The Carrying: Poems

Ada Limón

Milkweed

August 4, 2018

96 pp.

$22 (hardcover) 

The Carrying, Ada Limón’s fifth collection of poetry, is both an exquisite read for this moment in time and far beyond.  That makes absolute sense, because Limón is a poet who makes you aware of time. “She says when she looks at me, she is reminded of time,” the narrator reports in “Sway.”  “I didn’t know what she meant, so she repeated, / ‘When I see you, I become very aware of time.’”

There seem to be at least two kinds of segments of time coursing through these luminous poems: the time of nature, which is eternal but also fleeting, and the time of people, which is finite and rife with the problems of politics, love, and the physicality of their lives.  The voice in these poems battles vertigo, a “crooked spine,” and infertility. By constantly connecting with nature and the seemingly ordinary details of the world around her, the persona of these poems is able to synthesize her apparent physical limitations into an overarching full embrace of the real world.  

These poems articulate the human connection to everything: a leashed dog “hurtling our body towards / the thing that will obliterate,” the stars, “the 24 year-old Columbia / woman whose breasts had been hacked / open and stuffed with one kilogram/of cocaine.”  “Look, we are not unspectacular things,” the voice declares in “Dead Stars.” “What would happen…if we stopped being terrified.” All this from a poem that is ostensibly about a couple “rolling their trash bins out.”

There are shifts in content and tone at times to the more extraordinary problems—familial loss, a dangerous political landscape, the hypocrisy of those seeking to fill their diversity quotas.  But the poems never lose their close examination of the ordinary and how it can surprise. In “Cargo,” a train carries “…Aluminum ingots, / plastic, brick, corn syrup, limestone, fury, alcohol, joy.”  And the poems never lose sight of the voice’s position and intention in the world: “…I live my life half afraid, and half shouting / at the trains when they thunder by.”

There is also how loving someone is an essential form of being in the world, combining self-fulfillment and sacrifice.  In “Wife,” the narrator recognizes she is “not yet comfortable with the word,” but realizes she is “the one who / doesn’t want to be diminished / by how much she wants to be yours.”  Earlier, in “What I Didn’t Know Before,” she sees that, “What was between / us wasn’t a fragile thing to be coddled, cooed / over. It came out fully formed, ready to run.”

The last poem, “Sparrow, What Did You Say,” crystallizes the vision of this substantial and important collection: “I’m good at this, this being alone / in the world, the watching of things,” she perceives, and then proceeds to ask, “…What would I / do with a kid here?”  She concludes with the observation that she has spent, “…a full untethered day trying / to figure out what bird was calling / to me and why.” Identifying herself as childless, with vertigo, and a crooked spine, has somehow made her more human, and in being more so, extra capable of taking the world in, of seeing it all, how humanity comes from nature and creates entities that can only return to nature when they’re done, finished.  In “Would You Rather,” “..making a list of all the places / I found out I wasn’t carrying a child,” the narrator recalls “…in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge, / looking over toward Alcatraz, a place they should burn and re-deliver // to the gulls and cormorants, common daisies and sea grass.” In “Mastering,” the narrator has drinks with a father who can no longer drink, but is “pointing out how amazing his child is,” while being blind to her own childlessness.  “He stares at me, but I am not there anymore. I don’t say / we’ve tried a long time, been sad, been happy, / that perhaps the only thing I can make // is love and art.” Rather, she becomes more acutely aware of “these ordinary wonders he can’t see swirling around us.” At the end of “The Last Thing,” she admits, “…I can’t help it. I will / never get over making everything / such a big deal.”

That’s the point of these excellent poems: that if you look closely enough and absorb it with care, everything is indeed such a big deal.  This is all due to the voice’s capacity to extend beyond the self. In “Sometimes I Think My Body Leaves a Shape in the Air,” the narrator confides, “I am always in too many worlds, sand sifting through my hands, / another me speeding through the air, another me waving / from a train window watching you / waving from a train window watching me.”  This beautiful and elegant collection, sometimes calling from a “gray and pitchfork” world, evokes and unpacks this time now, and the time that has come before and will come after, “everything coming back to life.”

Fred Leebron has published four novels and over fifty short stories. For years he was the Bookshelf Advisor to Ploughshares, and has also reviewed books for the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Provincetown Arts, and other venues. Awards for his writing include an O.Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize.