blackbirdonline journalFall 2019  Vol. 18 No. 2
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A Reading by Ada Limón
captured February 14, 2019
Poems are transcribed as read and may vary from the published versions used as references for form.

Kathleen Graber: It is really a delight for me to deliver this introduction. Ada is, as we have already heard, a real poetry rock star. She’s the author of five books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was a finalist in 2015 for the National Book Award, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most recent collection, The Carrying, was published just in August of 2018, and it has been named one of the top five poetry books of the year by The Washington Post.

I’ve known Ada for almost twenty years—that does not seem possible. I’m a late bloomer, and she and I were graduate students together at NYU. I’ve been thinking recently about that time in our lives and about a reading that Ada gave when we were both still living at New York. She was reading from her second book, This Big Fake World, which must just have been released I think at that time, it might have been 2005. Anyway, she was reading in a very rowdy bar, which is pretty much how things went back then, it was called the Four-Faced Liar, and the place was just packed with people who knew and adored her. I remember thinking that I was hearing something so unlike anything I had heard before, something that seemed alchemical, a sequence of narrative poems that offer up characters that are both somehow anonymous and also nearly surreal, including a recurring character who gets drunk and writes letter after letter to Ronald Reagan. [audience laughs] These are funny poems but they are also incredibly moving. The world she created in that book is, as one of the central images in the book suggests, as absolutely ordinary, wonderful, and fragile as a snow globe. And that idiosyncratic sensibility, the mind that created those poems—plainspoken, self-deprecating, accessible, yet also deeply contemplative, passionate, and compassionate—is, for me, at the core of all of her work.

A few weeks ago one of my colleagues said to me that students come away from Ada’s poems with a misunderstanding that writing poems that good might be as easy as talking seriously to a friend on the phone. And it’s true, Ada’s poems make being open to the varied experiences of our mortal, human experience seem simpler than it is. To be clear, there is nothing one-dimensional about these poems or this poet. These are poems that often pull us into sorrow, and grief, and disappointment, though they also pull us into the sanctity of authentic bewilderment. To borrow one of her own titles, they instruct us on how to be “rewilded,” which seems to not only be a kind of return to innocence, but also a return to a potentially dangerous primal hunger—a hunger of the body and the soul. Matthew Zapruder has called Ada Limón an everyday symbolist, a high level duende enabler. And I think that that description says better than I ever could, what kind of fabulous trickster poems had me in their grasps so long ago.

Last year Ada collaborated with the poet Natalie Diaz on a series of epistolary poems that were published in The New Yorker, and in an interview with Kevin Young, Diaz said that from the moment she received Ada’s first poem-letter, she knew that the work that would pass between them would require a kind of intimacy that Diaz felt she had never been aesthetically required to produce before. And that, too, feels right to me. For these are poems that demand that their readers stand very close to something urgent. I’m currently teaching an undergraduate class—a lot of my students are out there—called Singing America, and it’s about twenty-first century poetry, and I’m pretty sure that all of the students in that class want Ada Limón to be their Valentine. [audience laughs] So that’s the highest praise that I can think of. Please welcome Ada Limón.


Ada Limón: Hi. How are you? Happy Valentine’s Day—or, in my family, happy my mother’s birthday. [audience laughs] Is what it’s called. Thank you for that reading, Sarah. That was beautiful. It’s such a pleasure to be here, and I recently listened to this wonderful podcast who had one of my favorite poets on, and I was listening and cleaning the house and being very enamored by this wonderful conversation between two women I admired, and then they got to this part where they started talking about how they hated love poems. And they thought, you know, and she said at one point “I mean, I would never write love poems.” And all I kept thinking, I had to sort of sit down and think, “I think every poem I’ve ever written is a love poem.” [audience laughs] And I’m probably just going to continue to write love poems for the rest of my life. So I thought maybe what I would do is read ten poems, and I’m pretty sure every single one of them, in one way or another, is a love poem. I’m going to start with a poem for my mother because it’s her birthday and because she’s my mother, and I think that this is a poem for that mother-daughter connection that comes in many shapes and forms, but in this case I think is a very caring one.

The Raincoat

When the doctor suggested surgery
and a brace for all my youngest years,
my parents scrambled to take me
to massage therapy, deep tissue work,
osteopathy, and soon my crooked spine
unspooled a bit, I could breathe again,
and move more in a body unclouded
by pain. My mom would tell me to sing
songs to her the whole forty-five minute
drive to Middle Two Rock Road and forty-
five minutes back from physical therapy.
She’d say that even my voice sounded unfettered
by my spine afterward. So I sang and sang,
because I thought she liked it. I never
asked her what she gave up to drive me,
or how her day was before this chore. Today,
at her age, I was driving myself home from yet
another spine appointment, singing along
to some maudlin but solid song on the radio,
and I saw a mom take her raincoat off
and give it to her young daughter when
a storm took over the afternoon. My god,
I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her
raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel
that I never got wet.

Sorry, it was emotional all of a sudden. [audience laughs] Poems about moms. [audience applauds] Thank you. [Ada laughs] I tried to read some poems about her with her in a room once, and I was like, oh this is not a good idea. [audience laughs with Ada] I’ll never recover. This is a love poem. Sometimes poems come to you in different ways, this one came to me with the sound of trash bins rolling out to the curb. You know how it almost sounds like a train going by? So this is how the poem started.

Dead Stars

Out here, there’s a bowing even the trees are doing.
                 Winter’s icy hand at the back of all of us.
Black bark, slick yellow leaves, a kind of stillness that feels
so mute it’s almost in another year.

I am a hearth of spiders these days: a nest of trying.

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 as we adjust the waxy blue
       recycling bin until you say, Man, we should really learn
some new constellations. [audience laughs] 

And it’s true. We keep forgetting about Antlia, Centaurus,
       Draco, Lacerta, Hydra, Lyra, Lynx.

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 with you, toward
       what’s larger within us, toward how we were born.

Look, we are not unspectacular things.
       We’ve come this far, survived this much. What

would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?

What if we stood up with our synapses and flesh and said, No.
     No, to the rising tides.

Stood for the many mute mouths of the sea, of the land?

What would happen if we used our bodies to bargain

for the safety of others, for earth,
                 if we declared a clean night, if we stopped being terrified,

if we launched our demands into the sky, made ourselves so big
people could point to us with the arrows they make in their minds,

rolling their trash bins out, after all of this is over? 


Thank you. See, love poems. They’re all love poems. I would say it’s a love poem for a stranger.

Wonder Woman

Standing at the swell of the muddy Mississippi
after the Urgent Care doctor had just said, Well,
sometimes shit happens, I fell fast and hard 
for New Orleans all over again. Pain pills swirled 
in the purse along with a spell for later. It’s taken
a while for me to admit, I am in a raging battle
with my body, a spinal column thirty-five degrees
bent, vertigo that comes and goes like a DC Comics
villain nobody can kill. Invisible pain is both
a blessing and a curse. You always look so happy,
said a stranger once as I shifted to my good side
grinning. But that day, alone on the riverbank,
brass blaring from the Steamboat Natchez,
out of the corner of my eye, I saw a girl, maybe half my age,
dressed, for no apparent reason, as Wonder Woman.
She strutted by in all her strength and glory, invincible,
eternal, and when I stood to clap (because who wouldn’t have),
she bowed and posed like she knew I needed a myth—
a woman by a river, indestructible. 


Thank you. I’m going to read another poem for my mother because it is the day of her birth. She was—I talked to her today, and I said, “You know lots of women are doing amazing things in their seventies.” And she said, “Yes, and they make me vomit.” [audience laughs with Ada] It was amazing. I was talking about, you know, did you see the Grammys, and Diana Ross, and did you see Cher, and all this stuff, and she’s like, “Mhmm.” [audience laughs] My mother is an artist and she’s done all the covers of every book I’ve made. That’s one of the best collaborations I’ve had in my life. This poem is written because I have a poem in Bright Dead Things that talks about why I don’t have any tattoos. And then, when I came to The Carrying, which is my fifth book, I realized that I was lying about why I don’t have any tattoos. And this is the real reason.

The Real Reason

I don’t have any tattoos is not my story to tell. It’s my
mother’s. Once, walking down Bedford Avenue in my twenties,

I called her as I did, as I do. I told her how I wanted a tattoo
on the back of my neck. Something minor, but permanent,

and she is an artist, I wanted her to create the design, a symbol,
a fish I dream of every night. An underwater talisman, a mother’s

gift on my body. 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 that I wouldn’t get one. Wouldn’t let a needle
touch my skin, 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.

Most from an explosion that took her first child she was carrying
in her belly, others from the skin grafts where they took skin to cover

what needed it. She was in her late twenties when that happened.
Outside her studio in the center of town. You have to understand,

my mother is beautiful. Tall and elegant, thin and strong. I have not
known her any other way, her skin that I mapped with my young

fingers, its strange hardness in places, its patterns like quilts here,
riverbeds there. She’s wondrous, preternatural, survived fire,

the ending of an unborn child. Heat and flame and death, all made
her into something seemingly magical, a phoenixess. What I know

now is she wanted something else for me. For me to wake each
morning and recognize my own flesh, for this thing she made—

me—to remain how she intended, for one of us
to make it out unscathed.


Thank you. I made it through that one without crying—that was hard. I read that poem ’cause I was thinking about what kind of ownership we have over stories. This is a poem about a time when my husband and I were trying to have a child. And that sort of wild, seesaw that fertility treatments create in the body and in the mind. And I couldn’t not write about this subject because I was so fascinated by it—that we were living in a duality at all times. And do you know that game Would You Rather? Okay, yeah, I was playing it with Sassa here, my niece, and Nash. We were talking about Would You Rather, and then that stuck with me, and then this poem came out of it.

Would You Rather

Remember that car ride to Sea-Tac, how your sister’s kids
played a frenzied game of Would You Rather, where each choice 

ticktocked between superpowers of towering piles of food
too often denied, Would You Rather 

have fiery lasers that shoot out of your eyes,
or eat sundaes with whip cream for every meal? 

We dealt it out quick,
without stopping to check ourselves for the truth. 

We played so hard that I got good at the questions, learned
             there had to be an equality 

to each weighted ask. Now I’m an expert at comparing things
that give the illusions that equal each other. 

You said our Plan B was just to live our lives:
more time, more sleep, travel— 

              and still I’m making a list of all the places
I found out I wasn’t carrying a child. 

At the outdoor market in San Telmo, Isla Negra’s wide iris of sea,

the baseball stadium, the supermarket,
the Muhammad Ali museum, but always 

the last time tops the list, in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge,
looking toward Alcatraz, a place they should burn and redeliver

to the gulls and cormorants, common daisies and seagrass.

Down below the girder that’s still not screened against the jumpers,
so that it seems almost like a dare, an invitation,
we watched a seal making a sinuous shimmy in the bay.

Would you rather? Would I rather? 
The game is endless and without a winner.

Do you remember how the seal was so far under
the deafening sound of traffic, the whir of wind mixed
with car horns and gasoline, such a small

speck of black movement alone in the churning waves
between rock and shore?

Didn’t she seem happy?

I think that’s a love poem for the now. For that seal, wherever she is—happy. This is another love poem—you can really tell this podcast really got to me. [Audience laughs] I couldn’t believe it! “I never would write a love poem.” I thought, “Oh . . . wow.” [audience laughs] “I don’t know what to do with that information.” This poem also deals with infertility, but it’s a love poem, really and truly, for being an artist. And I know so many of you are writers in this room, and are practicing the craft, and yeah, this is a love poem for that.


The sky’s white with November’s teeth,
and the air is ash and woodsmoke.
A flush of color from the dying tree,
a cargo train speeding through, and there,
that’s me, standing in the wintering
grass watching the dog suffer the cold
leaves. I’m not large from this distance,
just a fence post, a hedge of holly.
Wider still, beyond the rumble of overpass,
mares look for what’s left of green
in the pasture, a few weanlings kick
out, and theirs is the same sky, white
like a calm flag of surrender pulled taut.
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 winners. Ours, her coat
thicker with the season’s muck, leans against
the black fence and this image is heavy
within me. How my own body, empty,
clean of secrets, knows how to carry her,
knows we were all meant for something.


Thank you. And now, I am going to read—I think that was six, so four more poems—read a love poem for my husband. [Long breath] Has anyone here seen a horse being born? A few. If you have, you know it’s a very odd thing; they just pop out, and there’s, like, another horse. [audience laughs] So, [Ada laughs] I haven’t recovered from it. [audience laughs] This is a love poem that uses that moment.

What I Didn’t Know Before

was how horses simply give birth to other
horses. Not a baby by any means, not
a creature of liminal spaces, but already 
a four-legged beast hellbent on walking, 
scrambling after the mother. A horse gives way
to another horse and then suddenly there are
two horses, [audience laughs] just like that. That’s how I loved you. 
You, off the long train from Red Bank carrying
a coffee as big as your arm, a bag with two
computers swinging in it unwieldily at your
side. I remember we broke into laughter
when we saw each other. What was between
us wasn’t fragile thing to be coddled, cooed
over. It came out fully formed, ready to run.


Another complicated love poem. I had—before I got married—I had a lot of issues with the word “wife.” It seemed so, like, “cuff.” [Ada laughs] 


I’m not yet comfortable with the word,
its short clean woosh that sounds like
life. At dinner last night my single girls
said in admonition, It’s not wife-approved
about a friend’s upcoming trip. Their
eyes rolled up and over out of their
pretty young heads. Wife, why does it
sound like a job? I want a wife, the famous
feminist wrote, a wife who will keep my
clothes clean, ironed, mended, replaced
when need be. A word that could be made
easily into maid. A wife that does, fixes,
soothes, honors, obeys. Housewife,
fishwife, bad wife, good wife, what’s
the word for someone who stares long
into the morning, unable to even fix tea,
the kettle steaming over
loud like a train whistle, she who cries
in the mornings, she who tears a hole
in the earth and cannot stop grieving,
the one who wants to love you, but often
isn’t even good at that, the one who
doesn’t want to be diminished
by how much she wants to be yours.


Thank you. And two more poems, what will they be? Another love poem—because all poems are love poems. I’ll just keep saying it over and over again. The elegy? Love poem, always. For those of you that are writers, you understand this moment where you are creating and the whole world around you disappears. And then for those of you who have ever had a relationship with a writer, you understand that moment when for them the whole world disappears, and you’re, like, “But I need some answers.” [audience laughs] “And I need your attention.” I had this moment where my husband—and you know, I travel a lot and have this real joy and honor of giving readings at places, and I try to look nice at these things. I try. And my husband was like “You look great! I saw those pictures on Facebook, and this and that,” and I thought “Oh yeah, because when I am home I’m just wearing sweatpants.” [audience laughs] So I realized, I told him the first line came from something I actually said to him. The title is: 

Love Poem with Apologies for My Appearance [audience laughs] 

Sometimes, I think you get the worst 
of me. The much-loved loose forest-green 
sweatpants, the long bra-less days, hair
knotted and uncivilized, a shadowed brow 
where the devilish thoughts do their hoofed 
dance on the brain. I’d like to say this means 
I love you, the stained white cotton T-shirt, 
the tears, pistachio shells, the mess of orange 
peels on my desk, but it’s different than that. 
I move in this house with you, the way I move 
in my mind, unencumbered by beauty’s cage. 
I do like I do in the tall grass, more animal-me 
than much else. I’m wrong, it is that I love you, 
but it’s more that when you say it back, lights 
out, a cold wind through curtains, for maybe 
the first time in my life, I believe it.


Thank you. And actually, I’m going to make this—I think this poem is a love poem for the country. So I am going to do this poem. Thank you so much for having me and for being here on Valentine’s Day, or as we say, my mother’s birthday. [audience laughs] 

A New National Anthem

The truth is, I’ve never cared for the National
Anthem. If you think about it, it’s not a good
song. [audience laughs] It’s too high for most of us with “the rockets’
red glare” and then there are the bombs.
(Always, always, there is war and bombs.)
Once, I sang it at homecoming and threw
even the tenacious high school band off key.
But the song didn’t mean anything, just a call
to the field, something to get through before
the pummeling of youth. And what of the stanzas
we never sing, the third that mentions “no refuge
could save the hireling and the slave”? Perhaps
the truth is every song of this country
has an unsung third stanza, something brutal
snaking underneath us as we blindly sing
the high notes with a beer sloshing in the stands
hoping our team wins. Don’t get me wrong, I do
like the flag, how it undulates in the wind
like water, elemental, and best when it’s humbled,
brought to its knees, clung to by someone who
has lost everything, when it’s not a weapon,
when it flickers, when it folds up so perfectly
you can keep it until you need it, until you
love it again, until the song in your mouth feels
like sustenance, a song where the notes are sung
by even the ageless woods, the shortgrass plains,
the Red River Gorge, the fistful of land left
unpoisoned, the song that’s our birthright,
that’s sung in silence when it’s too hard to go on,
that sounds like someone’s rough fingers weaving
into another’s, that sounds like a match being lit
in an endless cave, the song that says my bones
are your bones, and your bones are my bones,
and isn’t that enough?

Thank you.


From The Carrying by Ada Limón. Reprinted with permissions from Milkweed Editions.

Kathleen Graber is the author of three volumes of poetry, The River Twice (Princeton University Press, 2019); The Eternal City (Princeton University Press, 2010), a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award in Poetry; and Correspondence (Saturnalia Books, 2006). Her work has appeared in The New YorkerThe American Poetry ReviewGulf CoastThe Georgia ReviewThe Kenyon Review, and AGNI. She is the recipient of fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts (2003, 2009) and from The Rona Jaffe Foundation (2003). She was a Hodder Fellow in poetry at Princeton University (2007) and an Amy Lowell Travelling Scholar (2008). She teaches in the creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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