by Ada Limón
(Milkweed Editions, 2018)
Reviewed by Peter H. Michaels
Ada Limón’s new collection The Carrying finds joy in the quotidian and wonders how a self-directed life should feel. The poems repeat imagery of the newly born, green growth, and death as moments with truth, but without answers. In “The Real Reason” the speaker’s mother is scarred “from an explosion that took her first child she was carrying / in her belly,” and although a similar speaker in the poem “Trying” is working with her partner “to knock [her] up again,” the book expands the meaning of “carrying” beyond its recognized connotations. Limón’s ability to examine the smallest moments of life anew and translate that wonder and weight to the page is astounding and illustrates what this collection carries.
The speaker in “The Last Drop” owns many of the collection’s narratives as her own and considers the many stories—replete with grief—she carries within. After iterating several titles for her potential memoir the speaker recites two parallel parables implying that her life hasn’t been “easy,” but “all of it is good.” This thought guides the reading of “Dead Stars” which is seeded with lines such as, “We point out the stars that make Orion as we take out / the trash, the rolling containers a song of suburban thunder. // It’s almost romantic,” because Limón mates the celestial with the earthly while meditating in the midst of collecting trash.
In “Almost Forty” the speaker says “I’ve never been someone / to wish for too much, but now I say, I want to live a long time.” Facing mid-life after accruing a lifetime of grief leaves the speaker afraid, but grasping for more. This sentiment is repeated in “Sundown & All the Damage Done” where the speaker finds “a strange / contentment to this countdown” of years in contrast to loved ones who have passed already. This consideration of mortality continues in “The Vulture & The Body” when the speaker asks, “What if, instead of carrying / a child, I am supposed to carry grief?”
While not an answer, a reply is found in “Instructions on Not Giving Up” as the speaker faces “a green skin / growing over whatever winter did to us,” because now the speaker is like that greening tree that “seems to say, a new slick leaf / unfurling like a fist, I’ll take it all.” This acceptance of growth, in whatever form it takes, roots as the collection winds down. Other green and grounded moments occur in “The Burying Beetle” where a speaker confesses that she “lost God awhile ago. / And I don’t want to pray, but I can picture / the plants deepening right now into the soil, / wanting to live, so I lie down among them,” and this scene of grafting new vegetable life to her own becomes explicit.
Scions of leafy, life-like weeds and tomato plants wind through this collection. The speaker in “Dandelion Insomnia” stays awake pondering how simple propagation would be if she were a weed like a dandelion “making perfect identical selves, bam, another me, / bam, another me.” This innate fertility in weeds is paralleled by animal life in “Carrying”:
A few farms over, there’s our mare,
her belly barrel-round with foal, or idea
of foal. It’s Kentucky, late fall, and any
mare worth her salt is carrying the next
potential stakes winner.
While “What I Didn’t Know Before” is a poem-length metaphor about an effortless love, the ease of animal reproduction returns: “A horse gives way / to another horse and then suddenly there are / two horses, just like that.” This is in stark contrast to the speaker in “Would You Rather” who is struggling with fertility and is “making a list of all the places / I found out I wasn’t carrying a child.”
Then in “Mastering” the speaker’s trusted friend posits “the thing that makes you / believe there might be a god after all, is the making of a child” adding a friendly face to a patent societal pressure intimately intertwined with womanhood. This married speaker without children seems to broadcast an implied desire for childlessness, adding sting to her secret struggle with infertility. Her friend, assuming that a woman’s meaning in life must be gestated, regardless of willingness or capability, wounds the speaker and their friendship. The reader is privy to the speaker’s unspoken thoughts, “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.”
The speaker in “Trying” tells us “I’d forgotten how much / I like to grow things” adjacent to another attempt at pregnancy. Likewise, the speaker in “Maybe I’ll Be Another Kind of Mother” eschews traditional motherhood for days “writing words / and then at the movies, where my man has bought me a drink, // because our bodies are our own.” While “Trying” ends with desire to nurture another:
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.
This feeling seems reconciled by “Maybe I’ll Be Another Kind of Mother,” which says “it’s only the original tree again, green branches giving way // to other green branches, everything coming back to life.”
At the end of the collection, we arrive at a reckoning with these struggles in these lines from “Sparrow, What Did You Say?”
What would I
do with a kid here? Teach her
to plant, watch her like I do
the lettuce leaves, tenderly, place
her palms in the earth, part her
black hair like planting a seed? Or
would I selfishly demand this day
back, a full untethered day trying
to figure out what bird was calling
to me and why.
This passage leaves the speaker questioning whether her offspring should inhabit ink and page or a more corporeal form without any answer.
Generally, a failure to reconcile a craving for the impossible with an accepting of the attained is jet fuel for anxiety. The Carrying brings this fuel of the unanswerable to the burning grief from Limón’s preceding collection Bright Dead Things where such losses could “light up the room with pain, / [it would] be such a glorious fire.” However, the speaker in “Mastering” starts to accept that “perhaps the only thing I can make / is love and art,” and the poems in this collection are bursting with masterfully created art. That isn’t all that it is carrying. What Limón’s collection truly carries is “so much fire,” a glorious fire—lighting a path of self-awareness and warming the chill of loneliness—allowing a reader to stop and encounter all that they are carrying.