‘Love ends. But what if it doesn’t?’
– Ada Limón, from “The Hurting Kind”
‘I want to give you something, or
I want to take something from you.
But I want to feel the exchange,
the warm hand on the shoulder,
the song coming out and the ear
holding onto it.’
― Ada Limon, U.S. Poet Laureate,
from “How Far Away We Are”
There’s a bigger buzz in the house before the lights dim when what the audience has come for will be live instead of on film. Because however great a movie is, it will always be the same no matter how many times you see it. Your perception of the film may change because of the changes getting older make in you, but what’s on the screen doesn’t.
It had been some time since I’d felt that buzz – Covid has kept us away from crowds, and we’d been perceiving the world through the Internet, the TV, the radio, and the printed word.
We were sitting in those seats because of a lucky chance. Our reserved lodging wasn’t ready when we arrived for our annual anniversary getaway, so my husband picked up a couple of the area’s weekly newspapers from the lobby before we did a drive-around to see what was the same, and what had changed. We could see that some of our favorite places which had survived the economic downturn from the pandemic through our 2022 visit, hadn’t been able to keep going – there were some empty storefronts, and closed restaurants, or new businesses had replaced them. Some of the roads were still under repair from this year’s flood damage.
We did get into our home away from home – a “cottage” – really the downstairs half of a duplex, one of half a dozen, each unique, making a tiny village around a small but enchanting garden with a “stream” and a pond full of koi, surrounded by roses and other flowering plants and a few trees. Peace always settles over us after all our gear has been distributed, and we just sit breathing in the sunlight and the quiet. And then, little by little, we start thinking we need to plan.
So we were looking through the weeklies, and an ad caught my eye. There were a series of events at a hall at UCSB (University of California Santa Barbara), and one of them was a poetry reading and discussion by 24th Poet Laureate of the United States Ada Limón on Tuesday night, April 25.
The U.S. Poets Laureate are appointed by the Librarian of Congress, for a one-year term, with an option for a second year that is pretty much a given. Carla Hayden, the current Librarian of Congress, was appointed by Barack Obama in 2016 for her ten year term of office. Her choices for Poet Laureate have been Tracy K. Smith (2017-2019), followed by Joy Harjo, whose highly successful term was extended to a third year (2019-2021), and Ada Limón in 2022.
The original title for poets connected with the Library of Congress when the program began in 1937 was “U.S. Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress” – quite the mouthful – so it was changed in 1985 to “U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress” (a by-committee title if ever I saw one). The first official U.S. Poet Laureate was Robert Penn Warren (1986-1987). In all, there have been 39 Consultants in Poetry attached to the Library of Congress –26 of them have been men, 13 have been women, but only 8 of them have not been white, so it’s clear that Carla Hayden is promoting women of color to add more diversity to this line of U.S. poets. However, she didn’t pick these three women just for their racial heritage and their gender – they are outstanding poets chosen first for their literary merit.
So we checked – there were a few seats left at the back of the hall for Tuesday’s event, and we quickly ordered two tickets online. Tuesday, we drove almost 40 miles from Solvang to the UCSB campus, then people-watched while waiting – in our age category there were mostly women, then some mid-life groups and couples, and a few families with kids. However, tickets for those with student IDs were free, so they made up a substantial majority of the audience.
A poetry contest for local middle and high school students had been held for National Poetry Month, and the two winners read their poems before the main event – both girls had written excellent poems, and deserved the enthusiastic rounds of applause which greeted their readings.
Then Ada Limón was introduced – the place erupted in applause, whistles, foot-stomping, and shouts. I’ve never been in a room so full of people with such enthusiasm for poetry before.
She opened by telling us about “getting the call” offering her the chance to be a U.S. Poet Laureate, and something about the whirlwind since. NASA asked her to write a short poem to be emblazoned on the side of the rocket that will be going later this year to Jupiter’s moon Europa. She will give this poem’s first public reading at a press conference at the Library of Congress in June. Alas, she asked NASA if she could borrow a space suit for the reading, but they turned her down.
She spoke about crisscrossing the country giving readings and talks. And the great news that Librarian Carla Hayden asked her to remain Poet Laureate for two more years instead of just one, and Limón has accepted.
Before each of the poems she read, she told a little about what had inspired it – a real insight into her work. At heart, she is a storyteller, and that I believe has played a big part in her success – her poems are easy to connect with. There were poems about her childhood and student days, about the losses of beloved family members, a couple of poems touching on racism and violence, some about how her life changed when she fell in love with the man she would marry, especially since he works with race horses – horses are a recurring theme in her poetry ever since.
Ada Limón got a standing ovation at the end of the evening. If there had been a curtain, she would have had to take at least three curtain calls.
So here’s one more reason to Get Out the Vote for the coming presidential election: whoever wins will appoint the next Librarian of Congress when Carla Hayden’s term runs out. Do we really want anyone from the Book-Banning Party to make that decision?
Here are some of Ada Limón’s poems, in no particular order – some she read that night, and some she didn’t but they are long-time favorites of mine. I was delighted to discover videos are available on YouTube from her readings at several events, should you want to see her in action.
How to Triumph Like a Girl
by Ada Limón
I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!
But mainly, let’s be honest, I like
that they’re ladies. As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,
giant with power, heavy with blood.
Don’t you want to believe it?
Don’t you want to lift my shirt and see
the huge beating genius machine
that thinks, no, it knows,
it’s going to come in first.
“How to Triumph Like a Girl” from Bright Dead Things, © 2015 by Ada Limón – Milkweed Editions
by Ada Limón
No shoes and a glossy
red helmet, I rode
on the back of my dad’s
Harley at seven years old.
Before the divorce.
Before the new apartment.
Before the new marriage.
Before the apple tree.
Before the ceramics in the garbage.
Before the dog’s chain.
Before the koi were all eaten
by the crane. Before the road
between us, there was the road
beneath us, and I was just
big enough not to let go:
Henno Road, creek just below,
rough wind, chicken legs,
and I never knew survival
was like that. If you live,
you look back and beg
for it again, the hazardous
bliss before you know
what you would miss.
“Before” from Bright Dead Things, © 2015 by Ada Limón – Milkweed Editions
Instructions on Not Giving Up
by Ada Limón
More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. 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 to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
“Instructions on Not Giving Up” © 2017 by Ada Limón – originally published in Poem-a-Day, May 15, 2017
The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road
by Ada Limón
That we might walk out into the woods together,
and afterwards make toast
in our sock feet, still damp from the fern’s
wet grasp, the spiky needles stuck to our
legs, that’s all I wanted, the dog in the mix,
jam sometimes, but not always. But somehow,
I’ve stopped praising you. How the valley
when you first see it—the small roads back
to your youth—is so painfully pretty at first,
then, after a month of black coffee, it’s just
another place your bullish brain exists, bothered
by itself and how hurtful human life can be.
Isn’t that how it is? You wake up some days
full of crow and shine, and then someone
has put engine coolant in the medicine
on another continent and not even crying
helps cure the idea of purposeful poison.
What kind of woman am I? What kind of man?
I’m thinking of the way my stepdad got sober,
how he never told us, just stopped drinking
and sat for a long time in the low folding chair
on the Bermuda grass reading and sometimes
soaking up the sun like he was the story’s only
subject. When he drove me to school, we decided
it would be a good day, if we saw the blue heron
in the algae-covered pond next to the road,
so that if we didn’t see it, I’d be upset. Then,
he began to lie. To tell me he’d seen it when
he hadn’t, or to suppose that it had just
taken off when we rounded the corner in
the gray car that somehow still ran, and I
would lie, too, for him. I’d say I saw it.
Heard the whoosh of wings over us.
That’s the real truth. What we told each other
to help us through the day: the great blue heron
was there, even when the pond dried up,
or froze over; it was there because it had to be.
Just now, I felt like I wanted to be alone
for a long time, in a folding chair on the lawn
with all my private agonies, but then I saw you
and the way you’re hunching over your work
like a puzzle, and I think even if I fail at everything,
I still want to point out the heron like I was taught,
still want to slow the car down to see the thing
that makes it all better, the invisible gift,
what we see when we stare long enough into nothing.
“The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road” from Bright Dead Things, © 2015 by Ada Limón – Milkwood Editions
by Ada Limón
After the birthing of bombs of forks and fear,
the frantic automatic weapons unleashed,
the spray of bullets into a crowd holding hands,
that brute sky opening in a slate metal maw
that swallows only the unsayable in each of us, what’s
left? Even the hidden nowhere river is poisoned
orange and acidic by a coal mine. How can
you not fear humanity, want to lick the creek
bottom dry to suck the deadly water up into
your own lungs, like venom? Reader, I want to
say, Don’t die. Even when silvery fish after fish
comes back belly up, and the country plummets
into a crepitating crater of hatred, isn’t there still
something singing? The truth is: I don’t know.
But sometimes, I swear I hear it, the wound closing
like a rusted-over garage door, and I can still move
my living limbs into the world without too much
pain, can still marvel at how the dog runs straight
toward the pickup trucks break-necking down
the road, because she thinks she loves them,
because she’s sure, without a doubt, that the loud
roaring things will love her back, her soft small self
alive with desire to share her goddamn enthusiasm,
until I yank the leash back to save her because
I want her to survive forever. Don’t die, I say,
and we decide to walk for a bit longer, starlings
high and fevered above us, winter coming to lay
her cold corpse down upon this little plot of earth.
Perhaps, we are always hurtling our body towards
the thing that will obliterate us, begging for love
from the speeding passage of time, and so maybe
like the dog obedient at my heels, we can walk together
peacefully, at least until the next truck comes.
“The Leash” from The Carrying, © 2016 by Ada Limón – Milkweed Editions
by Ada Limón
At the cabin in Snug Hollow near McSwain Branch creek, just spring, all the animals are out, and my beloved and I are lying in bed in a soft silence. We are talking about how we carry so many people with us wherever we go, how even simple living, these unearned moments, are a tribute to the dead. We are both expecting to hear an owl as the night deepens. All afternoon, from the porch, we watched an eastern towhee furiously build her nest in the wild forsythia with its yellow spilling out into the horizon. I told him that the way I remember the name forsythia is that when my stepmother, Cynthia, was dying, that last week, she said lucidly but mysteriously, More yellow. And I thought yes, more yellow, and nodded because I agreed. Of course, more yellow. And so now in my head, when I see that yellow tangle, I say, For Cynthia, for Cynthia, forsythia, forsythia, more yellow. It is night now. And the owl never comes, only more of night and what repeats in the night.
“Forsythia” from The Hurting Kind, © 2022 by Ada Limón – Milkweed Editions
Ada Limón was born in Sonoma, California, in 1976; American poet of Mexican heritage, and 24th U.S. Poet Laureate. She has published six collections of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry; The Carrying, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry; and most recently The Hurting Kind. Prior to becoming Poet Laureate, she was the host of American Public Media’s weekday poetry podcast The Slowdown. When Limón isn’t on the road, she lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
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