In this 31 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 14, 2019 announcement of the 2018 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty-one finalists. Today, NBCC board member Tess Taylor offers an appreciation of poetry finalist Ada Limón’s The Carrying (Milkweed).
Over the past two decades, Ada Limón’s work has honed a deft music against her gift for trapdoor syntax, where suddenly a verse drops us into a plush red heart or clambers out of itself to see the sky. A line from her current book, The Carrying, reads “ Some days there is a violent sister inside me, and a red ladder/ that wants to go elsewhere.” Violent sister or no— her poems have gained tautness and emotional resonance, in particular in her haunting, fiery collection Bright Dead Things, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Now Limón’s fifth book, The Carrying, opens a new chapter in an already beautiful and accomplished oeuvre. Indeed, in The Carrying Ada Limón asks, “what if instead of carrying a child/ I am supposed to carry grief?”
Among other things, this book is about pain in the body, about trying (and failing) to conceive a child, but these are also poems which struggle to care for the world, to care for the self. In the midst of her days – in parking lots, on the way to the doctor, as people and animals she loves die— Limon is also trying to bear herself, to bear witness to all she bears.
Even as she passes dead deer on the road or watches a raccoon decompose, she also wants to grow things and care for a garden. She wants to stay open to magic, music and transformation. While exploring pain, anger and even anguish, these are also poems about tenderness, which is something we all need more of this (and every) year. These are poems where the speaker can tell her doctor that “I’m made of old stars and so’s he” and where a poem can watch bees “tipsy, sun drunk/ and heavy with thick knitted leg warmers/ of pollen.” The self here is tough, is toughened, but is also able to hold “real gladness.” In showing the struggle to keep the heart open, this book actually helps each of us carry our own lives a bit more bravely, too.
Tess Taylor’s books include The Forage House and Work & Days, named one of the 10 best books of poetry of 2016 by The New York Times. Taylor currently chairs the poetry committee of the National Book Critics Circle, and is on-air poetry reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered. She was recently a Distinguished Fulbright US Scholar at the Seamus Heaney Centre in Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Anne Spencer Writer in Residence at Randolph College.