In her 2015 collection, Bright Dead Things, a National Book Award finalist for poetry, Ada Limón writes of moving to Kentucky: “Confession: I did not want to live here.” It’s perhaps not a surprising sentiment coming from a coastally oriented person who was raised in Northern California, attended college in Seattle, and then spent over a decade in New York City.
But Limón and her husband, Lucas, have been in Lexington for seven years now and the effects of settling into this place are noticeable in her new book, The Carrying (Milkweed, Aug.). It’s a phenomenally lively and attentive collection replete with the trappings of living a little closer to nature. While Bright Dead Things is marked by a preponderance of light, such as images of fireflies and neon signs, The Carrying features numerous appearances by various trees, birds, and beetles. Limón also demonstrates a greater willingness to be explicit in naming colors, particularly green. “It’s crazy green, the whole book,” she says. “Lexington is the greenest place I’ve ever lived.” Similarly, where in Bright Dead Things, Limón tells a lot of stories and anecdotes, in The Carrying she is very present in her thoughts and experiences.
As it turns out, these shifts in focus have another, altogether unexpected source. While putting Bright Dead Things together, Limón was diagnosed with chronic vestibular neuronitis, which can cause bouts of vertigo. “If I’m really having vertigo, it’s pretty intense and I really have to focus,” she says. “There’s a focus on presence that I think that the body has given me in the last three years that I’ve had to listen to. When I was sick, everything was a little bit of a blur. When things would stand still, it was the most amazing technicolor. It’s almost like the static stops and then suddenly the picture became clear. ‘Oh my god, I see the mailbox! I see the little red flag.’ Those became things I anchored on to. It was a way of saying that I was surviving, that I was ok.”
Limón’s writing process has been heavily impacted by this new reality. “I used to write everyday but when the vertigo was bad, it was nearly impossible for me to write. So when I could, I would try to write a poem every day, because I felt good. Suddenly the brain would stop worrying about remaining in balance and would be, ‘oh, remember words?’ So this book was written much more in fits and starts.” Limón thinks it’s likely that lots of poems didn’t happen because of her health but that what she did produce benefited from the forced increase in concentration, “in the stillness of it.”
The book’s title points to another health issue that Limón confronts in its pages: struggles with fertility. “What if, instead of carrying// a child, I’m supposed to carry grief?” she asks in “The Vulture & The Body.”
“It took us a while to even come around to the idea of trying,” she says of she and Lucas having a child. “We thought, ‘let’s try this, it might be amazing.’ Unfortunately, The fertility drugs made the vertigo worse.” Limón has since ceased the fertility regimen she discusses in several poems and is now “happily child-free.”
“You wait for the universe to send you an answer and the universe does. It just said ‘no!’” But this reality opened up a new avenue for her, what she calls being a “poetry mom”: “Anyone can have a different experience, but for me, I find a lot of creativity, creation, in poetry and in writing, so I have this element of myself that I feel I’m giving to the world and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a child.” In the poem “Mastering,” Limón writes, “perhaps the only thing I can make// is love and art.” It’s a subtle political stance, given the ways that womanhood and motherhood are conflated: “Think about the word mother or woman. How are you valued? It’s a lovely, beautiful thing to know you can be valued and respected and even cherished without giving birth. Because motherhood becomes such a definition of, ‘well, you’re not a real woman until you’ve given birth.’”
Following that line of thought, Limón pays homage to Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, and Sylvia Plath, for “speaking about motherhood in a way that was never spoken before.” She lists a number of important influences—”Sexton, Plath, Rukeyser, Brooks and Clifton. Adrienne Rich! These women who were opening little doors”—before continuing: “Isn’t it cool that, even if I don’t get to be a physical mother, the people who’ll read my work will somehow be affected. I’m related to Gwendolyn Brooks. I’m not, but in that way I am.”
Limón’s deep respect for her predecessors also points toward another core theme of The Carrying, that of the interconnectedness of beings and how humans attempt to express it through language. “If we’re gonna say we’re poets, we’ve got to say that language matters, but we really have to look at a thing in all sorts of ways. Every aspect of it. How does it enforce patriarchy, how does it enforce white supremacy? The way we think about gender fluidity? All these levels. Let’s look at our language deeply. Why not pick it apart? Why not use it as the right tool?” Limón brings up her poem “A New National Anthem,” in which she delivers the brilliant insight that maybe there is a hidden third verse to every song of America. She asks, somewhat rhetorically “Why do these words, for me, fail?”
Here, the subtle politics of The Carrying become more explicit and pointed. “It’s hard not to be political now,” Limón says. “A lot of poets, they’re like, ‘well, I’m not political, I don’t do this,’ and it’s like, no, we have to. You can’t be truthful if you don’t talk about it.” She realized it was true of her own disability issues: “I realized on some level how much I’ve taken my own ableism for granted.” The general public is finally starting to talk about ableism, Limón notes, and suspects it’s part of a wider phenomenon within contemporary poetry: “Poets seem to be at the forefront of those conversations; like, there’s an openness that we’re always trying to get to, instead of getting comfortable when one door comes down—what about the next one?”
Limón says she constantly asks herself, “Can I go deeper? What kind of poems come out of revisiting the stories we tell ourselves?” She has taken such a step, both formally and substantively, between these latest collections. It’s most notable in a set of letter poems written to poet Natalie Diaz. “She’s so fun to write to,” Limón remarks. Written over the course of nine months, she says that these poems “became a way where even if I wasn’t feeling well I felt like I could write to her because we didn’t have any agreement to publish; they were very personal.” These four poems are more fluid and off-the-cuff than most of Limón’s usual lyric narratives. “They really intended to be letters, so I wanted to remain true to that; I wanted them to communicate just to her, so I wasn’t thinking about an outside audience at all. That’s totally different for both of us.”
Limón opens her notebook to show me a handwritten draft—in effortless, fluid script—of one of her poems to Diaz, discovering in the process another that she had forgotten about. “Oh, this is funny, I don’t remember this poem. This is a totally different poem, I never typed this poem up. Holy shit.” She scans the page for a minute and reads aloud, laughing: “it says ‘Was Bishop a mean drunk?’” She then finds the draft of “Cargo,” the poem she was looking for. “It’s very letter-like. When I typed it up, though, that’s when all the edits happened.”
Limón and Diaz also read a book by Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer called Braiding Sweetgrass, which in its discussion of Native wisdom and ecology offered insights that suffuse all of The Carrying. “I think there was a part of that that seeped in about connectedness, the aliveness that I wanted to experience in the world,” she says. “I’m a narrative lyric poet, but I really wanted to do my due diligence and give attention to the things that were not necessarily myself. Even though I’m definitely talking a lot about myself in the work, it’s hopefully not in a way that feels disconnected or isolated.”
“I read a lot, but when I’m writing it’s hard because I’m a mimic,” Limón says about direct poetic influences on The Carrying. “I need a bit of radio silence. But I do think Lucille Clifton plays a powerful role for me in this book. And Joy Harjo,” from whom she takes the collection’s epigraph. “Natalie and I both talk about Creeley and Lorca, and they’re both in there; Lorca especially with his magical realism,” which she says reminds her that she’s allowed to engage as well. “The weirdest thing in the world is reality. I’m more fascinated by the idea of magic than I am of god. I mean, I understand why we think about it, but I think the idea of every day being this incredible gift, this chance for the bizarre and the ordinary to interact and dance and get twisted. That’s magic.”
Now that magic happens in a house in Kentucky, where Limón has her own office “and a screened-in porch with a big table and a grill—that’s a good writing space for me.” Still, she laments that “Sonoma is still deep within me,” especially after the 2017 forest fires, which appear in The Carrying. “And one thing about New York that I miss so much is that bar on the corner.” But, showing me pictures of her home, she scrolls past a picture of a snake in the yard and mentions that her poem “Against Belonging” is about how “these snakes find their home wherever they want to find their home. And I felt like that’s what I’m doing, wherever I am I’m finding a home.”
Limón returns to “A New National Anthem,” which ends with a “song that says my bones/ are your bones, and your bones are my bones,/ and isn’t that enough?” She repeats the question to me, “Well, isn’t that enough? I don’t know. Clearly it’s not, but I want it to be enough. I feel like poems can sometimes fail by trying to be too resolute, or by trying to give some received wisdom when there is none. I’m not a wise person. I’ve lived some years and I’ve had some experiences, but do I have wisdom to pass on? I dunno. I think I have questions to pass on,” Limón says, laughing again. Maybe knowing how to ask the right question is its own kind of wisdom and she doesn’t realize how wise she is. “It’s another way of saying we’re all in this together. I don’t have it figured out.”