The Carrying by Ada Limón
Milkweed, 2018. 91 pp.
Reviewed by Emily Pérez
In “A Name,” the opening poem of Ada Limón’s The Carrying, the speaker wonders if Eve, while naming fauna—“fiddler crab, fallow deer”—ever wished for the animals to name her. The poem presents a window into the collection: Eve, as poet, has the power to name, but she also looks to nature for answers about herself.
When nature answers, it speaks of the endless cycle of life and death. There’s the raccoon whose flesh decays leaving skinless white bones “showing all five of his sweet tensile fingers / still clinging,” as they reach toward the sun. There’s the cavern—a stand in for both the grave and the empty womb—that the poet addresses, asking, “Tell me // what it is to be quiet, and yet still breathing.” There are the goldfinches who “were a symbol / of resurrection.” These figures are proxies for the speaker and her loved ones, who are grappling with conditions like anxiety, vertigo, scoliosis, dementia, and infertility; these figures are instructors, mirrors, and sometimes dream-visions.
The collection investigates the question of whether one must procreate to be worthy. In the poem “Carrying” the speaker considers the pregnant mare, “her belly barrel-round with foal, or idea / of foal. ” Foals make a mare “worth her salt” and make the speaker question the value of her infertile body. She lands on
How my own body, empty,
clean of secrets, knows how to carry [the mare],
knows we were all meant for something.
Though she cannot carry a child, she knows how to carry the beauty and gravity in the figure of the mare, in the sky “white with November’s teeth,” in the language of the poem.
Another answer to the question of existence comes in “Instructions on Not Giving Up” where Limón catalogues, in luscious alliterative language, the “fuchsia funnels” and cherry branches with their “cotton candy-covered blossoms.” The poem, a loose sonnet, turns just as the riot of spring has come to a close, the flowers having fallen to the earth in “the confetti of aftermath.” As the sestet begins, the speaker’s eye turns away from the buds to the leaves, which speak to and for her:
…Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist, I’ll take it all.
This piece, in the book’s final section, lays out another reason for being. Limón clearly delights in nature’s flash and dazzle, but she also sees beyond it to the power of persistence itself, as seen in the “patient and plodding” green skin that grows back each spring no matter how hard the winter. “Tak[ing] it” is a dual act: part endurance, as in “sit back and take it,” and part empowerment, as in “tak[ing] it all.” The fist exists as a sign of frustration AND fight, both wrapped in spring’s eternal return.
Emily Pérez is the author of House of Sugar, House of Stone, and the chapbook Backyard Migration Route. She earned her MFA at the University of Houston, where she was poetry editor for Gulf Coast and taught with Writers in the Schools. Her poems have appeared in journals including Poetry, Diode, Bennington Review, Borderlands, and DIAGRAM. She teaches English and Gender Studies in Denver, where she lives with her husband and sons.