes “Bellow” in the same interview as “a directive to myself and to other writers to get down and do the work… there are times when the world stands in our way and writing is the last thing we feel like we could do. There’s the judgment and the failure and the self-loathing and all those things that make us mum… ‘Bellow’ is sort of a spell to get back to writing, to return to what matters, to love yourself enough to listen to what’s rustling inside.”
Tell the range and all that’s howling,
the flickers of life beyond the weeds,
the vulture’s furrowed brow of flight,
the blasted sticky Canadian lawn thistle;
tell the clowned-out clouds and the rain,
and all that makes you go quiet again,
tell them that you didn’t come here
to make a fuss, or break, or growl, or
scream; tell them-crazy sky and stars
between-tell them you didn’t come
to disturb the night air and throw a fit,
then get down in the dark and do it.
Limón teaches in the Queens University of Charlotte’s Low Residency MFA program and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center’s 24Pearl Street online program. She grew up in Sonoma, California and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
See you Wednesday night at eight in the Ambramson Family Founders Room in the School of International Service building!
Image via Milkweed Editions
Yohanca Delgado is a staff editor at Café Américain and a first-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.