on the carrying

The fifth book of poetry from Californian-born writer Ada Limón meditates on what it means to create and nurture in times of despair.

The Carrying examines themes of fertility, passion, loss, creativity, and, occasionally, politics, all through the lens of the poet’s daily life in Kentucky. The three-part collection features sixty-two poems across the span of ninety-five pages; many of the poems have previously appeared piecemeal in publications such as the New Yorker and Tin House, but this marks their first release in a trade hardcover. Milkweed Editions put forth this volume of Limón’s work, as it did in 2015 with her previous collection Bright Dead Things. The Carrying starts with “A Name,” on a note of ambiguity that nevertheless establishes the poet’s interest in creation, nature, and language:

When Eve walked among

the animals and named them—

nightingale, red-shouldered hawk,

fiddler crab, fallow deer—

I wonder if she ever wanted

them to speak back, looked into

their wide wonderful eyes and

whispered, Name me, name me. (3)

Limón writes intimate short poems structured by narrative. The poet consistently uses the first person, even as most of her poems fluctuate between addressing her partner and her audience. In both cases, a poetics of objectivity or distance is thwarted: Limón draws her readers in close proximity to herself, without allowing them to claim the experiences she recounts as their own. Individual poems consider memories that distinctively belong to Limón, while the collection as a whole is informed by her attempt to conceive a child. The topic recurs in early and late poems alike, and it functions as a kind of ongoing narrative arc for the collection, one that ties together each poem’s story. In an early poem, “Trying,” the poet, after having sex with her partner, considers her feelings about nurturing life and the prospect of becoming a mother:

Afterward,

the sun still strong though lowering

inevitably to the horizon, I check

on the plants in the back, my

fingers smelling of sex and tomato

vines. Even now, I don’t know much

about happiness. I still worry

and want an endless stream of more,

but some days I can see the point

in growing something, even if

it’s just to say I cared enough. (9)

In candidly discussing her struggle to conceive and embracing other forms of creation available to her, like gardening and art, Limón resists the culture of shame surrounding female infertility, and she unpacks sexist ideology that defines a woman’s worth by her body’s ability to produce offspring. The poet articulates her rejection of her prescribed social role in the late poem, “Maybe I’ll Be Another Kind of Mother”:

I’m thinking I’ll never sit down at the table [. . .]

 

No, I’ll be elsewhere, having spent all day writing words

and then at the movies, where my man bought me a drink,

 

because our bodies are our own, and what will it be? (69)

So, too, does Limón express frustration with the white literary world for expecting her to conform to racist stereotypes about Latinx poets. In many of her poems Limón tacitly subverts the demand to be a certain type of poet by drawing from a wide range of topics. But in one late poem, “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to Be Bilingual,” she airs her anger openly. In it, she mocks those who would order her to tell “stories that make/us uncomfortable, but not complicit” or to refrain from writing poems “where you/are just like us.” Limón’s point isn’t to deny difference or avoid politics—her collection has several poems addressing topical subjects, and she writes from a perspective that clearly belongs to her—but to insist upon her right to be whatever kind of poet she wants, whenever she wants.

Pain laces many of the poems in The Carrying, but the poet’s outlook is fundamentally optimistic, her work measured and tranquil. Her faith in decency and empathy guides her poetics, and her collection rejects the politics of hate and aesthetic elitism. In simple but powerful language, Limón affirms hope during a time of despair: her work is indispensable going into the months of the election.

5 thoughts on “on the carrying

  1. The Carrying just arrived yesterday and I have been quite excited to peruse its covers as Ada Limon is my favorite poet of this time. Her ‘Bright Dead Things’ and ‘Sharks in the River’ have been constant companions as of late and The Carrying is or will be no different. As a woman who is unable to conceive as well, the book was something I was looking forward to read. So far I have been quite impressed with the poems. You describe them so perfectly. It’s nice to hear of someone else who had read her work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely am interested in reading ‘Bright Dead Things’ and ‘Sharks in the River,’ after having finished this! She has a real talent for expressing a lot in fairly short poems. I hope you enjoy the collection; it’s been one of my favorites of this year, and your personal connection to it should add layers of depth to the poems. Thanks for the kind words and sharing your love of Limon!

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      1. I highly recommend ‘Bright Death Things’, that is where my love for Limon started. It’s so sharp, witty, poignant and all around just refreshing to read. She doesn’t sugar coat it. You are pulled right in and suddenly it’s like you want to knock back a couple of shots of something good and strong with her and say, “honey, I so get you and you must get me’. Glad I could share. I haven’t met anyone who even knows who she is. Which is an utter shame.
        Oh and she’s so sweet on Twitter. She responds back, even with just hearts and love.

        Liked by 1 person

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