In her fifth poetry collection, The Carrying (Milkweed Editions, 2018), Ada Limón reveals the natural world as only she can, parsing from seemingly commonplace images profound inquiries into sacrifice, motherhood, memory, and humanity’s complicity in the degradation of our environment. Whether her focus is drawn to a seal navigating the choppy waves beneath the Golden Gate Bridge or the mouth of a cave at Mammoth Cave National Park, Limón’s poems keenly navigate the intersection of observation, self-reflection, and imagination. Rather than speak for the frequently silenced lives and landscapes of our world, these poems welcome readers into Limón’s profound introspection, fostering an intellectual and emotional space for readers to then consider their own revelations.
The collection begins and ends with two poignant interactions between women and nature. “A Name” opens with the scene of Eve naming animals, such as nightingale and fallow deer, before deftly turning the lens toward humanity and ending with Eve’s whispers into the creature-filled expanse “Name me, name me.” Limón’s ability to shift the gaze from the human eyes on the natural world to the world’s view of our own hubris shines in this poem and throughout this uniquely personal and environmental collection. She asks by what authority do we name the world, and how, or if, we would submit to that same authority if it were afforded to the nightingale.
This subversion of typical poetic engagement with the environment reflects Limón’s strength in confronting power and systems of oppression without didactic language. In “The Contract Says: We’d Like The Conversation To Be Bilingual,” she grapples with our society’s continued exoticization, tokenization, and exploitation of people of color and their stories. The opening lines not only engage with race, but also the motivations behind an appearance at an event:
When you come, bring your brown-
ness so we can be sure to please
In just the first two line breaks of the poem, Limón deconstructs the problematic language of the contract on two fronts. First, she isolates “brown-,” emphasizing the absurdity behind the idea that one’s skin color might be something one can choose to carry with them or leave behind. This isolation also speaks to the commodification of race, which the poet interrogates further in the second line break, acknowledging the motivations of the proposed reading to “please / the funders.” This poem begs the questions: for whom do we write, and for whom do we read and perform our art? In exploring these questions, Limón’s work also speaks to a broader truth—that, indeed, there are bigger things than the poet.
Limón’s poetry speaks to and opens the reader to this bigness. While living in Ames, I had the privilege of attending a reading and conversation between Ada Limón and her longtime friend and fellow poet Jennifer L. Knox. After the audience’s collected breath and joyous sigh upon Limón’s reading of “How to Triumph Like a Girl,” Knox described Limón’s ability in a single poem to tap into this “big love” and “big joy.” Knox’s insights have lingered with me ever since, and The Carrying continues to show Limón’s strength in navigating these universal emotions, but also in navigating the bigness of space and time.
In “Dead Stars,” the speaker and her partner look to the constellations above one evening while rolling the trash bins to the curb, yearning for the names of those distant shining clusters of gas. In this observation there comes a remembering of the matter they each share with those suns:
But mostly we’re forgetting we’re dead stars too, my mouth is full
of dust and I wish to reclaim the rising—
to lean in the spotlight of streetlight within you, toward
what’s larger within us, toward how we were born.
Rather than reducing the size and complexity of our world or the universe, Limón embraces its complexity, the beauty in a simple truth that “we are not unspectacular things.” She pairs these profound connections deftly with a divine clarity of image, positing questions and desires in one poem she returns to and explores further later in the collection.
Like so many poems in The Carrying, “Ancestors” seamlessly weaves Limón’s keen knowledge of environment with her own creation story:
I’ve come here from the trees—
chestnut, bay laurel, toyon, acacia, redwood, cedar,
one thousand oaks
that bend with moss and old-man’s beard.
As the poem recalls birth and flashes of foliage memory through classroom and car windows, we arrive at the common resilience of the speaker and those fiercest of ancient beings:
the way they shaded and patterned the ground, all that
power from roots. Imagine you must survive
without running? I’ve come from the lacing patterns of leaves,
I do not know where else I belong.
Limón does not confuse this kindred sense of belonging in the natural world with inherent joy or bliss. She invokes our shared complicity in environmental devastation. In “Notes on the Below,” the poet points to the underlying desire and want that allows exploitative systems to continue to operate:
I’ve been the one who has craved and craved until I could not see
beyond my own greed. There’s a whole nation of us.
To forgive myself, I point to the earth as witness.
Here again, invoking the earth as witness not only to human action, but to human craving as well, she repositions eco-colonial ideas of authority, positioning environment as judgment bearer on humanity. The poem ends with a call:
to speak not always to what’s
shouting, but to what’s underneath asking for nothing.
I am at the mouth of the cave. I am willing to crawl.
Limón pays such careful attention to this enduring quiet—the unheard story caught in the cave’s throat. Her willingness to listen on her hands and knees for a whisper or for the touch and wet shine of stalagmite history.
In the collection’s final poem, “Sparrow, What Did You Say?,” the poet imagines reliving a silent day in two potential realities. In the first, she observes her child the way she would the lettuce leaves or how she might “part her black hair like planting a seed.” In the other, she considers the day all to herself once more:
would I selfishly demand this day
back, a full untethered day trying
to figure out what bird was calling
to me and why.
The mystery in this moment, the internal conflict for the speaker, the bigness of the world and its infinite potential all converge in this final breath of The Carrying. Limón chooses not to postulate what the sparrow must be saying, rather she allows her own silent contemplation on that day to speak to the inherent possibilities that rest within us all. Unconcerned with how she the poet might appear biggest and most pronounced in each poem, she carries both her revelations and her questions—as if to say sometimes our uncertainty is where we grow. We will never fully grasp the bigness this universe has to offer, but we can look and listen and learn where this bigness resides within us. The Carrying, like so much of Limón’s work, is where I go to begin this understanding.