Essay

One Little Mortal Body

Ada Limón’s new poems find estrangement close to home.
Black and white image of Ada Limón.

In her first four collections, the poet Ada Limón casts an almost metaphysical eye on the body and its will to survive. In “The Echo Sounder,” from lucky wreck (2006), she’s interested in both the body’s physicality and its mutability. She “wants to go on / being an animal, not something that represents / something else, but the original object, the thing / before it is named.” This collection, Limón’s debut, introduces the big themes—grief, illness, belief, desire, creation, language, and art—that recur throughout subsequent books: this big fake world (2006), Sharks in the Rivers (2010), and the much-lauded Bright Dead Things (2015), nominated for a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. In her latest collection, The Carrying (2018), Limón continues to grapple with the body’s animal nature and its inevitable mortality. She also responds to an America riven by nativism and underscores the ways in which a home can be the source of displacement and alienation.

Limón’s new poems are among her first to offer so intimate a view of the limits and uncertainties she experiences in her own body. She writes of her debilitating vertigo, for example, and of her failed attempts to carry a child to term. Also covered: her fear of flying, her panic attacks, and her existential questions about what undergirds life. It all sounds bleak, but Limón finds whatever cracks of light she can. As she tells me, “I do know that part of my job is to point out the wondrousness of this earth if only to consistently remind myself of a kind of grace and the is-ness of being.”

This approach is evident in “The Leash,” one of the first poems in The Carrying, which opens in the midst of weapons and fear, “that brute sky opening in a slate-metal maw / that swallows only the unsayable in each of us.” The earth is poisoned, a “nowhere river” is made “orange and acidic by a coal mine”; humanity is dangerous. Addressing readers, Limón implores

                             … 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.

This uncertainty, often present in Limon’s earlier work in regard to the afterlife, is here more applicable to an ailing planet or an ailing country. For Limón, the question “what sings now?” is as important as any potential answer. Her poetry has long suggested that what is most easily understood is physical—appetites, desires, animals, earth, seeds. What is unknown—human purpose, how the world ends—is ineffable but ever-present, perhaps waiting to be understood just as easily. Until such knowledge arrives, Limón seems content to marvel at her small dog, fond of racing pickup trucks “because she’s sure, without a doubt, that the loud / roaring things will love her back.” At the same time, though, Limón reins in the dog, keeping the animal leashed and safe. The “cold corpse” of winter looms in the poem, a chilling reminder of the seasonality of life. But still:

Perhaps we are always hurtling our body 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.

Limón has seen far too many “nexts,” as evidenced by the illness and grief that permeate her first four collections. Friends and lovers have died. Her parents’ divorce tethered her to bygone streets, homes, and landscapes yet left her unmoored. She nursed her stepmother, Cynthia, who fought and succumbed to cancer. With The Carrying, Limón adds infertility and chronic pain to the list of trials that have barreled down her road. Throughout the book, she asks what to make of a body that doesn’t fit into its life? In “Sometimes I Think My Body Leaves a Shape in the Air,” she writes

Imagine the body free of its anchors,
              the free-swimming,
a locomotion propelling us, pulse by pulse,
but here I am: the slow caboose of clumsy effort.

For Limón, the body is both mundane and miraculous. As she tells me, “I am always training my eye to see the goodness, to praise the human capacity to hold all the suffering and all the joy in one little mortal body. It’s truly phenomenal how much we can hold within us.”

From her debut on, Limón’s poetry has reckoned with the muck that humanity is forced to bear: disappointment, illness, death, grief. In lucky wreck’s “Thirteen Feral Cats,” for example, the titular cats are doing well, but Limón’s world is colored differently in each of the poem’s 13 sections. She compares her body to a cold ship, although she isn’t its captain. Illness steers her (perhaps her stepmother’s cancer), and the worst thing at the hospital is “to be caught feeling / better than anyone else—.” She imagines faith as a room with four walls made “of steady light one can pass through,” and she wonders how a body—here likened to a cage—can hold “things as large as the ocean.” On grief, Limón maintains

… to know that in order to go on,

             we must accept the cage we are given
             that someday we will be released,


             into the unimaginable

and until then, praise the walls
            and all the parts of us they manage to hold so dearly.

Like so many of Limon’s later poems, “Thirteen Feral Cats” contends that despite the body being a cage, it’s something to honor and trust nevertheless, given that the body is all that stands between us and oblivion.

And, yet, the body also betrays. Many poems in The Carrying are about hidden pain—infertility, illness with few outward manifestations, a loved one’s Alzheimer’s—and how this pain imposes on womanhood and artistry, in particular. Consider the opening lines of “The Vulture & the Body:”

On my way to the fertility clinic,
                             I pass five dead animals.

In just two short lines, Limon juxtaposes life’s potential with its inexorable end. A dead raccoon, “all four paws to the sky / like he’s going to catch whatever bullshit load / falls on him next.” A dead coyote. Three dead deer that she thinks must be a family. Limón half prays, half curses at the sight: “how dare we live on this earth.” She wants to talk to her doctor about duality and about “how lately, it’s enough to be reminded that my / body is not just my body, but that I’m made of old stars.” At the clinic, the doctor notes progress on the sonogram and then is off like “quicksilver,” leaving Limón “to pull my panties up like a big girl.” On her drive home, she reflects

the white coat has said I’m ready, and I watch as a vulture
           crosses over me, heading toward

the carcasses I haven’t properly mourned or even forgiven.
          What if, instead of carrying

a child, I am supposed to carry grief?

In these lines, the doctor loses form and becomes only his coat. The vulture wends toward the bodies that have lost their lives, and it’s impossible not to wonder if past miscarriages are really what Limón has yet to mourn.

Or consider “Late Summer After a Panic Attack,” in which Limón imagines a tree’s leaves as “an unwanted male gaze on the backside” and suggests that they (the leaves? the male gaze?) both bless and hush her. Wondering if she should “go devil instead” and “bow down to the madness that makes me,” Limón invokes harsh consonants (d, x, k, and b) to place readers in the aftermath of her panic, while markers of an idyllic suburban afternoon turn sinister:

… Drone
of the neighbor’s mowing, a red mailbox flag
erected, a dog’s bark from three houses over,
and this is what a day is.

The home that Limón grew to love in her previous collection Bright Dead Things—“Then, I think of you, home / with the dog, the field full / of purple pop-ups” from “The Problem with Travel”—is now precarious:

a siren whining high toward town repeating
that the emergency is not here, repeating
that this loud silence is only where you live.

As the sirens recede into the distance, Limón wrestles with how the “silent” noise of her neighborhood doubles as the quiet between life’s emergencies.

Silence, in one form or another, is a motif in this book. Several poems are among Limón’s first to challenge the silence that often accompanies issues such as infertility. “The Light the Living See” depicts Limón and two friends visiting an unnamed writer’s grave. Limón reflects that her companions, both fathers now, can likely count on family to visit their graves in remembrance:

… I imagine
their old daughters leaving a slice
   of gas station moon pie,

rye, a nickel plated acorn, ladies
  picnicking in the shade of a pine
     as immobile as the body’s husk.

Limón struggles with the idea that a childless woman may have no one to mourn her:

(What if no one comes to the cliffside
   where my skin’s ashes set sail?
      No mourning kin, no lost hitchhiker.)

Hidden in the subtext is the question of whether admirers of her writing will someday make a pilgrimage to the place where her ashes were spread. Similarly, in “Mastering,” Limón meets up with a friend who talks of old acquaintances, of marriage, of Limón’s upcoming wedding and then tells her, “the real miracle, more than marriage, the thing that makes you / believe there might be a god after all, is the making of a child.” An affirmed nonbeliever, Limón is jolted out of their conversation:

…I want to tell him that’s enough. Isn’t it? Isn’t love
that doesn’t result in a seed, a needy body, another suckling animal,

still love? Isn’t that supernatural? Screw your god.

Both poems end with Limón’s alluding to her own forked tongue. By playing off the duplicitous and devilish connotations of that image, Limón upends the traditional role of a woman as mother and the notion of a childless woman as an aberration. “I want him to notice what he said,” she writes in the latter poem, “how a woman might feel agony, / emptiness, how he’s lucky it’s me he said it to because I won’t / vaporize him.” Here again, Limón is angry and counters the conventions and platitudes surrounding a woman who may or may not be trying to conceive. Should it be so hard to understand that a woman’s body is her own and not meant for public comment? In this regard, silence would perhaps be an all-too-rare gift.

Just as The Carrying is perhaps Limón’s most intimate view of the body, it’s also her most external view of America, a country in turmoil. In “Cargo,” she and her friends have begun traveling with passports amid “reports of ICE raids,” a precaution that fractures her idea of home. “All the world is moving,” Limón acknowledges as she reflects on the train that races beyond her yard line and wonders what it might carry. Though she doesn’t mention refugees in her list of possible cargo—“plastic, brick, corn syrup, limestone, fury, alcohol, joy”—they’re surely on her mind, and Limón states in the poem’s final stanza that “I live my life half afraid, and half shouting / at the trains when they thunder by.” This sense of alienation deepens in the subsequent poem, “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to Be Bilingual,” in which Limón becomes a box to be checked on a grant application. Her family history is somehow not like the history of other Americans despite her California heritage:

Don’t read us the one where you
are just like us. Born to a green house,

garden, don’t tell us how you picked
tomatoes and ate them in the dirt

[…]

Don’t mention your father

was a teacher, spoke English, loved
making beer, loved baseball …

Whereas earlier collections reveal Limón searching for serenity, The Carrying introduces a public voice that’s overtly political and feminist. In “A New National Anthem,” she confesses that she never liked “The Star-Spangled Banner,” its verses rife with “war and bombs,” and she imagines an alternative, “the song that says my bones / are your bones, and your bones are my bones.” In “Cannibal Woman,” she recalls a beloved legend that her father told her about a woman “bigger than any monster, or Bigfoot, / or Loch Ness creature— // a woman who was like weather, as enormous as a storm.” The woman was eventually burned to death, but her ash transformed into mosquitos “still all around us / in the dark,” and this is the lesson that unsettles Limón:

I’ve worried my whole life that my father told me this because
she is my anger: first comes this hunger, then abyss, then fire,

and then a nearly invisible fly made of ash goes on and on eating mouthful
after mouthful of those I love.

In his foreword to this big fake world, the poet Frank X. Gaspar acclaims that collection as “a solid world … a narrative of fracture and repair, that through its art becomes a whole—and a whole new thing.” The book offers hope that a body’s desires can be met and that worlds can be remade for the better. In “He Allows Himself This Much,” the male narrator of this big fake world wonders

… does she have that same recurring dream
that he has, where he looks out the window
and there’s a big house with everything so
beautiful, no dogs outside, no geese
flying over, just this picture of her
getting older and older?

Likewise, The Carrying also suggests that healing is possible. While deriving comfort from working the gardens of her Kentucky home, Limón constantly searches out the hidden cracks to repair and make into “a whole new thing.” The title of “Against Belonging” suggests such a fracture (in her home life? in her body?), still visible six years after her move from New York. Whereas Limón once learned the names of plants and animals because it seemed “more important than science, more like / creation,” she gives “names to everything now because it makes / me feel useful.” Playing on the myth of Eve, first mother who gave birth to knowledge, Limón has named the garter snakes in her yard “so no one is tempted to kill them.” Once again calling into question the myth of the devilish woman, she feels the snakes internally, “what cannot be tamed, what shakes off citizenship, / what draws her own signature with her body / in whatever dirt she wants.”

In this moment of cultural disruption and deep political polarization, Limón doesn’t underestimate how important it is to affirm a woman’s right to be untamed and in her own patch of dirt. “Wife,” she asks in a poem so titled, “why does it / sound like a job?” Ready to assume this word as a new name, Limón can’t help but question

A word that could be made
easily into maid. A wife that does, fixes,
soothes, honors, obeys. Housewife,
fishwife, bad wife, good wife …

Limón notes that she doesn’t fit the traditional image of wifehood. Some mornings, she’s so consumed with grief, she can’t even fix tea. She may be better at writing and suffering than caring for her beloved, afraid because she “doesn’t want to be diminished / by how much she wants to be yours.” Limón may have found her own version of the American dream as envisioned by the narrator of this big fake world—a “big house with everything so / beautiful”—but she senses that this myth needs to be renovated in ways that don’t detract from her own spirit, her own body’s needs, or her art.

“Perhaps when we name our own suffering we are shining a little light on to the hard parts so we can all breathe a little easier and be easier on one another,” Limon tells me when asked about finding hope in dark times. “Maybe then we can create and make art that both celebrates the physical body but also goes somehow beyond the body’s constraints.”

Though The Carrying indicates an artist at odds with her body, the myths of womanhood, and America at large, Limón nonetheless carries the little lights of the world alongside her pain. In “The Last Thing,” she recalls how the blue jay, the black moth, and the roaring quiet make up her day:

These are the last three things
that happened. Not in the universe,
but here, in the basin of my mind,
where I’m always making a list
for you …

That you may be her lover, a reader, or even a hypothetical child. Limón’s list expands into a tally of small, private moments that become almost like readers’ own memories: “silvery dust mote, pistachio / shell, the dog eating a sugar / snap pea.” If the world is to be repaired, Limón implies, then we should “never get over making everything / such a big deal.”

Estranged by her body’s inability to carry a child to term, Limón challenges the idea that womanhood is tied to making babies. And similarly estranged from her recognizable American home, she marshals ideas on how the country can be remade to better meet its ideal. What Limón carries throughout these poems is intense attention and devotion to art. Her new work suggests that this is an imperfect but nonetheless essential salve to a shaken body and a disordered world.

Originally Published: August 20th, 2018

Lisa Higgs is the poetry editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal. She is the author of the chapbook Earthen Bound (Red Bird Chapbooks, forthcoming 2018).