By Rachel Cruea
The term “carry” means to support or move, someone or something, from one place to another. A woman carries her groceries inside. A paper boat is carried along a river. The sound of a practicing choir carries down a hallway. The verb alludes to movement, carrier and carried together in their motion. The process of holding and being held. Ada Limón’s fifth collection, The Carrying, embodies such movement, tracking the body through its becoming, its labor, and its losses.
A focus within the collection is the body’s ability to create, specifically one’s ability to have children. In “The Vulture & the Body,” one of the collection’s beginning poems, Limón’s speaker observes a variety of dead animals along her drive, noting that she hasn’t “properly mourned or even forgiven” the carcasses left behind (Limón 13). She asks, “What if, instead of carrying/ a child, I am supposed to carry grief?” (Limón 13). Paralleling herself to a vulture, the death of the animals paired with the possibility of a baby leave the speaker with her own mortality: “each of us speeding, intently and driven, toward what we’ve been taught to do with death” (Limón 13) This piece, among others in the collection, introduces the notion that what we leave behind also defines who we are.
Such defining is prevalent throughout The Carrying, as our speaker constantly observes, discovers, and questions the world around her. In “Dandelion Insomnia” we are told “the neighborhood is lousy with mowers, crazy/ dogs, and people mending what winter ruined” (Limón 16). Among the natural and the accumulating everyday, our speaker asks:
How could a dandelion seed head seemingly
grow overnight? A neighbor mows the lawn
and bam, the next morning, there’s a hundred
dandelion seed heads straight as arrows
and proud as cats high above any green blade
of manicured grass. (Limón 16).
Our speaker’s fascination with the dandelion’s ability to reproduce so immediately further lends to the notion of legacy as self, as she admits “I can’t help it—I root/ for that persecuted rosette so hyper in its/ own making it seems to devour the land/…a way/ of remaking the toughest self while everyone is asleep” (Limón 16). Such natural persistence parallels the body’s own potential to endure, a joyful hope present in the idea that even a weed fights for its becoming.
Yet such tenacity is not without wear, as Limón details the ways in which the body cannot avoid suffering. From chronic pain to grieving the loss of a loved one, a tension arises between what the natural allows us to create and what it takes from us. “The Real Reason” explores this dynamic by noting the “unnatural.” Our speaker explains that after asking her mother to design a tattoo for her, she was shocked to have upset her with the request:
…To be clear, I thought she’d be honored. But do we
ever really know each other fully? A silence like a hospital room: she
was in tears. I swore then that I wouldn’t get one. Wouldn’t let a needle
touch my neck, my arm, my torso. I’d stay me, my skin the skin
she welcomed me into the world with. It wasn’t until later that
I knew it wasn’t so much the tattoo, but the marking, the idea
of scars. What you don’t know (and this is why this is not my story)
is that my mother is scarred from burns over a great deal of her body. (Limón 43)
This revelation conveys that we do have some control over the “self” our bodies represent, in this instance a tattoo. Yet it also notes our inability to control our bodies, the burns on the mother’s body demonstrating that our identities are also shaped by the scars we bear. These scars may be generational, unknowingly painful until we interrogate our lineage, the speaking realizing “What I know/ now is she wanted something else for me. For me to wake each/ morning and recognize my own flesh, for this one thing she made—/ me—to remain how she intended, for one of us/ to make it out unscathed” (Limón 44). Thinking back to the concept of legacy, I believe Limón’s poems also teach us that we cannot go through life without injury. Who we are and what we create is inevitably defined by deterioration.
The unavoidable affliction life brings us may seem as if the weight of living is too much to carry, yet another definition of carrying is to assume or accept. The Carrying refuses to shy away from difficulty, and our speaker’s final doubt reminds us that the key to endurance is the insistent discovery: “Or/ would I selfishly demand this day/ back, a full untethered day trying/ to figure out what bird was calling to me/ and why” (Limón 91). Rather than letting the uncertainties of one’s being permeate reality, Limón’s joyful renewal of the everyday carefully witnesses and records what we actually have. Achingly graceful and acute when necessary, these poems define “carrying” as not what breaks us, but what sustains us.
Ada Limón is the author of five books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her new collection, The Carrying, was released by Milkweed Editions in August of 2018 and was named one of the top 5 poetry books of the year by the Washington Post. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency MFA program, and the online and summer programs for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer in Lexington, Kentucky.